RAWLINS, Wyo. — In the cool hours of the early morning in summer, you can find Michael Smith lugging 5-gallon jugs of water from his old work truck, usually parked near the corner of Seventh Street and Walnut.
For the past four years, Smith has been watering the mature trees that remain on the lot of the old prison warden’s house that stands vacant on the corner.
He said he waters about 50 trees total and has set up a weekly rotation so that the neediest trees on this once-manicured lot don’t simply die, reported the Rawlins Daily Times (http://bit.ly/2bUPQAR).
“The problem is now, is that it’s not under the Old Pen. It’s under the state, and they don’t maintain it,” Smith said of the property.
Smith is correct. The house, and the approximate 1.2-acre lot it sits on, belongs to the Trust Land Management Division of the Wyoming Office of State Lands & Investments.
Vacant for over 20 years, the old warden’s house was built in 1930, constructed of “Parco brick.”
From 1930 until the late 1990s, the house was home to the warden of the Wyoming Penitentiary, and later it became the deputy warden’s house, according to Mark Horan, public information officer of the Wyoming Department of Corrections.
Like the trees surrounding it, the house has seen better days. Windows at the rear of the structure are boarded up. Concrete sidewalks and driveways are cracked and crumbling. Dust and weeds have replaced the lawn.
Duane Shillinger, a former warden at the old Pen, moved into the house with his family in about 1970.
“We lived there nine years. It’s a beautiful building. The inside of it was really well built. It reflected a different era, but it was just a beautiful home. We really enjoyed living there,” Shillinger said.
“Basically, it’s been neglected and it needs a lot of maintenance and repairs,” Shillinger said.
He and his wife complained to the governor a few years back, because the house became so unsightly.
“My wife and I complained about the exterior and took pictures of it and sent them to the governor,” he explained.
“It’s really a valuable historical element of Rawlins,” Shillinger added.
“One of the beauty spots of the state”
The construction’s completion at the warden’s house coincided with landscaping and beautification efforts at the penitentiary. In an article entitled “Great Changes Noted in Grounds at Penitentiary” that appeared in the Rawlins Daily Republican on May 29, 1930, the author trumpeted the efforts to transform the rocky sagebrush surrounding the prison and the wardens house: ” . work is being done that is making the penitentiary grounds one of the beauty spots of the state.”
” .(S)ince the time of the pen location here, the grounds have remained in practically their original state . in general the state institution has presented an unsightly view . now a great change is taking place, much to the satisfaction and enjoyment of the residents of Rawlins,” the author wrote.
“The beautiful new warden’s residence, made of Parco brick, was constructed on the southwest part of the grounds. A large space that will be planted with grass was left to the rear of the warden’s residence, this to be a beautiful park in a few short years,” the article stated.
The house was considered very large and modern at the time, boasting an attached two-car garage. The house was designed by Cheyenne architect Frederick H. Porter, in a style reminiscent of Georgian Revival architecture.
The newspaper’s predictions from 1930 did come true. The trees, grass and shrubs that were planted then did indeed grow and thrive, making the corner of Walnut and Seventh Street, with its handsome house and beautiful grounds, a showplace for the community.
Michael Smith remembers playing baseball in the park area behind the warden’s house, and prison inmate trustees would be out on the grounds at the same time as area kids, tending to the landscaping.
“Sometimes our ball would land over by them, and they’d toss it back to us,” he said.
The last deputy warden moved out of the house in about 1997, according to Horan.
The warden’s house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the National Register nomination of the historic penitentiary buildings complex, which was completed in 1982.
But a listing on the National Register cannot prevent the decline of a house that is not maintained, or ensure its future. Listing on the National Register only ensures that the future of a listed historic structure be considered if a federally funded project might negatively affect it.
The warden’s house and lot was turned over by the Department of Corrections to the Trust Land Management Division (TLMD) of the Wyoming Office of State Lands & Investments in 2013, according to Don Threewit, land management program analyst for the TLMD.
The TLMD is not really in the business of maintaining empty houses or marketing them for sale. Most of the property the agency deals with is vacant state land. In general, public trust lands are managed for potential income from leasing for energy or other products that can benefit the state’s bottom line.
“The enabling legislation did not provide any appropriation for property management, maintenance, preservation or enhancement — so there is simply no budget for such activities,” Threewit wrote in an email.
According to Threewit, the old warden’s house is one of the few properties under his department’s management that a buyer might want.
“This is the one vacant parcel that has some viable use,” he said.
But buying the old warden’s house will take nearly as much planning and daring as a prison break from the Old Pen. And it will take money.
Fearless and intrepid buyer needed
The process for selling properties managed by the TLMD is called “nomination.”
“It is a very complicated process,” Threewit said.
Anyone can nominate a property for sale by calling the TLMD and filling out the required forms — and paying a $1,000 nomination fee.
Once the application is filled out and the application fee paid, the process begins. The potential sale goes through an initial review, then a director’s review, then a detailed 20-page analysis is reviewed, and then a public hearing process is conducted before the final board decision to sell or not.
If the board agrees to sell, the nominating party must pay for an appraisal of the property and pay for the state’s advertising costs for the sale. All sales are handled by public auction. The property cannot be sold for less than the appraised value.
Individuals or companies who nominate a property do not risk losing all of the funds they have invested in the nominating process. All funds except for $250 from the application fee will be refunded to the nominating party if the property they applied for is sold at auction to someone else.
The long sale process has apparently intimidated potential buyers for the old warden’s house.
“The Department of Corrections has previously entertained offers for its disposal, but no agreement was finalized. Since taking over the management of the property, the Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI) has received two inquiries, but no nominations for sale,” Horan said in an email.
With no buyer on the horizon, would the state ever consider demolishing the house?
“I honestly can’t speculate about that,” Threewit said in an email.
Good for what?
It may seem obvious to some that the old warden’s house should be part of the Old Pen Museum.
But Museum Director Tina Hill isn’t enthusiastic about the prospects of adding another building to the 13 others the Old Pen Joint Powers Board must care for, even though she understands the house’s historic value.
“I don’t even know if we would want the structure if it were given to us. I don’t need a 14th roof,” she said.
Although the house sits on a large lot next to the biggest tourist attraction in Rawlins, no one seems to have considered what kind of business potential the house might have.
Carbon County Economic Development Director Cindy Wallace said she “hadn’t really pursued” any projects that might bring redevelopment to the site.
“There’s always potential for economic development, maybe a B&B, or office space . I know it’s going to take a lot of funding to get it fixed up,” she said.
Information from: Rawlins (Wyo.) Daily Times, http://www.rawlinstimes.com