Stepping onto the refurbished basketball court, Gary Gorman beams.
“My dad remembers watching his uncle Leonard play basketball here in the 1930s,” Gorman says, pointing out the narrow free throw lane that was standard in the days before George Mikan and other big men changed the game.
The court is in what has long been known as the Red Brick School on Oregon’s Main Street. Opened in 1922, the building last housed students in the early 1990s and was used solely for storage after that. As the structure deteriorated, demolition was considered before citizens organized and got it placed on the National Historic Register in 1998.
It’s been considered for use as school district offices, a community center, village library, and housing, but none of the proposals came to fruition, mostly because of the hefty costs.
Joan Gefke, a lifelong Oregon resident and local historian who graduated from the school in 1947 and was instrumental in saving it, never gave up hope.
“No,” she said of the many disappointments. “It made me mad. It encouraged my adrenaline. You can get over the mountain – you just say I can do it. There had to be somebody out there with some money (to save it).”
Gorman, whose Gorman & Co. primarily renovates historic structures into housing and then manages the properties, looked at the school about eight years ago but passed because “to convert this to some sort of commercial use other than an owner-occupied building just didn’t make sense.”
Then about three years ago he passed by the structure while driving one of his sons to school and wondered what had become of it. That set in motion a series of events that resulted in it becoming the new headquarters of Gorman & Co.
The $3 million-plus cost blew by the project’s $2.3 million budget, and Gorman takes all the blame.
“I wanted this to be a cool place,” he said with a smile.
That it is, with the basketball court, a workout room, an eating area resembling a 1950s diner that features a jukebox, a bar off the conference room, and a trophy cas
will feature loaned items from Oregon’s scholastic history.
The facility has the latest technology but retains its historic feel – the renovation had to pass local, state and federal levels of historic review, Gorman said.
“I am so excited because the building is alive once again,” Gefke said. “It’s beautiful. He could have done it halfway. He could have done it partially over the next 10 years as we probably would’ve had to have done it as a community project. But he has stood up there and has put money into this building. And he has done such an outstanding job.”
Gorman said his employees provided validation when they moved in Oct. 12.
“People were just beaming and that was the reaction I was looking for,” he said. “It was very rewarding.”
Gorman cites multiple reasons for choosing the school over leased or built traditional space as a new HQ for his company. (Gorman’s proposal was selected in 2006 over another from Ray Mandli, whose company has since moved to Madison.) First, there are his family’s ties to Oregon, which stretch back uninterrupted to a Fitchburg farm homesteaded by his ancestors in 1852.
“My relatives considered Oregon their hometown – Fitchburg was just farms,” said Gorman, who lives in Fitchburg and whose kids attend Oregon schools.
Second, it showcases the company’s skills in its focus area.
“This is the 17th historic rehab we’ve done, so we can show what we do,” Gorman said.
Third – and most important – the building is an employee recruiting and retention tool.
The company’s former headquarters was lower-level office space on South Park Street in Madison.
“It’s not my style to be showy so we had this really sort of grim office,” Gorman said. “And we had several people not take jobs with us because they just didn’t want to work in that environment. The only way our company can thrive is attracting and keeping bright people. And those bright people have lots of options. It’s not like they’re groveling for a job – we’re groveling to them. We have to pay well. And having an interesting and fun place to work is part of our recruiting.”
Gorman likens it to Epic Systems, the booming electronic medical records firm with the hip and quirky new headquarters in Verona.
“Epic’s got all kinds of goofy and interesting stuff because (CEO) Judy Faulkner wants to attract the best and brightest young people,” Gorman said.
Renovating the school was not easy, but “we’ve done worse things,” Gorman said.
Where original items, such as the windows, could not be used, replicas were made. The inside/outside brick walls and the roof were replaced, as well as much of the upper floor, now made of bamboo.
“We want to send the message that we’re environmentally conscious,” Gorman said. “Fundamentally, restoring a historic building is recycling.”
The basketball court was a “mess,” Gorman said, with five layers of shellac that needed to be removed to get down to the maple floor. Some boards needed replacing but the floor is 99 percent original, he said.
The court serves no purpose other than as an amenity for employees.
“It’s fun,” Gorman said, adding that it will be a “sad day” if and when the space is needed for company expansion.
While some eyebrows undoubtedly will rise at the thought of a bar at a workplace, Gorman says life can’t be ruled by things like liability concerns.
“I am a lawyer,” he said. “You can’t let the lawyers take control. They’ll extract the life out of an organization. So I just didn’t let them do it. Could somebody abuse it? Sure. But it’s unlikely. Everybody’s an adult here. We wanted to have a fun place. And if people can relax together after work and have a beer then that builds the sort of congenial atmosphere we want to have.”
Pictures of the company’s work will dot the offices, and be featured along with Oregon history on three flat screen TVs in the main entrance.
The large green space between the building and Main Street will be planted with seasonal landscaping that’s “really interesting for people driving by,” Gorman said.
The key to the project was a complex financing plan that involved the company, investors, the school district, the village and the state. Gorman, who praised the cooperation of everyone involved, paid $29,000 for the building. About $500,000 came from investors seeking the historic tax credits. And a $2.2 million loan from the state Land Trust was channeled by the village to the project. Gorman & Co. pays the loan back via rent that starts at $178,000 per year.
The project also received $680,000 in TIF (tax incremental financing) that will be paid back over many years with the building’s property taxes. Once that is paid off, the building goes on the tax rolls.
“The key thing is that it doesn’t cost the village one dime,” Gorman said. “They weren’t getting any property taxes from this building and now they will be. So even though it helped us, it didn’t hurt them.”
Gefke said Oregon residents should get excited that a $3 million building is going to be on the tax rolls for the first time, housing 40 employees of a company new to town, calling it “the biggest shot in the arm the village has had in years.”
“I don’t think people realize what a big deal this is,” she said.
The public is invited to “Back to School Night” Nov. 3 from 7-11 p.m. at Gorman & Co.’s new headquarters in what was formerly the Red Brick School at 200 N. Main St. in Oregon. Each room will have plaques showing what was taught in each room and the name of the teacher. Joe Scalissi and his Orchestra will perform. The event also will serve as a 60th reunion for the class of 1947.