Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One grand old WPA gym in West Concord April 6, 2015

The original, non-digital, scoreboard that uses light bulbs still graces the 1936 former West Concord School gym.

The original, non-digital scoreboard that uses light bulbs still graces the 1936 former West Concord School gym.

YOU CAN ALMOST HEAR the rhythmic bounce of basketball upon wood floor, hear the roar of the crowd as the ball swishes through the net and two points are added to the scoreboard.

Instructions on the stage wall for operating the curtain.

Instructions on the stage wall for operating the curtain.

You can almost hear the resounding applause of proud parents as performers bow and the heavy curtain sways, pulled shut by hand-over-hand action of a stage hand running thick ropes.

This beautiful gym was once home to the West Concord Cardinals.

This beautiful gym was once home to the West Concord Cardinals.

You can almost hear the clear diction of graduates’ names pronounced before they proceed onto the stage to receive their West Concord High School diplomas.

The former gym now houses the West Concord Community Center.

The former gym now houses the West Concord Community Center. Today the West Concord Historical Society’s research center is located on the second floor, former site of the school library and a study hall.

Echoes of the past linger inside the old West Concord School gym, built in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project. The school closed in 1991.

The gym is now a multi-purpose facility open to the community.

The gym is now a multi-purpose facility open to the community.

Today this grand gymnasium houses this southeastern Minnesota town’s community center. The space is now used for a middle school athletics program and rented out for class reunions, festive gatherings by the area’s Hispanic community and more, according to Janis Ray, director/gambling manager for the adjoining West Concord Historical Society museum.

The original ticket booth remains just inside the front entry.

The original ticket booth remains just inside the front entry.

I applaud West Concord for saving this impressive auditorium and the connected school. All too often such grand structures are demolished because of the cost to maintain them. They are worth saving for their history, memories and architectural significance.

This massive WPA project painting hangs as a stage backdrop.

This massive WPA project painting hangs as a stage backdrop.

Gymnasiums aren’t built like this any more. Imagine the hands of formerly unemployed men laboring to build this gym. How happy they must have been to earn a paycheck. Preserving this gym is a tribute to them, too, to hard work and building a sense of community.

Students involved in theatrical productions signed the stage wall behind the stage curtain.

Students involved in theatrical productions signed the stage wall behind the stage curtain.

I hope future generations will always remember that.

BONUS PHOTOS:

The building on the left, built in 1902 with a wing added in 1914, houses the West Concord Historical Society. On the right is the 1936 WPA project gym, 60 percent of its cost funded by the government.

The former school building on the left, built in 1902 with a wing added in 1914, today houses the West Concord Historical Society. On the right is the 1936 WPA project gym, 60 percent of its cost funded by the government. It is now the West Concord Community Center.

Imagine the students and their families who have walked through these doors.

Imagine the students and their families and others who have walked through these doors. They were locked when I visited.

What I assume is an original light fixture. Beautiful.

What I assume is an original light fixture. Beautiful.

Looking across the gym floor toward the original fold-up chairs and the entry into the auditorium.

Looking across the gym floor toward the original fold-up chairs and the entry into the auditorium.

Handcrafted detail on the vintage seating.

Handcrafted detail on the vintage seating make these works of art.

A sticker, "Educating Everyone Takes Everyone," on a sturdy wood door reminds visitors of this structure's original purpose.

A sticker, “Educating Everyone Takes Everyone,” on a sturdy wood door just off the stage reminds visitors of this structure’s original purpose.

In a narrow hallway off the gym, leading to the women's bathroom, I discovered these rows of lockers painted in the school color.

In a narrow hallway off the gym, leading to the women’s bathroom, I discovered these rows of lockers painted Cardinal red, the school color.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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28 Responses to “One grand old WPA gym in West Concord”

  1. treadlemusic Says:

    Brings back many memories!! Those chairs are an artistic delight in themselves!! I see many buildings of this era being transformed into very useful venues for today’s children/communities. The light fixtures, lockers, heavy REAL wood doors w/ the metal knobs & plates, etc………not found in today’s structures!!!

  2. Dan Traun Says:

    It is great that this community fixture could be re-purposed rather than torn down.

  3. Littlesundog Says:

    What a cool building… I especially love the stage area and seats!

    • Everything about this gym just caused me to pause and look, with care, at every detail. I especially delighted in discovering those names on the stage wall. That personalized the building for me in a way that nothing else could.

  4. Almost Iowa Says:

    The memories come flooding back.

  5. This reminds me a little of my old high school. We had a similar stage in our gym. We only had wooden bleachers, though, not such elegant seating, and no ticket booth at our school, but we did have a concession stand. The mural is beautiful.

  6. Ah, the good old days.. Small town America where her greatness thrived.

  7. Cool Captures – love the theater seats and the lockers – thanks so much for sharing. Happy Week 🙂

  8. It is a beautiful school. Its unfortunate that schools such as this are being torn down and replaced with cheep and easy structures.

  9. Jackie Says:

    It’s kind of sad to know that this magnificent building is no longer a school, but just a glad to see It being put to good use and not torn down. i love this gym, the functionality is brilliant but a thing of the past. Chatfield high school has a gym like this too.

  10. chlost Says:

    It amazes me that the work that went into these buildings are often so cavalierly discarded today. In Buffalo, MN a very similar-looking building has been renovated, and is used for school administrative offices as well as a specialized primary school. The community theater still uses the stage and theater for their off season productions-the summer productions are done at the much newer and larger high school theater. The blueprint for these schools must have been used over and over in small towns around the state, as many of the schools built in this era look remarkably similar. Maybe the renovation plans could also be duplicated.

  11. Absolutely loved seeing these vintage details, Audrey. The WPA did some amazing things and left us with many excellent works of art to cherish.

  12. Donna Lyon Says:

    I’m a distant member of the WEST CONCORD HISTORICAL SOCIETY, and in the March Issue they mentioned that you had visited the museum and posted some articles. What great pictures! Brings back fond memories of my life in that small town. I went to school there from first to fifth grade, then our family moved to Seattle. I went back to WCHS in 1955 when my grandfather Earl F. Shelton passed away. I lived with my grandmother, Rose Shelton, on the country farm. Her home was in the Pine Island school district, so it didn’t take long for PI to grab me, although I lived during the week with the Raddatz family, and only with grandmother on weekends. Not much company for her, so to my dismay I was bussed to Pine Island for the remainder of that school year, would have been my Sophomore year. Attending THREE high schools in that year really set me back.
    Thanks for the memories !

    • Donna, I remember you telling me about the West Concord Historical Society. So I was thinking of your when I toured the museum and then followed up with three blog posts from that visit.

      Being shuffled from school to school had to be difficult. I hope some positive came from it.

      Good to hear from you.

  13. ryanware Says:

    To say they don’t make them like this anymore is an understatement and falls short. My daughter participated in traveling basketball this year and we were in a different gym almost every weekend for four months. The usage of schools today has changed a lot since this one was built. They are more multi-purpose and community. While not a bad thing in and of itself, it seems like the identity of the building itself is gone. There are so many memories your photos have captured such as the signing of the bricks. Today schools seem sterile and very institution. Something is surely missing. Soul I would call it. And, it’s a mutual soul, one shared with the students that inhabit and the school building itself.

    • I like your observation of a “soul” missing from today’s newer school buildings. Can you imagine if student performers penned their names on a stage wall today? They might be charged with vandalism. Good to hear from you again, Ryan.


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