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ArtifactsFor the 10 decades that Grizzlies have passed through UM’s historic Schreiber Gym doors, there’s been an appliance
in the basement humming all along.
Housed in the old Men’s Gymnasium, now home to UM’s ROTC cadets and the Department of Military Science, the Sirocco model fan built by American Blower Co. has been a central, albeit hidden, University fixture since 1922.
With our penchant for tradition and appreciation for things that last and the know-how to fix them, we at the Montanan think the Schreiber Sirocco fan is a special Artifact to highlight.
As campus greens for spring and another academic year turns to summer, it’s due time to salute campus’s oldest heating machine, as well as the folks who keep it running through all the brutal winters.
The American Blower Co. sign, etched in metal alongside the name Sirocco Engineering Company, sits above the giant fan in Schreiber’s cement basement as it has for about 98 years.
The dual intake fan used for venting air is backed to grid of steam radiators, powered by UM’s underground steam tunnels and protected in a squirrel cage behind a four-foot and about 200-pound steel fly wheel.
The monster steel fly wheel operates on a flat pulley system that sucks warm air, distributed in ductwork throughout the historic building, ultimately thawing the building and UM students.
The fan has performed this task since around 1924, shortly after Schreiber was designed by Helena architect George Carlsey and New York architect Cass Gilbert in 1921 and built the following year.
The enormous fan hasn’t stopped turning and providing heat to UM students for the better part of UM’s life, except for a recent repair session, thanks to Daniel Pignotti, UM machinist and self-described backyard engineer who we’re fairly sure can fix anything.
Pignotti recently was called upon to identify a clunk, clunk noise coming from the fan that suggested the antique needed attention. After diagnosing the fly wheel needed to be rebalanced with new bearings, Pignotti called old friends of UM in town to remake and balance the center piece. Like true Montanans, they helped him lift the fly wheel off, too.
“Taking three grown men to lift the wheel and service the equipment is a lot cheaper than replacing it,” Pignotti says, estimating that replacing the unit would be well over $100,000.
The cost, coupled with the task of replacing it – which Pignotti suggest is near-impossible as Schreiber Gym was most likely built around the fan itself, made the project “one of the more challenging, but interesting on campus,” he says.
Back at his machine shop on campus, Pignotti replaced the bearings, which were old babbitted heads – the same piece found in Model T cars, which Pignotti knows from his days “of taking things apart and putting them back together.” He put a new grove in the shaft and put the pieces back together.
After some careful correction and heavy lifting, Schreiber’s Sirocco “won’t ever go bad,” Pignotti says. He’s even willing to bet on it.
Pignotti led the Montanan on a brief visit to the legend machine. He turned the fan off for us, and started it back up again – sharing the magic of a nearly 100-year-old piece of industrial air equipment that still runs.
That morning, if the basement of Schreiber was a plane and the Sirocco its engine, the accelerated humming of the 1920s relic was ready to catapult us to Mars and back. We have a sneaky feeling the students above us didn’t hear a pin drop.
The experience makes one ever grateful for the good minds that made the choice to anchor Schreiber Hall with the durability that warms our students today.
It’s not lost on us that the word Sirocco, in Italian, is a term for a gentle Mediterranean breeze originating from the Sahara Desert. Siroccos often can grow to hurricane speeds ̶ gusting North Africa and Southern Europe in the summer months.
As the winds of change rustle throughout UM, Schreiber’s Sirocco may quite literally be a campus conduit for the things that matter – durability, quality and consistency – now repaired and set to produce invigorating wafts of what’s to come.