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How to Save Your Alma Mater 

12-09-2015 17:35

It was a proud moment for the preservation-minded citizens of Pine Bluffs, Wyoming (population 1,200), when on March 21, 1996, a plaque was mounted on the 67-year-old high school declaring it to be a national historic site. The monumental red-brick building had stood the tests of time, weather, and politics. In the summer of 1994, the school board had announced plans to demolish the building and use the site for a new high school identical to one being proposed for a neighboring town.

Had it not been for a group of citizens calling themselves the "SOS" (Save our School), they might have succeeded. Surprised and stunned by the announcement, the small group of community members sprang into action. They attended school board meetings and researched the issues. The school board was already campaigning to pass a bond issue to fund the new structure, arguing that the old school was unfit for educational purposes.

SOS members set out to prove that the structure was sound, safe, inexpensive to maintain, and adaptable for new technology. SOS started by contacting the Wyoming state historic preservation office. Nancy Weidel and Sheila Bricher-Wade provided the names of architects interested in preservation and people across the state who could support the effort. SOS members and friends bombarded the newspapers with letters to the editor. Fortunately, journalist Brett Martel of the Wyoming Eagle-Tribune took an interest and skillfully publicized the story, diligently covering both sides of the issue.

To demonstrate popular support and educate people about the issues, SOS circulated a petition, and garnered more than 450 signatures. Other unexpected help came from preservation groups across the state. Members of the Fort Fred Steele Historical Society in Rawlins, Wyo., were instrumental in helping to write a grant proposal to fund an architectural study of the building. A matching grant from the Preservation Services Fund of the National Trust enabled SOS to hire Georgetown, Colo., architect Gary Long, of Long & Hoeft Architects, to complete the study. The Evanston (Wyo.) preservation commission supplied funds to bring Mr. Long back to Pine Bluffs to present his findings. At a meeting attended by 100 citizens and several school district personnel, he explained what SOS members all had hoped to be true--that the building was structurally sound and possessed architectural qualities unique in Wyoming and worth preserving. His study also had shown that rehabilitation would cost significantly less than new construction.

While some were arguing the cause on the local level, others made the case in the state capital. Armed with letters from SOS members, a few brave souls, mostly farmers, pled their case to the five elected officials of the Wyoming State Farm Loan Board, who would fund the new school construction. Yet the school board, for reasons ranging from the desirability of the site to rivalries with adjacent school districts, remained determined to build a new school on the exact location of the town`s beloved landmark.

They branded the old school`s champions the "vocal minority," "driven by nostalgia"--the people who were "impeding progress" and "preventing the quality education of our children." SOS then sought the advice of attorney Alvin Wiederspahn of Cheyenne. He offered hope. According to state law, he said, the public must be informed of the uses for which funds are raised in a bond issue. Since the school board`s intention of demolishing the existing high school had never been previously disclosed, the funds from the bond issue could not be used for that purpose. An injunction was granted, effectively blocking demolition.

The issue was resolved when SOS offered to drop the injunction if the board agreed not to demolish the old high school. Meanwhile, SOS busied itself raising funds to pay its legal expenses. A photography student, Alice Fornstrom, created a popular video about the school and its history and sold it to alumni and community members for $50. Garage sales and raffles were organized, and donations were accepted. SOS received another boost when two proponents of demolition were unseated by two preservation-minded candidates in a school board election. Yet even now, with victory in sight, supporters of the old high school know the fight is not over. The new high school has been built on a nearby site, and the old one will be vacated in fall 1998.

Laramie County Community College will occupy a good portion of the historic building, and senior citizen`s services are expected to move in as well. But more tenants are needed, and the costs of maintaining and repairing the neglected structure are substantial. Meanwhile, the citizens of SOS have formed the Pine Bluffs Heritage Society, in the hope that the battle to Save Pine Bluffs High School will be their last.

Publication Date: May/June 1998

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Author(s): Jeannie Hockersmith & Merrill Sargent

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