Old Chanute USO will bustle with activity again

Old Chanute USO will bustle with activity again

RANTOUL – A Rantoul building with a rich history has a new lease on life annexed to J.W. Eater Junior High School.

Workers this fall will put the finishing touches on the former Chanute Air Force Base USO, where soldiers met and danced with women from the area. The construction project includes a new entrance to the building and to Eater to improve the traffic flow. The addition also gives administrators more scheduling options.

"It gives us more space, and we'll be able to use the gym for assemblies and on days when we can't go outside for recess," said Principal Mike Penicook. "We have more storage, and we'll be able to use the lobby for concessions during ball games. ... It's a showcase."

The building that dates from 1941 sat empty for years, literally in Eater's front yard, while the village of Rantoul, which acquired it along with the former base from the federal government, decided what to do with it.

Originally built as a USO, it later served as a YMCA, as an antique mini-mall and as a gym for Youth Services International. In 2002, Rantoul City Schools Superintendent Bill Trankina asked the village to give it to the district, and the village subsequently sold the gym for $1.

"We had to demolish offices and we started that four years ago," said Trankina, who conducted a tour of Eater recently. "Then we had asbestos abatement. It cost us $125,000 to get to this point."

The entire cost of construction is about $800,000, about the same as it would cost to construct a new gym, but in addition to the rebuilt gym, the district's getting the new entrance, a large lobby connecting the two buildings, block glass windows in the main gym just inside and to the right of the new entrance and other improvements.

"Gym windows are a challenge because of balls," Trankina said. "And the kids are up to the challenge."

"With the old windows there was glare on the gym floor," said Rob Bross, who with buildings and grounds crew members Dave Bruns and Joe Fullenkamp had to complete summer maintenance work dodging construction crews and kids attending a computer camp and summer school classes.

Steve Hatfield, who's in charge of buildings and grounds, said engineers and architects were very impressed with some of the USO gym's features, most notably the maple floors and exposed wooden beams that support the ceiling.

"The engineers said they've only seen that kind of truss work in pictures," Hatfield said. "Of course, in those days wood was cheap."

He said the building's plumbing, heating, mechanical and electrical systems have all been redone.

Trankina said the stage in the building can be used for presentations and will likely be set up for daily use as a health classroom.

He said plans are to finish the construction by the end of the year so it can be opened for use early in 2007.

The project adds 10,000 square feet to the 80,000-square-foot building and opens up new and better outside land use possibilities, Trankina said.

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