From time to time, the Thermopolis Chamber of Commerce fields complaints about a particular building downtown that displays an almost universally recognized icon that’s thousands of years old, but harbors an infamous 20th century stigma.
The swastika, or “whirling log” icon, is depicted in brickwork on the face of the building at 509 Broadway in Thermopolis.
But Meri Ann Rush, executive director of the Thermopolis Chamber of Commerce, points out that the symbol is one of peace, not war, bigotry and oppression.
“We’ve had tourists that have come into the chamber that are irate that our community stands for the swastika,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “But a lot of people do not understand, or aren’t educated to know, that it’s a symbol that’s been around since ancient times and stands for prosperity and good luck.”
Contrary to the negative emotions the symbol elicits from many today, the building was intended to be a center for justice in the Thermopolis rather than a symbol of authoritarian rule and divisiveness. In fact, owner Robin Kruse said the building was at one time christened “Liberty Hall.”
“Originally, the courthouse was upstairs,” said Kruse. “So the upstairs is built with the courthouse and the judge’s chambers, and the post office was downstairs.”
She also said there was a hardware store in the middle of the ground floor, as well as a ladies wear apparel store.
Brickwork Pre-Dates World War II
The building was constructed by Charlie Smith in 1915, as near as folks can tell. In the late 1970s, a fire consumed the building next door and damaged most of the records in what was then the town’s courthouse.
“Back in the ’70s, there was a fire next door, and those buildings burned down,” said Kruse. “And so when they burned down, they took out the utilities upstairs for almost the whole block, and that’s when the use of that upstairs was lost.”
The swastika is a symbol of divinity and spirituality in many religions, including Native American, Hinduism and Buddhism. The word comes from Sanskrit, meaning “conducive to well-being.” The symbol takes the form of a cross, the arms of which are of equal length and perpendicular to the adjacent arms, each bent midway at a right angle.
The swastika was then adopted by and used to inspire the citizens of Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s. Then, it also became a symbol of fear, hatred and evil, as Hitler’s army marched into neighboring countries and his henchmen exterminated millions of Jews and others they deemed lesser than themselves.
Kruse said that every so often, someone – usually from out of town – will ask about the swastikas near the top of the building.
“I just explain that, unlike the Nazi symbol, which was on the diamond and it all rolled the same way, this one is on the square and it flips,” she said. “They all don’t roll the same way.”
Kruse said locals, on the whole, are very protective of the building.
“They know that it was built way before the Nazis ever appropriated that symbol and used it,” she said.
In fact, Kruse said that she attended a college class several years ago and surveyed Thermopolis residents about the building as a class project.
“I asked them how they felt about it and if they thought there needed to be something done,” she said. “And the locals were like, ‘Hey, is somebody telling you to tear this down? Or is somebody wanting you to cover it up?’ They were ready to go to battle.
“it’s just a process of trying to educate people that, yes, in World War II it was not a great symbol, but prior to that it had a lot of great meanings.”
Building For Sale
Kruse said that when she and her husband bought the building in 2004, they had big plans.
“The upstairs is pretty cool and would make a really nice loft or something,” she said. “That was kind of my dream, but unfortunately that never happened.”
The Kruses ran a thrift store out of the downstairs for several years, which they called Four Winds Trading Post. The couple bought the building next door, creating a living space for themselves and worked on the renovation of that building as well, and then Robin chose to go to nursing school, which took her focus off the remodel.
“I became a nurse and eventually my husband went back into construction,” she said. “And so we are in Worland now.”
Kruse said the building is for sale, and she hopes that someone who has a big vision will purchase the distinctive and historic property.
“You know how everything is popular now where you live and work in these downtown areas, it would be the perfect thing for that,” she proposed. “That upstairs could even be made into two apartments, it’s so big.”