The Burlington Gymnasium was built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1938–41 and served as a gym, auditorium, and community center until 1999. Located on Senter Avenue between Ninth and Eleventh Streets, the two-story Art Deco facility was originally next to the Burlington High School but is now adjacent to Burlington Elementary School, which replaced the old high school in 1965. The gymnasium is the only New Deal–era work-relief construction project left in Burlington and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
New Deal, New Gym
The Dust Bowl and Great Depression hit Kit Carson County and the rest of Colorado’s eastern plains especially hard in the 1930s. Federally funded New Deal construction projects provided 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 at all or a gym 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.
Before the late 1930s the only gymnasium serving Burlington schools was a small space with a low ceiling in the basement of the high school, which had been built in the early 1920s. To secure a better facility, in January 1938 the Burlington Board of Education submitted a WPA application for a new gymnasium and auditorium. The Board of Education took time to study other gymnasiums in Denver and eastern Colorado before blueprints for the project were approved in February. Construction started in March on a site just south of the high school.
The original goal was to complete the gymnasium by summer 1939, but a variety of problems delayed construction. The building was supposed to have walls made of adobe blocks, but that was soon changed to concrete blocks, a standard WPA construction material in northeast Colorado. Work on the building continued throughout 1939. By January 19, 1940, the interior was ready to be used for a basketball game against Stratton. But construction was still in progress, and the building’s cost was exceeding initial estimates. The school district had to submit a second WPA application to get funding to finish the gym. The proposal was approved, and the gymnasium was completed on January 22, 1941.
The Burlington Gymnasium provided the town’s first large indoor space for athletics and other events. Designed in a restrained Art Deco style by district WPA engineer Lloyd E. Heggenberger, the building’s exterior was made of concrete stucco. It had vertical pilasters and spare ornamentation consisting largely of a recurring ziggurat motif rising above the roofline. Inside, the building featured a full-size basketball court with a stage at the eastern end and balconies lining the north and south walls. The basement included a kitchen and dining room, meeting and storage rooms, shower and dressing rooms, and a five-room caretaker’s apartment. The school district later turned the apartment into additional meeting rooms. Over the next five decades, the building held physical education classes, athletic events, dances, and music and theater productions.
In 1965 the high school next to the gym was torn down and replaced by an elementary school. The gym was connected to the new school by a walkway and continued to serve as a gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria until 1999, when the local school district built a new gymnasium and auditorium. The WPA gymnasium started to be used for storage. In 2008 and 2011, the school district received State Historical Fund grants for exterior restoration of the gymnasium, but the interior has not been altered or restored. Today the gym still stands beside the Burlington Elementary School but is not in active use.