How to Preserve Wyoming’s Schools

Beckton School (c. 1900), Sheridan Co.
Beckton School (c. 1900), Sheridan Co.
Photo: Supt. of Public Instruction Biennial Report, 1930
1. Conduct an inventory of your community schools and nominate schools to the National Register of Historic Places

School surveys can be conducted on a city- or county-wide basis. The Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office (WYSHPO) has created a simple survey form that can be used by volunteers with little or no experience in describing historic buildings. If you have a Certified Local Government in your community, this organization may be able to provide assistance. A survey will identify all of the school buildings in your area built within a certain time period, and provide information such as date of construction, builder, original use, other uses, size, shape, roof type, plan, materials and architectural features. Don’t forget to survey schools built in the recent past (after World War II). Most of Wyoming’s surviving older schools date from this period, and even if they don’t seem historic to you now, many are already 50 years old.

Based on the results of the survey and using the criteria provided under Is Your School Historic? you can evaluate your schools to see if they are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Wyoming SHPO will help with this process.

Surveying and evaluating school buildings helps to determine which buildings are worth preserving. Other factors also need to be considered, including condition of the building, intended use, and availability of funding. A survey and evaluation of existing school-district-owned buildings will also be very useful to your local school district and the School Facilities Commission as they make decisions about which schools to renovate and which schools to demolish and replace. For buildings that are no longer used as schools, listing on the National Register of Historic Places can make them eligible for federal rehabilitation tax credits and grants.

Register of Historic Places can make them eligible for federal rehabilitation tax credits and grants.

2. Raise general awareness in your community about the value of historic school buildings and opportunities for preservation.

To raise awareness:
  1. Alert your local school officials, governmental officials, planning department, Chambers of Commerce, and historical societies of this website and the Historical Context Study of Schools in Wyoming, to help raise awareness of the importance of historic schools.
  2. Inform your local school district about the SHPO's Historic Architecture Assistance Fund and encourage them to apply for a grant to hire a preservation architect to assess older schools and offer recommendations for adapting an older building to meet current educational facility requirements.
  3. Encourage your local museum or historical society to develop a program on historic schools for local school children.
  4. Encourage your local museum or historical society to include tours of rural schools as part of their monthly or annual programs. This is a good way to encourage research on schools and even preparation of a local guide to historic school buildings.
  5. Include a session on school preservation at meetings, workshop and other gatherings. A 2006-2008 Wyoming Humanities Forum presentation entitled “Beyond Classrooms: Schools as Centers of Community,” is an example of this type of program.
  6. Promote an oral history project on area schools in your local museum or historical society, and transcribe and publish the results locally. Conduct interviews with former and current teachers and school administrators as well as former pupils.
Opportunities for preservation:

The best use for any historic building is its original use. Although it is often assumed that an older building cannot meet modern educational needs, this is not necessarily true. A thorough investigation and analysis of an older school building by an experienced preservation architect is an important first step in saving a school. This initial analysis can provide the community with information about how an older school building can be upgraded to meet current standards, and what the approximate cost will be. Costs of renovation are often exaggerated by architects and engineers who are not experienced in renovating older buildings. Typical building assessments point out what is wrong with a building, instead of emphasizing its potential.

Two bulletins published by the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International (CEFPI) can help with this investigation and analysis: Appraisal Guide for Older and Historic School Facilities (2005) and A Primer for the Renovation/Rehabilitation of Older and Historic Schools (2004). Both are available from CEFPI. Also useful in making the case for renovation of an existing building are case studies of successful school renovation projects from other communities. Although no school districts in Wyoming have completed thorough renovations and upgrades of historic school buildings, schools in nearby states such as Nebraska, Colorado, Montana and Idaho can provide comparable models. Boise High School PDF Document in Boise, Idaho provides an excellent model study and other case studies are available online at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Historic Neighborhood Schools Success Stories” webpage. Another good source of case studies is the publication “Renovate or Replace,” PDF Document published by the Pennsylvania Department of Education in cooperation with several other state agencies.

Adaptive Use

Considering Wyoming’s history of boom and bust cycles, it seems unwise to remove the possibility of using existing school facilities for educational or community purposes in the future. If a school building is no longer needed by the school district, it should be considered for adaptive use. Wyoming has many pre-1960 school buildings that are currently vacant or underused, as well as numerous examples of schools that have already been adaptively used. Most of these buildings were well built and have many more useful years of life.

By far the most popular adaptive use for school buildings is the one that many schools were designed for—that of community center. The Wyoming legislature recognized this need when it established a community facilities fund to facilitate community use of former government buildings. The Wyoming Business Council’s Community Facilities Grant and Loan Program (CFP) provides grants to rehabilitate schools and other public facilities for community use.

Peak Wellness Center, Cheyenne, Laramie Co.
Peak Wellness Center, Cheyenne, Laramie Co.
Photo: Mary Humstone, 2009

An excellent case study of adaptive reuse by a Wyoming school is Cheyenne's Peak Wellness Center Family and Youth Facility (former Churchill School, 1911). The two-and-a-half-story Churchill School is the oldest public school building remaining in Cheyenne. The tan-brick masonry building was built in 1911, with a west wing comprising a gymnasium/auditorium and six classrooms added in 1951. With its solid masonry construction and simple but imposing Classical design, the school building reflects the importance that early 20th century residents of Cheyenne attached to places of learning. The original school building was the first of many schools designed by prominent Cheyenne architect William Dubois, who incorporated design features promoted by educational reformers of the early 20th century such as wide hallways, high ceilings and plenty of natural light. The original building contained four large, well lit classrooms on each floor and the basement. According to a local resident whose father worked on the building in the 1930s, the school was originally built without plumbing and students used outhouses behind the building until indoor plumbing was added in the 1930s. The 1951 addition was designed by Cheyenne architect Morris Kemper.

