CASA GRANDE -- From the outside, you can tell there are many cherished memories attached to the place that was once Casa Grande Union High School.

Neatly kept, with a fountain adoring the walk up to the building’s arched double doors, the nearly 100-year-old structure is still very much in use.

The former high school is located on Florence Boulevard not far from Peart Park and is now the heart of the city of Casa Grande’s daily operations.

Bob Mitchell was mayor of Casa Grande when the school was transformed into City Hall more than 20 years ago.

The remodeling came about because a bond issue intended to fund the construction of a new high school failed.

Community members, said Mitchell, were fond of the old building and didn’t want to see it completely abandoned. The dilemma led to the failure of the school district’s bond proposition more than once.

“Each time the main sticker was ‘what are we going to do with the old building?’” he said. “It was such an icon to the community that people just didn’t want to leave it and have it torn down.”

The issue of what could be done with the building was brought before the City Council in 1997, with a proposal to renovate the structure to serve as City Hall.

“Several councilmen including myself had some ideas about turning it into City Hall because we had outgrown some of our facilities anyways,” Mitchell said. “It didn’t take much to convince the council we should remodel this and move forward with it.”

Saving the building permitted the CGUHS District’s bond proposition to construct a new high school to pass.

Prior to moving to its current location in the old high school, City Hall was located on Drylake Street where the current Casa Grande Main Library stands.

The former school is near and dear to Mitchell’s heart — and not just because he was mayor at the time the building underwent its reconstruction.

Mitchell moved to Casa Grande in 1966 after accepting a position to teach American government and economics at CG Union. He taught at the high school for 31 years and retired the same year the school moved from the old location to its new home on Trekell Road.

While all the council members at the time served an important role in moving the transformation of the building forward, Mitchell noted that two particular council members at the time — Stephen Cooper and Kirk McCarville — worked with county officials to ensure the city could purchase the property.

“The City Council was a great council to work with when we put all of this together,” Mitchell said. “If it hadn’t been for a council that was willing to step up (for) the community, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Often called “Old Main” — in reference to two “Old Main” buildings that can be found at Arizona State University in Tempe and the University of Arizona in Tucson — the structure is the hub for most of the city’s governmental functions, including the council chambers, the office of the mayor and the office of the city manager.

CG Union was constructed in 1921, and — according to historical record — witnessed its first graduating class that very same year.

In the early phases of the remodeling effort, the high school was inspected by the Arizona Historical Society and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The decision to save the building was just the start of a lengthy and extensive restoration process that included massive overhauls to the interior and exterior of the old high school to bring it up to par with the Americans with Disabilities Act compliance guidelines.

The changes included adding elevators and paving over the outdoor staircases that led up to the school’s entrance — transforming the walkway to the main entrance into an inclining gradient.

Other elements of the former school property were torn down or repurposed during the restoration.

A senior living complex, The Garnet — located behind City Hall — stands on what contained other buildings that were torn down. The city later purchased athletic fields located a block north and transformed them into Carr McNatt Park.

While some of the improvements required adding walls to transform classrooms into office spaces, other renovations required a complete redesign of certain areas of the building.

According to Mitchell, that was especially the case when it came to the renovation of the “natatorium” — the school’s indoor pool that had not been used in decades. During reconstruction, the pool was torn out and the space was transformed into the development services area. Above the pool, a hardwood floor was also torn out.

Directly below the pool, a series of dressing rooms had also been constructed. Mitchell noted that those dressing rooms were later repurposed into fallout shelters and, later on, were used for food storage before eventually being transformed into costume storage for the drama department.

Those features were completely revamped during the restoration.

Other changes included the redesign of the school’s cafeteria and original auditorium, which now serves as the council chambers. However, due to the condition of the building at the time, the kitchen behind the auditorium had to be torn down.

The Arizona Historical Society permitted the city to rebuild that part of the structure. But it required that the reconstructed section be offset to allow for a break between the historical and new portions. In addition, the newer, offset section was lined with styrofoam.

“If you take your fist and you knock on the parapet on the wall there, you’ll notice that it’s concrete. Then if you move a little bit further it’s styrofoam,” Mitchell said. “The average person would never even know it was there.”

The restoration process even included salvaging six of the original glass skylights that were part of the auditorium. Though they maintain the aesthetic appeal of the building, today those skylights no longer receive direct sunlight. Instead, artificial lights have been installed behind the glass tiles to mimic the effects of a skylight.

There is, however, one element of the building that has been completely left untouched for posterity’s sake. The feature is a concrete-lined storage closet with an unexpected characteristic — graffiti etched by students who attended the high school over the decades.

Mostly done in pencil — though you can find the occasional pen or spray paint — the etchings display the names of former students and the year they graduated, with some entries dating as far back as 1939. Some even turned out to be future members of the City Council. According to Mitchell, the closet is a well-kept secret that few visitors know about.

Mitchell recalls spending plenty of time at the construction site during the renovation. To this day, he still holds onto several keepsakes he collected while visiting the site every day. They range from pieces of the building’s old brick to one of the original upper floor windows removed as part of a restoration project funded by a $50,000 grant.

Following the completion of the renovation, several final touches were added for aesthetic appeal, including the clock — added at Mitchell’s request — and the fountain later added when Chuck Walton was mayor.

For Mitchell, the transformation of City Hall will always be proof of what Casa Grande is capable of.

“I always say a city only becomes a community when the type of people that you have are willing to contribute,” Mitchell said. “I think (the original CGUHS) was pretty much the center of Casa Grande when it was built for the years it was used as a school and it’s nice to see it continue as the center of our city as City Hall.” PW