Council speaks to architects to fix Porter gym

PORTERDALE - Two of the three architectural firms chosen as candidates to rebuild Porter Memorial Gymnasium made presentations to the City Council at Tuesday night's work session. The third firm is expected to make its presentation at the council's meeting July 1.

The historic gym was gutted by fire in October 2005. The fire left the gym's exterior brick walls standing, but nothing remains of the interior. The fire was apparently deliberately set, though no one has been arrested in the arson.

Gregory Walker, a partner in the Atlanta firm of Houser Walker Architecture, told the council that the gymnasium project is especially appealing to the firm.

"We love challenging projects that don't really have an easy answer," he said.

Walker said he and his partners see the gym as an "adaptive reuse project" and the type that serves a variety of stakeholder interests. If selected, his seven-person firm will conduct an "envisioning process," which is essentially a series of four workshops to gather input from town residents. The workshops will determine how the building will serve the community and how it will look. Those interests will then be balanced against the budget resources available to the city government, he said.

Janice Wittschiebe and Carol Richard, principals in the firm of Richard Wittschiebe Hand Architecture Interiors Planning of Atlanta, told the council public projects for recreational and educational purposes are their firm's forte. Wittschiebe said that the firm has been selected by the Newton County Recreation Commission to renovate the old Cousins Gym on Geiger Street. In addition, the firm conducted a project to expand the uses for the gym at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus.

Wittschiebe said one of the most important parts of their work with the city would be to talk to the council and listen to them in order to understand what the city hopes to accomplish. Richard Wittschiebe Hand also would conduct workshops to determine what the community wants for the historic gym. Wittschiebe called the gym project a "community builder," one that will have a broad impact and could become an icon for the town.

Mayor Bobby Hamby said the city has not received specific bids from the firms. The rebuilding of the gym is expected to be done in phases since the city does not have full funding for the project. The first phase will most likely involve replacing the roof and stabilizing the exterior brick walls. The architectural firm will be selected sometime after the third firm makes its presentation.

Porterdale has approximately $850,000 earmarked for the gym reconstruction from a variety of sources - special purpose local option sales taxes, state grants and an insurance settlement.

The Porterdale Gym was constructed in 1938 and built as a gift to the city from Oliver and Julia Porter, the owners of Bibb Manufacturing Co. The facility was built with wood floors and wood bleachers that could seat as many as 5,000 people, by some accounts. The structure was vacant at the time of the blaze, and most of the contents destroyed, including old city records and all of the city's Christmas decorations.

Alice Queen can be reached at alice.queen@newtoncitizen.com.