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Uncommonwealth: Sharpsburg renovates dilapidated WPA gym, reopens it as community center

ctruman@herald-leader.comApril 14, 2014 

  • Sharpsburg Community Center open house and dedication

    Where: 7781 W Tunnel Hill Road, Sharpsburg

    When: Open house is 1-5 p.m. April 26; dedication is 2:30 p.m. April 27

SHARPSBURG — Henrietta Thomas' brother Clayton Toy was paid 20 cents an hour in 1936 to help build the gymnasium with smoke-colored Bath County sandstone.

That's him, she said, pointing to photos: He's the one with the hat.

It was the height of the Great Depression, and the federal Works Progress Administration was embarking on a massive campaign that employed everyone from construction workers building gymnasiums to writers producing guides to the states that are now collectors' items.

The architects and builders produced some of the nation's most distinctive and long-lasting architecture. Its characteristic style is called WPA Architecture, or WPA Rustic Architecture, and it was used on gymnasiums, amphitheaters and lodges.

The design aesthetic emphasized the use of native materials, adapting indigenous methods of construction, low silhouettes and the avoidance of right angles and straight lines.

Sharpsburg High School, and its separate gymnasium, closed in 1963. Eventually the school was torn down, but the gym stayed. The building deteriorated. Trees grew in the gym where Beulah Hard used to cheer in her white corduroy skirt uniform.

"It wasn't anything like they do now," Hard said. "It wasn't acrobatics. It was rah-rah-rah."

The school was a community center for decades. Everyone in town, it seems, has a story associated with the gym and its rolling roofline. Sharpsburg council member Thelma June Gulley remembers a piano in a corner issuing the strains of Pistol Packin' Mama.

Belva Woodard, a former home economics teacher, remembers the hallway just off the gym where her future homemakers used to sell Cokes and candy bars in the late 1950s, when Cokes could be bought for 80 cents a case. Others remember the stage, draped with a maroon velvet curtain.

In 2006, the city began a plan to reclaim the gym, 11 miles north of Mount Sterling. Eight years later, after a lot of sacrifices and scrimping and piling one source of money on another, Sharpsburg has turned the building into a refurbished community center with a gymnasium, a branch of the Bath County Memorial Library, a classroom for community college and extension courses and a kitchen. Signs in the hallway list the names of all the graduates of Sharpsburg High School.

The Sharpsburg Community Center, as it now is named, is not only central to community gatherings, but it sits on a hill that gives it visibility of pretty much all of Sharpsburg, population 310.

"The donations and the interest in this thing have surprised even me," said Rob Lane, the city clerk. "We feel like it's going to be used even more than we envisioned."

The community center is spacious and colorful, with its red beadboard, but the city had to make some concessions on what it could afford, according to Mayor Dorothy Clemons. She wanted to have an athletic floor, but she had to make do with concrete; likewise, a plan to restore the stage had to be scrapped.

"I had no idea of all the ins and outs to do something like this, that it would take so many years," Clemons said.

The total cost is more than $1.3 million, including a $500,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant and a $500,000 community block development grant from the state. The United States Department of Agriculture chipped in a $175,000 rural development grant, and the USDA's rural development arm gave the city a $200,000 long-term, low-interest loan.

The community center also has an organization of friends and supporters who donate money for the center's upkeep and extras.

Town resident Carolyn Calvert Rogers is grateful that the big stone building on the hill has been preserved for future generations.

"My father was a school bus driver," she said. "There were five in my family that started and graduated here."

Resident Eddie Grimes, 74, has a unique memory of the school. He owned the only dog that ever graduated from Sharpsburg, he said. His shepherd, Mac, accompanied Grimes to school every day during his school career. When school let out, Mac would reappear to take him home.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202.

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