By: Nick Perkins
He knew when he was a little boy that this was his dream. When Lyle Murtha, principal architect of Stateline No. 7 Architects, was a grade school student in rural South Dakota, he took a test that outlined various career choices he could pursue, based on the abilities he thought he had.
“I think I was in grade school when I took the little test you take to score your abilities and it sort of pushed me towards math and graphics,” Murtha stated. “I didn’t want to be an artist, ya know, because of that poor starving artist idea, so architecture sort of fit the bill. There was math and graphics and geometry in there too, so it all sort of made sense.”
It all made sense. He had the brain of a statistician and the hands of an artist but it was his heart, more than anything else, that led him into architecture. But Murtha, a graduate of the University of Nebraska, didn’t want to just create new, he wanted to rebuild old. That love for older, historic buildings began, again, when Murtha was a child.
“I grew up in kind of a historic house on a farm in South Dakota and all through my education I was going to school in these older buildings,” Murtha started. “We didn’t have new school buildings. And then when I went to college, I was housed in this old, historic architecture hall on their campus. So, I always had an appreciation.”
“A lot of these buildings were rehashed over the years to become newer, they weren’t just old buildings. I always had an appreciation for the older buildings.”
It is that appreciation that was always in the back of Murtha’s mind while he further developed his craft. He worked for various firms back in his home state of South Dakota, before moving to Casper more than two decades ago. One of the first things he did when he hit town, he said, was to document all of the historic architecture across the city and especially in the Old Yellowstone District.
“When I first moved to town, some twenty-five years ago, I went around taking pictures of all the cool, old buildings around town,” Murtha said. “Today, none of them are here. They tore them all down and, in most cases, for nothing more than a vacant lot. I’m like, ‘Oh my God this is horrible.’”
“What are we doing? We’re ripping up our downtown so we can pave it like it’s a Walmart parking lot and that’s not what downtowns are about.”
Murtha vowed to himself that, when he was able, he would change that. He designed a variety of projects in Casper, including, but not limited to: FireRock Steakhouse, Wyoms, both Jonah Banks, the Park Ridge Professional building, Wyoming Machinery Company and more. Long story short, dude was busy. But his passion for history never waivered and when a former colleague mentioned that he was interested in being the contractor for a loft-living style building, Murtha knew just the building.
“The same contractor I worked with [in Rapid City] liked the idea [of loft living] and wanted to do it for himself, so when the county annex building came up for sale, I called him up and said ‘Hey, here’s your opportunity, are you in?”
“That became the Hotel Virginia and we introduced loft lifting on a multi-unit scale.”
After restoring that building, Murtha turned his sights towards the Old Yellowstone district. He purchased the now-named T Square building in 2011 and set about restoring a piece of history.
Murtha said the T Square building was “originally a warehouse named the Chicago Northwestern Rail Yard and it stretched from Bloedorn Lumber down to the Nic.”
The building occupied a lot of space and housed a lot of different renters in its 100-year existence. It played host to Party Animals and Two-Tymers, among others. But when Murtha bought it in 2011, he saw so much more potential. He turned that building into a 6,500 square feet office/living area, with an additional 12,300 square feet left unfinished for future developments. Stateline finished this first phase of the project in 2014, acting as their own general contractor in a lot of instances, and it is now something that truly needs to be seen to be believed.
Per their portfolio, “The T Square building embodies the delicate balance between historic preservation and sustainability in this downtown turn-of-the-century railroad warehouse style building. The clear distinction between new and old highlights and pays respect to the historic structure while serving the contemporary uses.”
“The one thing about renovating an older building like this is that in some ways, it’s easier and in some ways it’s more difficult,” Murtha said. “A lot of them already have the character- the architecture is already there. The building shell and the structure, the bones of the building, etc. So you really have to set your ego aside and play to what is already there.”
“When you do a renovation to an existing building, at least in my opinion, if you’re doing it right, you should respect what’s there.”
And, really, that is what it’s all about for Murtha and his team at Stateline No. 7 Architects. Respect. They respect the history of downtown Casper. They respect the culture. They respect the work it takes to create a downtown that people actually want to be a part of.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to buy this particular building (it was way more work than I thought it would be), but because it was on a prominent corner, I knew it would sort of be an advertisement for this type of work,” Murtha said.
It was, and many other businesses wanted to follow suit. Art 321 was designed by Murtha with the same aesthetics of T Square in mind- very industrial with exposed duct work exposed conduit,old-school lighting fixtures and more. With other architects and contractors seemingly taking a page out of Murtha’s book, it quickly became evident that downtown Casper was going to be transformed and everybody, it seemed, wanted to be a part of history.
“Other firms came along too,” Murtha said. “And we helped them realize that you really should just leave well enough alone and, yeah, you have to put in new lighting and you have to replace windows and things like that, but do it in a way that respects the building.”
“It’s not just about renovating the building,” Murtha continued. “It’s about the greater community and we got into revitalizing downtown buildings because a lot of these older buildings are in the older, downtown part of town. So then we started evolving into other projects- not necessarily renovation projects but new construction in downtown.”
That new construction in downtown transformed into the David Street Station, a huge plaza right in the heart of The District. “It sort of ties into the [idea] of bringing people back to downtown,” Murtha admitted.
With the renovation of older buildings and the creation of new ones, downtown Casper is thriving. The addition of various bars and restaurants and shops to The District has made it a destination for community members.
And perhaps this was Murtha’s goal all along. When he came to Casper 25 years ago, he wanted to live in a community that not only respected the history of its buildings, but also one that wanted a different kind of culture.
“Denver and other cities have always focused on their downtown and I think Casperites, in my mind, have always strived for that cultural fix of having an art museum and things downtown and now we can keep our money here; we can keep our people here on weekends instead of sending them to Colorado,” he said. “People understand. They don’t like what it used to be and they’re digging what’s happening and they’re coming down, they’re supporting it. They’re spending their money and they’re spending their time. People are coming. It’s working.”
The saying went, “If you build it, they will come” and that’s exactly what happened. Murtha and a host of others have committed to turning downtown Casper into a thriving community, with respect for the past and eyes on the future.
So what does the future hold for Murtha? What would he like to see in The District?
“We need downtown living,” he said. “We need somebody to come into the Old Yellowstone District and build some downtown living units.”
Downtown living is something Murtha is no stranger to, as the T Square building serves as both his office and his home.
“It’s cool to live downtown. It’s a trend that I think the younger generation gets, but not so much the older generation. They’re still tied to living in the suburbs and wanting to mow the lawn, for whatever reason.”
Specifically, Murtha has his eyes on another building that he hopes will be his to one day design, pending legislation funding.
“Your favorite project should always be your next project,” Murtha said. “Our next project, hopefully, will be the Casper State Office Building.”
With his eyes on the future and his thoughts in the present, Murtha said he is proud to be a part of a growing downtown district. Revitalizing historic buildings, using his talents to preserve stories and helping to draw communities closer together has been his dream since he was a little boy. He couldn’t have know then that he would literally help rebuild an entire district. Back then, he was just a little boy with a pencil and a dream.
The rest, as they say, is history.