CODY - After years of planning and five months of construction, the first phase of an interpretive learning center at the site of a former internment camp near Heart Mountain is nearing completion, incorporating a design that evokes two barracks from the original camp.

It took only two months in the summer of 1942 for workers to build hundreds of barracks that would hold 11,000 Japanese-Americans until the fall of 1945.

And with only a handful of original buildings and a lone chimney still standing on the site, backers of the new center hope to re-create for visitors the gritty details of camp life.

"This is history - it's a big deal. I'm just so proud and pumped about being part of it, and it's going to mean so much to a lot of people," said Allen Rapacz, president of Schutz Foss Architects, with offices in Billings and Gillette, Wyo.

Construction began in August and should be complete sometime next month, he said, adding that initial funding has covered building the exterior of the center's main structure, with the interior and an additional adjacent section to be completed later.

The center is about 12 miles northeast of Cody on Highway 14A, sitting adjacent to the original site on a 50-acre tract owned by the nonprofit Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, the project's developer.

Rapacz said the center's design will closely mirror that of the original barracks, with windows of the same size and in the same locations, and using materials that resemble the crude, simple construction from 1942.

"We're trying to replicate what it looked like then, but using modern materials," Rapacz said.

Sections of the center's interior will re-create barracks rooms, showing the spartan and primitive conditions under which internees lived, he said.

"We will actually re-create exactly what that was like, with wood siding on the inside, and just one single light bulb in the room," Rapacz said, adding that former internees and their families will provide some original furnishings.

He said designers measured and documented a former barracks building that had been moved near Cody, and have used that structure as a reference.

Rapacz said that Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation President Dave Reetz and others offered solid direction on the design based on input from former internees and local residents, and that the center will convey a strong sense of what camp life was like.

Rapacz said he has struggled to convey to visitors the scale of the sprawling community, which is now largely open farmland dotted with a few houses and other buildings.

One method might include erecting a large glass pane with a photo of the hundreds of original barracks etched onto the surface, Rapacz said.

Visitors could stand at a marked spot and look through the glass, seeing a depiction of how far the buildings, fences and guard towers stretched, much as they would have appeared more than six decades ago.

Reetz said the foundation has raised nearly half of the project's $5.5 million budget, including a recently announced gift from the Kresge Foundation, a $3.5 billion, Michigan-based charity that supports community nonprofit groups nationwide.

The Kresge Foundation donated $150,000 to the project and has pledged an additional $750,000 to be paid when it nears completion.

"We are grateful to the Kresge Foundation and all of our donors for recognizing the importance of an on-site interpretive learning center as a valuable learning resource," Reetz said.

He said the group has raised more than $2.5 million toward the 11,000-square-foot center, including recent gifts of $100,000 from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, $25,000 from the UPS Foundation and $150,000 from The Atlantic Philanthropies.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded a $500,000 grant to the project, and individuals and families have also made significant contributions, he said.

Additional federal matching funds are likely to be made available under a program designed to preserve and memorialize 10 internment sites across the country.

That funding has been approved, but not yet allocated, and is expected to eventually be distributed in blocks of up to about $3 million for each site, based on criteria established by the National Park Service.

The Heart Mountain project, widely considered to be among the front-runners for initial federal matching funds, has been designed from the start with an eye toward meeting Park Service interpretive guidelines.

Backers of the project have said they might someday support an effort to have the site adopted as a unit of the National Park Service.

NPS Regional Director Mike Snyder said during a September 2007 visit to Cody that the site was a good candidate for adoption, praising the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation for its work.

A section of the center will be named in honor of former internee and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and retired Sen. Alan K. Simpson, Reetz said, adding that both have been instrumental in supporting the project.

"The Mineta/Simpson Friendship Hall will recognize their unique and long-standing relationship, which has come to symbolize the enduring bond between the former internees and their Wyoming friends," Reetz said.

Simpson and Mineta met nearly 65 years ago during a Boy Scout gathering near Heart Mountain, and eventually served together in the U.S. Congress.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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