The Akron Gymnasium was a New Deal project built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1938–40. Designed by the prominent Denver architect Eugene Groves, with a distinctive domed roof and skylights, it served as Akron’s main gymnasium and community center until 1964. Though the structure has not been well maintained in the years since, it has also not seen any major modifications to the original design.
New Deal, New Gym
The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression hit Colorado’s eastern plains, including Washington County, especially hard in the 1930s. New Deal construction projects were able to provide jobs for unemployed workers while also building civic, recreational, and cultural infrastructure in rural towns. Gymnasiums were particularly popular New Deal projects on the eastern plains, where many rural towns had no gym or one too small to hold a regulation basketball court. Large new gyms allowed school districts to improve physical education instruction and host regional basketball games. In addition, the gyms often included a stage at one end so they could double as a performance and event space for the community.
Prior to the late 1930s, the Akron High School gymnasium was located in the building’s basement. The idea for a large new gymnasium was born in 1936, when the Washington County School Board decided to pursue a Public Works Administration (PWA) project to build a gym as an aboveground addition to the high school. In December 1936 the school board chose Eugene Groves, known for his use of concrete construction and Modernist styles, to design the gym.
In June 1938 the school board received a $23,850 PWA grant for the gym. The board wanted to get the largest possible gym for its money, so it tried to transfer the project to the WPA, which required smaller contributions from local sponsoring agencies. The school board submitted a WPA application for the gym in July 1938 and received approval a few days later for a project that involved building the new gym and converting the existing basement gym into classrooms. The total cost of the project was just over $54,000, with roughly $28,000 coming from the federal government and $26,000 from the local school district. Groves received an architect’s fee of $2,000.
Construction on the gymnasium started in August 1938. It was built next to the north side of the high school, at the corner of Fourth Street and Custer Avenue. In addition to the combination gymnasium and auditorium, the building also included a two-story classroom section and a one-story garage. The most distinctive part of the building was its domed roof, which included skylights that lit the gym.
A dedication ceremony for the Akron Gymnasium was held on December 14, 1939. More than 600 people attended. The gym still needed some finishing touches, however, and did not open until February 1940. In the meantime, it inspired the nearby town of Otis to submit a WPA application for its own gymnasium in December 1939 and to hire Groves to design it.
The Akron Gymnasium served as the town’s primary gym and auditorium until 1964, when a new high school and gym were built. The WPA gymnasium continued to function for several more years as an auxiliary gym for local sports teams and town gatherings. At some point after the adjacent high school building was torn down in 1970, the gym stopped being used and passed into private ownership. It was no longer maintained and fell into disrepair. In June 2006 an Akron resident who wanted to restore the building acquired it through a quitclaim deed.