RED LODGE —It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the transformation of Old Roosevelt School into the arts and culture hub of Red Lodge.
The original three-story school, built in 1920 at 518 S. Broadway Ave., has numerous classrooms lined with big windows, flooding the rooms with natural light. In an even larger room on the third floor, there is a raised stage, its velvet curtain still intact, flanked by pilasters ornamented with painted scrolls.
A two-story addition, built in 1990, has a gymnasium that is to be converted into a multipurpose performance space and conference center. Six small businesses, several of them arts-related, are already renting classrooms in the new building.
In front of the school, flanking Broadway, Red Lodge’s main street, is a spacious, tree-shaded lawn that supporters of the school envision as a picnic ground, performance area and sculpture garden. They envision the whole complex as an economic generator and a welcoming beacon for the southern end of this tourism-dependent mountain town.
“We don’t have an arts ‘place’ in Red Lodge anywhere,” Tracy Timmons said. “We’re really going to open a niche in our community.”
Timmons is the director of the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation, the agency leading the effort to raise millions of dollars for the conversion project.
Timmons said the short-term goal is to raise enough money by April to buy the school from the local school district and then, if engineers determine that the heating system in the new addition can be extended to the original building, to start using portions of the old school by about this time next year.
“We’ve been waiting a long time in Red Lodge for a performance space,” said Betty Hecker, a former president of the Red Lodge Public School Foundation, another partner in the Old Roosevelt School project. As for the rest of the school, she said, “We have way more uses for the building than we have space.”
Almost 20 years ago, community members came together to look at the possibility of building a performing arts and convention center in Red Lodge. In 2005, a planning committee was formed and some fund-raising began to build such a center.
The school foundation was formed in 2008, its initial goal being to raise money for a large gym and auditorium in the new Red Lodge High School. The foundation succeeded in raising enough money for the large gym, but plans for the auditorium expanded to the concept of a freestanding center unattached to the high school.
Timmons said the idea was that if the performance center was in the high school, on the edge of town and blocks off Broadway, visitors might go to an event there, get back in their cars and leave town. The focus turned to a center that would be part of the business district, so that arts and culture would support the larger economy.
In 2010, a year after the new high school opened and Old Roosevelt School (as distinguished from the new Roosevelt Middle School) was abandoned, the community foundation convened a meeting to brainstorm on ways to raise money for a community center for the arts. Every arts organization in the area sent a representative to the meeting.
Timmons recalled an observation made by Barb Ostrum, now vice president of the Carbon County Arts Guild and Depot Gallery, that during her 25 years of involvement in the local arts scene there had never been such a gathering of arts representatives.
A new possibility arose in 2011, when the school district asked the community foundation to identify uses for Old Roosevelt School—the last of Red Lodge’s historic school buildings—that would boost the local economy and cost district taxpayers nothing.
At the same time, the Red Lodge Main Street Partnership asked the foundation to look at uses for the building that would strengthen the central business district, particularly during the shoulder seasons when tourism slackens.
There were studies and needs assessments, a public opinion survey and strategic planning sessions, and in 2013 a steering committee concluded that the best option was to convert Roosevelt into an arts and culture center. In-state models were the Emerson Center in Bozeman and the Shane Lalani Center in Livingston—both of them schools that had been converted into arts and performance centers.
The school district agreed to sell the old school to the community foundation last year. A buy-sell agreement that had a deadline of this week had a built-in extension until April 15, Timmons said, which is the foundation’s new target.
The school district is asking $200,000 for the school. The district still uses the gym at Roosevelt for fifth- and sixth-grade practices, so it plans to use $120,000 of the purchase price to retrofit the gym at the Red Lodge Civic Center for use by two teams at once. The rest of the money from the sale would pay down an old bond in the elementary school district.
Timmons said the foundation has $195,000 in the bank but wants to raise $400,000 before buying the school. That would cover the purchase price, plus a $100,000 reserve for contingencies and emergency repairs, and $100,000 to help launch the big fund drive for actually converting the school.
The ultimate goal is to raise nearly $7 million—$5 million for renovations and $1.7 million for a permanent endowment to operate the center.
Plans for the school are still evolving, but a lot of progress was made this fall at a three-day design workshop that brought in people from around the country who had been involved in similar projects. One use that was added was a community kitchen for cooking classes and food preparation for on-site events.
Timmons said the foundation originally planned to convert the Old Roosevelt School gym into a performance space and conference center first, but now the priority is refurbishing and reusing the old building. For one, they didn’t want to disrupt the tenants already renting space in the new addition.
They also realized that one of the trickiest aspects of the project will be redesigning the gym, since the various uses proposed for the space—plays, concerts and conferences among them—all have different needs in terms of seating, sound and arrangement.
In the meantime, Hecker, with the school foundation, said the third-floor stage in the original school could be made usable without too much work. It’s a fairly large space, she said, and “even as it is, the acoustics aren’t half bad in there.”
Timmons said educational space is also important in the overall plan. To hold conferences, she said, it will be necessary to have one large room—the old gym—and then lots of smaller rooms for breakout sessions. The classrooms are well suited for that and could be used for arts education when not in use during conferences. Their walls could also be used for gallery space, however the rooms are used.
Ostrum, with the arts guild, said that’s exactly what Red Lodge needs—more gallery space and additional arts education opportunities. The guild supports art teachers in six rural schools in Carbon County, she said, so Roosevelt could be used for summer art classes and for workshops and art-related projects throughout the year.
As for more display space, she said the guild features more than 250 area artists in the old depot complex, and “we’re really floor-to-ceiling with artwork.”
Meanwhile, tenants in the new addition include a yoga studio, an acupuncturist, a quilt shop, a screen printing business and a clothing and accessory shop. Referring to those last three businesses, Timmons said, “they’re kind of calling themselves the garment district.”
The newest tenant is Hans Howell, the owner of Roscoe Outdoors, which sells outdoor clothing to 30 retailers. He uses a small space—formerly the school’s computer lab—to store and ship his products. He said the school, in addition to its role as an arts hub, could serve as a much-needed small-business incubator.
“For small businesses, it’s definitely nice to have something more affordable than you’d find anywhere else,” he said.
In addition to the work on the old building, Timmons looks forward to creating an inviting space out of the school’s lawn and playground area. When they do finally purchase the building, she said, the first thing she wants to do is tear out the cyclone fence that is a physical and psychological barrier between the school and Broadway.
There’s a three-block gap of mostly residential buildings between Roosevelt School and the core of downtown Red Lodge, Timmons said, so an early goal is to tie the two districts together by renovating the outdoor space and creating way-finding signs leading from one to the other.
After the design workshop in October, Old Roosevelt School supporters have been meeting twice a week to work on various aspects of the project, refining their plans and trying to answer the questions that some of the larger potential donors have already been asking—about how exactly the various parts of the building will be used and how the renovation will be scheduled.
“We’re working on that as we speak,” Timmons said. “We’re really fortunate, I think, in how Red Lodge has worked together on this.”