August 30, 2023 628 PM
MARFA — Friends of Hunter Gym, a recently-established local nonprofit, is embarking on a mission to restore the historic, 1941-built Hunter Gym, an adobe building located on the Marfa ISD campus that has fallen into disrepair, thought to be the last remaining Works Progress Administration-designed and constructed adobe gymnasium in the southwest United States.
Since mold was discovered in 2010, the historically-designated gym has sat empty, primarily acting as district storage for discarded school desks. Though for the most part structurally sound, the building has suffered from moisture damage over the decades as a result of well-meaning modifications. Restoration of original steel windows, roofing system, adobe walls and mold remediation are among some of the necessary repairs.
The friends group — which formed in 2021 and is in the process of finalizing its agreement with the district to lease the building for the duration of the restoration — needs to raise $30,000 in startup funds to pay for insurance, separate electrical metering, the cost of preparing professional grant applications and a variety of other needs to support the expensive endeavor.
When complete, the gym can be used for proms, school assemblies, art exhibitions, dance and musical performances, robotics competitions and any other number of school and public gatherings, without costing the school district a dime. Friends of Hunter Gym intends to secure federal, state, foundation, corporate and other grant support to complete this important project for Marfa ISD and the whole community.
In 2007, Mike Green, president of Friends of Hunter Gym, was asked by then-Marfa ISD Superintendent Teloa Swinnea to look at what she thought was mold growing on the interior walls of the old Hunter Gym. The school’s janitor, Ernesto Chavez, led him into the dark and musty gym devoid of natural light or ventilation.
“What struck me that day was what Mr. Chavez told me after he unlocked the door and we walked in: ‘This space was once like a church inside with natural light saturating the interior. It was so beautiful back then.’ I’ve since heard multiple stories similar to what Ernesto expressed that day,” said Green.
Marfa ISD received approval for construction of the gym from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in October 1940 along with projects at Blackwell School and Ft D. A. Russell. The gym construction began in November 1940 and was completed just short of a year later in October 1941.
The total cost of the gym project was $40,184, with the WPA providing $24,995 and the balance being taken from the school district general fund. The design team was the El Paso architectural engineering firm Fritz & Benner whose total fee for the project was $1,000. The building was designed in a unique West Texas modern vernacular style and is well constructed. The adobes were fabricated on site from material excavated from the subgrade shower and locker rooms located under the concrete bleachers. Much of the construction was performed by Marfa residents.
The gym first opened around 81 years ago in the fall of 1941, after a year-long construction process. An October edition of the school newspaper, The Shorthorn, wrote its first uses were for a demonstration of football plays led by Coach L.B. Martin for the Marfa public and three Highland Fair dances. It boasted a seating capacity of 400 to 500 people and state-of-the-art amenities.
“The gymnasium is equipped with modern furnishing. It has the latest basketball back stops scoreboard and clock combination,” reads The Shorthorn article.
Hunter Gym is named after a very popular and successful coach, Boren “Bodie” Hunter, who inherited the newly-constructed facility when he was hired in 1942. Coach Hunter took the Shorthorns to three consecutive state basketball championships and, maybe more importantly, repeated victories over the Alpine Bucks in football.
Over the years, the gym was subjected to a number of damaging changes. The original design included downspouts directing roof runoff away from the building perimeter, which is good practice, but in October 1983 a wood-framed metal-clad hip roof was added on top of the original built-up asphalt roof, which allowed rain runoff to accumulate around the perimeter of the building. Originally the south facing wall had five 7 feet by 10 feet operable awning windows that opened simultaneously by pulling on chains that rotated two driveshafts the full length of the wall. In November 1984, all 35 original operable windows were removed and infilled with masonry, cutting necessary air circulation that adobe buildings require.
In 2003, a classroom wing was completed just east of the gym, a process that added about 3 feet of soil directly to the side of the adobe gym walls. All of these changes introduced moisture into the building, causing the damage to the plaster walls and wood floors that is evident today. In spite of these well-intended but damaging renovations, the building remains in surprisingly good condition, a testament to the good design practices by Fritz & Benner and the good government quality control during construction. In December 2009, Bob Schwab and Mike Green, in collaboration with school Superintendent Teloa Swinnea, were successful in having the gym designated a Registered Texas Historical Landmark.
Once restored to its original glory, the Friends of Hunter Gym believes the gym will attract visitors curious about the growing number of restored adobe structures in Marfa and the region. The Friends of Hunter Gym believes it to be a worthy cause that one day will make everyone proud to be Marfans and Shorthorns. We invite the community to come along for this exciting journey to return the gym to the sunlit glory the late Ernesto Chavez remembers.
For more information, or to donate, visit @HunterGymMarfa on Instagram, Facebook.com/HunterGymMarfa, or visit huntergymmarfa.org