Historic Preservation Commission seeks grant to renovate second J.C. Penney location

GAZETTE PHOTO / Theresa Davis

Left: The Kemmerer Historic Preservation Commission is working with the City of Kemmerer to apply for a federal grant that would help restore the second J.C. Penney location at 805 South Main Street. Right: An undated photo of the second J.C. Penney location, the Golden Rule Store, on the historic Kemmerer Triangle.

A vital piece of Kemmerer’s history could soon come back to life, thanks to the work of a local  preservation group.

The Kemmerer Historic Preservation Commission is working with the city of Kemmerer to apply for a Historic Revitalization Subgrant with the National Park Service to restore a local landmark.

The 115-year-old building at 805 South Main Street in Kemmerer once housed the second location of J.C. Penney’s store, also known as the Golden Rule store.

“Anytime the city loses a prominent historic building, it diminishes the historic fabric of the town,” said Linda Goetz of the Historic Preservation Commission. “We have already lost a few of those buildings. A restoration project like this is important for preserving our local history and our national history.”

To qualify for this grant program, a building must already be in the National Register of Historic Places or be deemed eligible. Goetz said the second J.C. Penney building is one of only three in the city limits of Kemmerer that qualify. The other buildings are the J.C. Penney homestead and the Kemmerer post office, both of which are well-maintained.

“The JC Penney Historic District, situated near the eastern end of Kemmerer’s Triangle Park which is surrounded by other period structures and businesses, includes the Golden Rule store (the second location of JC Penney’s store),” states the commission’s grant application. “As JC Penney’s business grew, the original location was outgrown and the store was moved into the stone structure at 805 S. Main in August, 1904.”

The grant from the National Park Service could provide as much as $750,000 in funding to restore the second J.C. Penney location. The building is in dire need of repair. The commission outlined the necessary projects in the grant application that was approved by the Kemmerer city council on Monday.

“While the building remains in use, it is grossly deficient in the following key areas: accessibility, egress, structural stability, fire code and moisture protection,” the grant application reads. “For the JC Penney building to maintain viability and contribute to downtown Kemmerer, the issues above must be addressed. Resolving these issues and completing an historically appropriate rehabilitation will allow the building to serve well a variety of uses and be a strong asset to the community.”

Goetz said the building is part of the J.C. Penney National Historic Landmark District, which was designated in 1978.

“You think of something like the Golden Gate Bridge as a landmark, so to have a landmark here is pretty special. There are not a lot of them in the state of Wyoming,” Goetz said. “Hopefully the Parks Service views that in our favor when they’re deciding what grants to award.”

The commission’s original estimate for the project work was $737,951. But Goetz informed the council that part of the building’s roof had caved in earlier this week, so that number may need to be pushed to the grant limit. For over 100 years, the building has served a variety of retail, entertainment, housing and storage uses. It has not been occupied with a business for at least two decades.

Goetz said the restoration, which would create a viable building in the historic downtown, is an economic incentive for the city. She discussed how these types of restorations can benefit “historic tourism.”

“When people drive through town and see the buildings that are well-maintained or restored, it enhances their experience and influences their impression of the community,” Goetz said. “That historic character gives each town its flavor and makes it stand out. People will say, ‘Hey, do you remember that cool downtown?’” 

The Historic Preservation Commission has stated that the 18”-24” thick exterior stone walls of the building are one of the biggest projects that could use the grant funding. Large cracks have formed in the north end of the building, which compromises its structural integrity.

“Of primary importance in rehabilitating the exterior envelope of the JC Penney building is stabilizing and restoring the masonry walls,” the application reads. “In those places where cracks have formed, masonry should be reinforced with steel strapping attached across the cracks on the inside and in an L configuration at inside corners. Further structural analysis should be done to ensure that the building regains full structural integrity.”

Repairing the stone exterior walls of the second J.C. Penney location is a priority for the Historic Preservation Commission. 

The building still has its original cast iron storefront on the first floor, but many of the ornamental pieces are missing. Stone panels below the windows are generally in good condition, but require maintenance. The commission said that this grant funding would also be used to seal the gap between the JC Penny building and the adjacent building to the east in order to prevent further weather impact to that side of the building.

Goetz said that the building which once housed the Golden Rule store has seen little rehabilitation in more than 100 years, so it has maintained its historical and architectural integrity.

“It’s all about the little details,” Goetz said. “Often in the 1950s buildings were really built for function and didn’t have many embellishments. But every period has its jewels, and we see that with this building and its classic entryway.”

The exterior details on the Golden Rule Store have maintained their historical integrity, but are in need of repair. 

Goetz said that the National Park Service will provide 7 to 10 of the Historic Revitalization Subgrants this year for a total of $4.8 million. The commission is unaware of how many entities are applying for the grant, but Goetz said she hopes the NPS will see the historic value in restoring this building. 

According to the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, the historic J.C. Penney locations in Kemmerer are meaningful for both local and national history.

“Although several buildings and residences associated with Penney and his company are extant in Utah, Missouri, and New York, the Kemmerer structures are more significant not only because they show the humble origins of the Penney Company, but because it was here that Penney formulated the merchandising ideas which enabled him to create the first truly nationwide department store chain,” the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office’s website states. 

The commission’s grant application states that after this restoration project is completed, they could work on securing funding for “gutting the interior and filling it with new spaces, systems, and finishes, as well as adding new stairs and an elevator, and rehabilitating the upper level windows.”

Goetz and the Historic Preservation Commission say that building owners Royal and Nancy Neilson “are in full support of the proposed work required for structural stabilization.”

“Roofing, tuckpointing, concrete, and glazing work should be able to occur concurrently,” the commission states. “If scheduling or weather delays don’t prevent the aforementioned assumption, our time line of completion within a five-year window (Sept. 2019 to Sept. 2024) should be easily met.”

Goetz said the commission and the city could receive funding as early as this fall. The commission first heard about the grant in January, so there wasn’t time to find more buildings that could be placed in the National Register of Historic Places to be eligible for this grant.

“Our hope is to eventually find more buildings and assess and record them and submit to the state office so we can get grants for restoration,” Goetz said.

“I would put out a kind of public plea for those who own or know of private or public property within the limits of Kemmerer that needs work or historic restoration,” Goetz continued. “If the building needs structural work like a new roof or windows in order to maintain historic character, we can get grants to help with that work.”