Historic School Is Lesson In Building Restoration

Stepping into the restored Red Brick School is a lesson in contrasts – historic versus high tech.

At the new headquarters of Gorman & Co., e mployees can communicate by jotting notes on chalkboards that dot the halls, offices and even the men’s bathroom, but the main conference room is equipped for teleconferencing.

During lunch, employees can play basketball in the original gym, or work out on nearby exercise equipment.

The restored school, now home to Gorman & Co., a real estate development firm, is an example of owner Gary Gorman’s commitment to historic restoration and community involvement. A grand reopening is planned for Saturday.

“I am intrigued by the mix of old and new,” Gorman said this week.

Originally opened in 1922, the building at 200 N. Main St. served as Oregon’s high school until a new one was built in 1963. After that, it was an elementary school until the early 1990s, when it was primarily used for storage.

The building is a few blocks north of the village’s downtown and is adjacent to Netherwood Knoll Elementary and the Oregon School District office.

“This is my favorite toy,” said Gorman as he demonstrated the Rock-Ola jukebox that plays CDs – the highlight of the 1950s-style diner that serves as the cafeteria for the 40 employees working in the building.

New offices were built with interior glass walls to allow natural light to flood the workspace. Original skylights restored with fluorescent lights installed above them give the feeling of natural light throughout the hallways, which retain the original terrazzo floors.

It’s a big change from the company’s former office in a strip mall on Madison’s South Park Street.

“The whole purpose of this is to be able to recruit and retain talented people,” Gorman said of the workspace. “These people are in high demand.”

The majority of funding for the Red Brick renovation came from about $2.2 million in loans from the Wisconsin Land Trust to the village of Oregon, which in turn loaned it to Gorman & Co. There also was about $670,000 in tax incremental financing and $470,000 in historic credits.

The total renovation cost about $3 million and Gorman admits he went over budget – adding features like the jukebox, interior distressed brick and the refurbished gym.

Gorman said he was first approached about restoring the school about eight years ago.

“I looked at it as a commercial venture and passed on it,” he said. Apartments or retail wouldn’t work because the building wasn’t big enough, he said.

But about 2 1/2 years ago, Gorman was looking for new office space. A drive through the village, past the old school, sparked the idea.

“It was pretty bleak,” Gorman said of his first walk through building.

Restoration challenges included a new roof and repairing water damage, Gorman said.

Laurel Brown, owner of Brownhouse, which did the interior design, said her company had to maintain the historic aspects needed to qualify for certain tax credits while giving the building an updated look.

“We tried to do details … to bridge the two eras,” Brown said. “They still wanted the feel of the old school to come through.”

Brown had firsthand knowledge of the building working in her favor. When she was in kindergarten through third grade, she had art classes in what is now Gorman’s office.

“I remember the building really, really well,” she said. “It felt good to be part of a project that was revitalizing a piece of my own history.”

Eeda Lumley graduated from the school in 1942. Lumley, who was the first president of the Oregon Area Historical Society when it was founded in 1987, said she and other residents hated seeing the building deteriorate.

“I think he’s (Gorman) done a beautiful job,” she said.

Joan Gefke, a member of Oregon’s Historic Preservation Commission and a 1947 graduate, has been a key player in saving the building.

“It was a real challenge,” she said. “The hardest part was to get people to see what a fantastic building this was.”

She said Gorman could see the same possibilities.

“He has gone beyond all the expectations I ever had,” she said. “I’m ecstatic about it.”

Key dates for the Red BrickSchool

1921: Oregon residents approve building a new high school. The 19,000-square-foot building at 200 N. Main St. cost $70,000, including equipment.

Fall of 1922: The school opened with 106 students, one principal and four teachers.

1960: Due to the influx of baby boomers, the Red Brick School had to accommodate about 300 people.

1962: The last high school class graduated and then the building became an elementary school until 1992.

If you go

What: Gorman & Co. will host a grand reopening.

When: 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday.

Where: The Red Brick School, 200 N. Main St., Oregon.