College's old gym rises from the ashes Rebuilding complete after New Year's Eve fire


Students played pickup basketball last week in Western Maryland College's old gymnasium -- the scene of a spectacular fire New Year's Eve.

This week, regular physical education classes will begin in the rebuilt facility on the Westminster campus, said Donald W. Schumaker Jr., a college spokesman.

The 59-year-old Gill Gymnasium was thought destroyed by the five-alarm blaze, which rallied more than 200 firefighters from 15 companies in Carroll, Baltimore and Frederick counties and southern Pennsylvania.

But engineers soon pronounced its walls structurally sound -- and the college may have benefited from the fire, said Ethan Seidel, vice president of administration and finance.

"I think we were really fortunate: We are actually going to end up with a finer facility than we had before," he said. "We were lucky. We had good planning -- and good insurance coverage."

The damage is being evaluated by PMA (formerly Penn Mutual) insurance, he said, but it appears to total about $1.7 million. The building was insured for about $2 million.

"We took the total insurance proceeds and redesigned everything, so it allowed us to make improvements to both," Seidel said, referring to the fire-ravaged gym and an adjoining newer gymnasium damaged by smoke.

Henry H. Lewis Contractors Inc. of Owings Mills, which renovated the college's library, did the rebuilding.

Last week, little evidence remained of the Dec. 31 chaos, other than bits of debris in the parking lot.

Metal has replaced the old slate roof and the windows have been bricked over in the old gymnasium, completed in 1938 for $75,000 and named for 1910 graduate, athlete and trustee Col. Robert Joshua Gill.

The windows won't be missed becauses they were often broken by flying balls, despite their metal grates, Seidel said.

The building has a new 100-seat meeting room in the basement, which was dug 2 to 3 feet deeper to eliminate its low ceiling. "So the entire football team can meet there at once," he said.

It also has a new fire-prevention system.

Fire investigators almost immediately pinpointed the northeast corner of the basement as the fire's point of origin, but could not find its cause.

The only problem from the rebuilding appears to be one of nomenclature: People have taken to calling the burned structure "the new old gym" since its rebirth, Schumaker said.

Consequently, the gymnasium built in 1984 has become "the old new gym."

The two gymnasiums and a connecting lobby are officially named -- but rarely called -- the Gill Physical Education Learning Center.

The verbal tangle could be eliminated by returning to a simpler name for the entire complex, such as Gill Center, Schumaker said.

Three to four weeks of work remain, Seidel said, primarily in the basement of the old structure -- previously a hodgepodge storage area -- and on a new floor for the 1984 gym, which was damaged by smoke and water.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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