By Beccy Tanner
St. John’s century-old photo studio, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, is about to get an interior make-over.
The board at the W.R. Gray Photo Studio at 116 N. Main has created a partnership with Stafford County’s Economic Development office to help finish the building’s interior.
The building was constructed at the turn of the 20th century.
“We’ve signed an agreement with Eco-Devo to complete the restoration of the building,” said Carol Long, president of the Gray Studio Restoration Board. “Basically, it is just for that. It’s not a longtime administration agreement. It’s just to complete the building.”
Ryan Russell, executive director of Stafford Count’s Economic Development, said his office would help write grants.
“We are an administrative and fiscal sponsor,” Russell says. “So, what that means, is that we will help them find the money to do the project.”
For years, the building sat vacant and neglected until Long and others within the community began a concentrated effort in trying to save it.
That’s when it was listed on the national register and a new roof was installed. Then, the building’s exterior was painted: windows were repaired on the structure’s iconic northern skylight and, the interior was essentially taken down to the studs and beams.
Now, it is time to finish the rest of the work.
“They need help with the finishing projects,” Russell said. “And, we are going to be looking at selling some tax credits and obtaining grants.”
Long said the goal for the building will be turn a portion of the space into a residential artist apartment.
However, the bulk of space will be utilized for a classroom and special events.
“This is not some favor to Gray Studio,” Long said of the help provided by Eco-Devo.
“They are getting compensation for their work … The reason this has happened is that we need somebody to have their mind on Gray Studio all the time – somebody skilled and with connections to grant writing and organizations that build the grants,” she said.
“We needed people in the know.”
Long said that for the past decade, the members of the Gray Studio board have been working on getting the building completed.
“We want to do programs when the building is done,” she said. “The building will house a workspace for classes and maybe a place for a resident artist to work. It will have a little retail space and museum.”
The reason the photo studio is so important to Stafford County is because it documented the early families who lived in the area.
The Gray family took photos in Stafford County for 76 years.
The type of photography that the family used was glass plate photography, started in the 1850s and used up until the 1930s when Kodak’s Brownie camera and film became more accessible to most families.
William Gray moved to St. John in 1905 from Fall River. He operated the studio until his death in 1947. His daughter Jessie took over the business until her retirement in 1981.
In 1986, she donated the glass negatives to the Stafford County museum.
No one knew what they really had until Stafford County Museum curator and project director Michael Hathaway brought the 30,000 glass plate negatives up from the basement of the town’s old bank building and moved them into the museum’s library next to his office.
That was in 2004.
Gray had kept 11 ledgers dutifully noting each of the 30,000 photos.
Those business ledgers indicate his clients came from all over Kansas. Many of the photos include portrait sittings but also street scenes, crime scenes, festivals and, of course, who can’t resist a picture of oversized produce?
Now, with this new partnership, the building can be completed and it’s legacy can continue as an important landmark of Stafford County.