Churchill School was used as an elementary school until 2005, when it was closed by the school district and students were transferred to a new elementary school near F.E. Warren Air Force Base. The building was purchased by Peak Wellness Center for its youth and family facility, and after an extensive renovation the facility opened in 2009. Although the school building had been remodeled several times and many original features had been removed, Peak Wellness made an effort to retain what remained, especially the maple wood baseboards, door and window surrounds, transoms, and doors. These features, along with the high ceilings, large windows and wide corridors, give the interior the look and feel of a historic school building. To update the building, new heating, plumbing and electrical systems were installed, plaster was removed and replaced with drywall, windows were replaced, and large classrooms were divided into offices and meeting rooms. The space formerly occupied by small teachers’ offices was used for installation of an elevator. The 1951 addition was also renovated and is used for a reception/meeting area, offices, and consultation rooms.

Peak Wellness director David Birney said that the nonprofit organization chose Churchill School because of its prime location in a neighborhood close to downtown, where most of its patients live. Although building a new facility on the outskirts of town might have cost less initially, Peak Wellness would have sacrificed convenience and the recognition that comes with location in a recognized local landmark (Churchill School is listed on the National Register of Historic Places). The organization’s commitment to being a good neighbor is appreciated by the local neighborhood and by Churchill School alumni, many of whom attended the facility’s open house in March 2009. “People were grateful that we kept the old school,” said Birney, “and many have come by just to see it and relive their school days.” Stephen Miller, a nearby resident, praised Peak Wellness for working closely with the neighborhood during the rehabilitation process. He says that the rehabilitation of Churchill School is “a great benefit to the neighborhood, Peak Wellness and the community” and notes the increased pride and interest in maintaining older buildings, inspired by the Churchill School project.

What to do if your school is threatened

Often decisions about the fate of older school buildings (and other historic buildings) are made by school district and school facilities officials without the input of the local community. If you learn that your school is threatened with replacement and/or demolition, there are steps you can take. Citizen actions can change the outcome of building decisions. The earlier you get involved, the better. Let the school district and the School Facilities Commission know of your concerns. Ask them to hire a qualified historical architect to assess the building before any decision is made. The WYSHPO Historic Architecture Assistance Fund can be used for this purpose. If the school is no longer owned by the school district, contact the owner to find out what is planned for the school. Find others who are interested in working with you, and contact the organizations listed below for additional help.

In the publication, “A Roadmap for Saving Your School,” PDF Document the National Trust for Historic Preservation recommends six basic steps:

  1. Get familiar with the process. Learn how decisions are made, and when. Learn about the evaluation process that is used to determine which schools get saved, and which are demolished.
  2. Understand the perspective of the educator and the community. Schooling our children is a sensitive issue, and advocates for historic schools need to be sensitive to the needs of students, parents and educators. Many people opt for a new school because they don’t realize that they can get the new features they want in an older building. Many parents have legitimate concerns about health hazards such as lead paint and asbestos that need to be addressed.
  3. Plan for obstacles and success. Any type of community advocacy project takes a lot of work, and there will be setbacks along the way. Seeking help from local, state, and regional preservation organizations can provide a needed boost.
  4. Confront the challenge. There are reasons why district officials and parents want a new school. You must first understand these reasons before you can take the next step.
  5. Make a case for renovation. There are many good arguments for saving an older school building, ranging from community continuity and tradition to green building. A few of these are listed below, and many more are contained in “A Roadmap for Saving Your School.” PDF Document Find the ones that apply to your situation and use them strategically.
  6. Develop a communications campaign. Myths about old buildings abound, and the best way to dispel them is through a well organized communications campaign. Decide on your message and stick with it.

Washington School (1922), Green River, Sweetwater Co.
Washington School (1922), Green River, Sweetwater Co.
Photo: Mary Humstone, 2007
Talking Points for Preserving Your School

Community issues

  • Many of these schools have functioned as neighborhood centers and town gathering places for decades. Schools serve as anchors for local communities and sites for community events.
  • Historic school buildings instill a sense of tradition in students and continuity within the community.
  • Older schools are often unique examples of a community’s heritage, one of a town’s most timeless landmarks.
  • Soaring windows, elegant wood or terrazzo floors, distinctive exterior and interior brick and terracotta work, and many other examples of fine craftsmanship are irreplaceable features no longer considered affordable within today’s budgets.
  • When a school cannot be renovated for education, it can often be adaptively used and its presence in its neighborhood maintained.
Practical issues
  • Renovating historic schools is an economically responsible use of state funds that preserve’s community and state history while providing first-class educational facilities. In most cases, renovation costs less than new construction.
  • The Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) has developed tools for assessing older schools to determine whether they will meet both technical and educational standards. CEFPI is a highly regarded leader in the school construction field.
  • Renovation is good for economic development, generating more jobs in the immediate community because it is more labor intensive than new construction. Renovation saves on costly materials that need to be imported from outside the state.
  • Renovation is recycling, and conveys an ethic to students and the community that we care about the natural environment enough to avoid the waste of good resources; recycling building materials by using existing buildings makes for a more sustainable state.
  • New construction neglects the environmental costs of disposing of demolished schools.
  • New construction is not maintenance free. While maintenance costs may diminish for a year or two after a major construction project (new or renovated), deferral of maintenance is how all buildings deteriorate. Most new school buildings actually require more maintenance over time, since they lack the quality construction of an earlier era.
  • Assessing a historic school for rehabilitation potential is a small investment that can result in significant cost savings, especially since infrastructure and roads are already in place. Many new schools are being built where larger parcels of land are available, requiring large expenditures for roads and other infrastructure improvements.

Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources