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WMC's old gym rises from ashes Gill Gymnasium rebuilding complete after New Year's fire; Cause of blaze unknown; Physical education classes to resume in venerable facility


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 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 not its cause.

"We have suspended the investigation," Maryland Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Bob Thomas said Friday. "We may never be able to determine the cause of the fire."

His office's focus shifted instead to being "involved with the initial part of the construction, to make sure it meets codes," he said. "The building [has sprinklers] now."

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.

That's another reversal: The new gym had a composite floor that has been replaced with wood; the old gym's wooden floor is now a rubberized all-purpose athletic floor over concrete.

When new, that 80-by-115-foot wooden floor was called the finest in the East. But decades later, that floor fueled the fire. Once the flames began consuming its layers of shellac and reached the open air of the gymnasium, a fireball shot through the roof, said firefighters -- some of whom barely escaped that explosion.

After the newer gym was built, the old one was used for physical-education classes, intramural competitions and summer programs, and as offices for the physical education faculty, the coaching staff and the military science department. The fire destroyed some of their equipment, records and memorabilia.

But the damage would have been much worse on the all-but-closed campus if a painter beginning work at the building at 7: 15 a.m. had not spotted the flames in the basement. His early warning prevented the fire from spreading beyond the old building.

Seidel said the college plans a ceremony later for the rebuilding.

"We'd like to bring back some of the firefighters," he said. "That's mainly why we want to do it. We were actually very lucky the walls stayed up and it didn't spread outside the building. We're really happy with it."

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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