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Gone will be the old gymnasium affectionately called the “orange dungeon” at Natrona County High School, but the 1924 building will remain.

Crews will remove the older gym, the newer gym, the pool and the library to open the site for construction to replace those features and add new ones, according to Bassetti Architect team members.

The architect firm presented its conceptual design of the school Monday night during a presentation in the school’s John F. Welsh Auditorium. Concepts are general ideas of the spaces that make up the school and how they will be used, said Marilyn Brockman, a Bassetti team member. More exact and definite plans can be determined further into the process. The conceptual design outlines some of the most important overall desires the community and district leaders requested, she said.

The facade of the school will be restored as “the campus jewel,” Brockman told the audience at the presentation.

An entrance on a to-be-built north addition will be compatible with the landmark south face. Between the two doors, a long commons area will stretch over two stories.

The conceptual design of the highlight accommodates informal gatherings, eating and presentations.

The commons also will double as foyer space for theater and gymnasium events, and as a welcoming point for the community, according to the firm’s team. The upper level of the area could feature conference rooms where students can study and look over the commons area. The plans show doors that open from the commons area to outdoor courtyards.

The plans indicate a larger backstage area for the John F. Welsh Auditorium, along with better acoustics and modern production capability. The plan so far is to decrease seating from 1,200 to 800, and the new stage will thrust farther out into the auditorium.

The plans arrange classrooms and academic spaces into “professional learning communities” where students can work on projects that incorporate multiple subjects, like combining science with English.

The learning communities relate to the new high school system where students will learn real-world knowledge in the classroom. As they advance, they’ll attend classes at a new high school campus, the Center for Advanced and Professional Studies.

The anticipated five-year construction project could begin next spring or summer, though officials will know more about that timeline in early 2013, architect team members said. Before concrete design decisions can be made, the city officials must accept the plan, and a four- to six-month rezoning process for residential properties turning into school spaces must take place, Brockman said after the meeting.

Community excitement

Some who will be affected by the changes expressed excitement after the presentation.

NC assistant principal Chad Sharpe said his favorite part is the planned configuration of classrooms. For example, students might design robots in drafting class, build them in the electronics area and learn about how they work in physics classrooms.

“We’re building a facility around curriculum that meets the needs of 21st century learners instead of the other way around,” Sharpe said. “We don’t have to fit teachers and kids into spaces that don’t make sense; we can fit them into spaces that do make sense.”

NC drama teacher and 1994 graduate of the school Zach Schneider said theater productions will be more versatile.

“I’m going to have the dimensions of a Broadway-style theater right here at NC,” the teacher said. Students can produce large shows, but also experience smaller, more intimate performances. One classroom will be a blackbox theater space, and the commons and outdoors areas will provide even more variety. Students no longer will have to block off the stage and imagine what an arena-style theater is like because they will have one, Schneider said.

Anne Ladd graduated in the NC class of 1977 and her daughter attends the school. But to her, it’s about the how all the students will learn in the years to come. She added she’s especially impressed with the plans to modernize while remaining sensitive to the historical and personal meaning the school holds.

Terry Wingerter, a Natrona County commissioner, also believes the community will be grateful the historical face of the school will remain. He graduated from NCHS in 1965, the last senior class — of more than 800 students — before Kelly Walsh High School emerged and split the local student population, Wingerter said.

Ellen Parke performed on the NC stage in junior follies before graduating in 1975. She’s happy about changes and the historical preservation, although a little shocked at some of the planned demolitions, like the orange gym.

“It has a lot of history,” she said.

“I think this is an iconic building for our community and we’ve made a commitment as a community to save it,” said Donna Mathern, a former assistant principal for the school. “Keeping the old and blending it with the new, to me, is like the best-case scenario.”

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Reach education reporter Elysia Conner at 307-266-0593 or elysia.conner@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @ElysiaConner.

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