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College Students Bring New Ideas to Old Fairmont Building

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It has been vacant since when they were born. Still, nine Fairmont State University students have been occupied by helping the city through a lengthy, teamwork process of restoring its century-old Masonic building.

The Masons contracted for an impressive structure to serve as their lodge and a commercial building in downtown Fairmont back in 1906. The result was a five-story Beaux-Arts style building with three bays, a mezzanine, balcony and basement complete with a bowling alley. The building once housed the post office, 17 offices, apartments, banquet hall, ball room and lodge with a 16-foot ceiling.

Officials estimate that restoration of the Jefferson Street building will cost considerably more than the original construction bill of $122,000.

Although the structure was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, Fairmont City Planner Kathy Wyrosdick said it continued to deteriorate as it remained abandoned for decades.

"It's a beautiful building that's been on our wish list for quite some time," she said. "It has wonderful potential ,and so it's something that we wanted to preserve and save.

"One of the biggest challenges was that it was essentially a vertical landfill. Just about every square inch of it was covered with remnants of the uses past."

The debris included tires and a thousand gallons of paint. Cleanup help for the city's Urban Renewal Authority came from the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center, the West Virginia Development Office and Main Street Fairmont. The West Virginia Preservation Office is assisting with roof replacement project.

"We can get things done if we join together and collaborate," said Wyrosdick, an Elkins native who relocated to Fairmont after a dozen years as a city planner in Michigan. "Independently, we just don't have the resources to do these things."

That's where the Fairmont State students stepped in. Nine senior-level architecture students were entered in a competition to design a redevelopment project on the block adjacent to the building. The students were challenged to develop design concepts that would create a "dynamic, open, culturally accepting environment."

Student Yun Oh Kim was the winner. He received the $250 Community Choice Award, as decided by public vote, and the $1,000 first place prize as determined by a panel of four judges. Kim's winning concept included a small green space across the street and a connector to nearby parking.

Associate Professor Philip Freeman said project benefited both his students and the city.

"This unique opportunity allows the City of Fairmont to showcase itself as a forward thinking city that is willing to highlight its historic architecture and its development opportunities, as well as a city that celebrates the talented students attending Fairmont State University," Freeman said in a press release.

"We try as often as we can to engage Fairmont State University and Pierpont Community College students in the work that we do," said Wyrosdick, "We want tap into the talent of the students and we want them to be excited about visiting our downtown."

She said there's presently no timeline for the overall project, noting that it took five years to merely acquire the structure. The end use of the building is also yet to be determined.

"We have to baby step this," she said. "All we know is that we want that building preserved."