Architect Lyle Murtha remembers spraying the chemical paint remover off the brick of the 97-year-old Chicago and North Western Rail building in Casper, the green paint swirling off the sidewalk and into the gutter.
It’s rare for architects to get dirty, but Murtha and his workers at Stateline No. 7 Architects did most of the general contract work themselves.
The building had sat vacant on the corner of Center and Collins streets for about a decade after its last proprietor, Party Animals, closed shop. Every good architect should be downtown in a historic district, Murtha believed, and this fit the bill.
“We were prepared for the time and the work it was going to take,” Murtha said. “I shudder to think somebody would have come in here and tried to do a quick-fix job and goobered it up.”
They gutted the entire building, removing nearly a century of strange additions and odd decorating choices.
Some mementos remain. The hardy, ground-marble terrazzo floor in the front room and the exposed brick throughout the building are still there. High in the rafters above, the name of one of the previous companies, Casper Supply, is still legible.
Everything new inside reflects the urban warehouse feel of the building. The big, street-facing windows are still at docking-level height. The stair rail is rebar, and the upstairs cubicles nestle against steel catwalk grating.
In an adjoining room sits an old, wooden drafting table. Even the bathrooms didn’t escape the warehouse theme unscathed.
“I checked with all 17 manufacturers in the United States, and none of them would sell me unfinished stalls,” Murtha said.
He used acid to remove the finish himself.
A door in the back of Murtha’s office leads to his loft apartment. Exposed duct work, brick with flecks of paint and wood floors with knots and discolorations dominate the decor here, too.
In addition to the specialized skill set required to renovate a historic building rather than build from scratch, this kind of work needs developers who are comfortable with those imperfections because they give an old building its character, Murtha said.
“That’s why you’re doing this style, to get this look,” Murtha said.
Those qualities are sorely lacking in Casper right now, Murtha believes, but he hopes Stateline No. 7’s office, along with the work being done at the old county annex building to create downtown apartments, can serve as examples for other developers and contractors in the city.
His downtown location and urban feel have already netted him two projects, the Casper Artist’s Guild and the Midwest Market renovations of the old Pacific Fruit warehouse.
Projects like that are different, but not necessarily more expensive. The renovations on his building, for example, will cost him half of what it would have to build the same thing from scratch.
“I’ve got the foundation, the walls, the roof; the rest is just cosmetic,” Murtha said.
Some of his building is still in need of cosmetics.
The basement, which Murtha hopes to lease eventually, is still unfinished. The building’s long history is evident here, too, although Murtha has struggled to dig up many of the old girl’s records.
Murtha points around the massive, empty room. Over here, somebody did machine work, while this area was used for bottling. Somebody had a coal chute in that corner.
“You become part historian, part detective,” Murtha said. “I hope more people are inspired to save buildings like this.”
Murtha’s steps echoed as he climbed the stairs out of the dusty basement, which still looks mostly like the building he bought, and re-emerged into the fully finished front room. He thinks he’s already won some converts.
He remembers days working outside with his employees when people would lean out their car windows and shout at him just to tear the eyesore down.
Today, he said, people often walk in unprompted just to thank them for restoring an old piece of Casper history.