On My Way to Somewhere Else: A WPA-Built Community Center in Little York, Indiana

The WPA-built community center in Little York
(Courtesy: Glory-June Greiff)

Recently I was in the middle of documenting CCC structures in southern Indiana state forests (more on that in future posts), when I found myself on the old state highway that runs through Little York, a hamlet of fewer than 200 people. The population was about the same in 1935 when the WPA constructed a frame community center for $1907.50 on property adjacent to the school, which is now gone.

Back in the early 1980s I documented this building, part of my yearlong statewide project searching for surviving WPA structures, particularly those having to do with recreation. By that time it was being used for grain and equipment storage and had a huge opening cut into the front of it, which had completely destroyed the original entrance. Then it had a fairly fresh coat of white paint. I would venture a guess that it has not been painted since, and scrubby trees have since grown up in front of the entrance. Animal pens, some occupied, partly surround the building, which is fenced and posted “No Trespassing.” Given the town’s malaise and the fate (demolition) of so many of these New Deal community centers, I was surprised to see that it was still standing at all.
Recreational facilities were among the most prolific projects of the WPA, in keeping with social trends of the time. “Recreation is generally recognized as an efficient tool to combat the demoralizing effects of the Depression. . .  Subsistence alone . . . is not enough,” a WPA administrator affirmed in 1935. Indiana boasted scores of these New Deal-built structures. WPA workers converted any number of abandoned buildings into community centers, or they built new multi-purpose structures, often added to a school so as to benefit the most people with one building. During school hours, it was used for the students. But after school, people could play indoor sports, participate in amateur theatricals and concerts, or attend adult and after-school classes. The entire town likely could fit inside this once-fine community building, which, miraculously, still stands, the townsfolk oblivious to its proud history.

PWA Gem in Indianapolis Rescued

The school is slated to be transformed into an apartment building.© 2015, Gray Brechin, All Rights Reserved.

Good news at last! The abandoned James E. Roberts School for Crippled Children in Indianapolis, frequently listed as one of the state’s Ten Most Endangered and long threatened with demolition by the Indianapolis Public School (IPS) system, is to be rehabilitated and remodeled into thirty apartments. The developers vow to preserve the surviving Art Moderne features of the building, which was designed by premier Indianapolis architects McGuire and Shook, although it is likely some of the unique features of the interior will have to be removed. McGuire and Shook, incidentally, designed numerous PWA-funded institutional buildings around the state, including structures at all the state mental hospitals and the Muscatatuck Colony for the Feeble-Minded. (The state did not concern itself with politically correct phrasing in the 1930s.)

Filled with all the latest equipment, such as a hydrotherapy pool, a sundeck, and of course, ramps and elevators, the gleaming new school opened to great fanfare in 1936 on a near-eastside campus that featured a technical high school rehabbed from a former U.S. arsenal and a Fresh Air School, a Craftsman gem built in 1912 and demolished in the 90’s.

Interior of the school.© 2015, Gray Brechin, All Rights Reserved.

Its origins lay in the School for Crippled Children established in 1925 in an old school building that had recently been replaced. A survey undertaken the previous year had indicated a need for a special educational facility for physically handicapped children, a fact borne out by the remodeled building, even with two additional rooms in the adjacent new School 5, soon proving inadequate. But the Depression prevented the construction of a new building until the New Deal came to the rescue in the form of a Public Works Administration (PWA) grant of $98,000, along with a large bequest from Henrietta West Roberts, widow of James E. Roberts, for whom the school was named in 1934. At his death in 1922, Roberts had left nearly a million dollars to the Indianapolis Foundation to fund various projects to aid the physically disabled. His wife, who died in 1933, left $65,000 toward the construction of a new school dedicated to educating physically disabled children. When the new building opened in October 1936, 180 pupils who had been shoehorned into the old facility moved in. The structure contained all the accoutrements of a regular school building, but also additional rooms for occupational therapy, physical therapy, home economics, industrial arts, and a “rhythm room.”

The James E. Roberts School No. 97 served disabled students for fifty years. Policy changes dictated that students of the school be mainstreamed in 1986, but the building reopened as an IPS Key School (an alternative form of education) and later was occupied by the Horizon Middle School until 2006, at which time IPS announced plans to demolish the building. Complicated legal restrictions required that buildings on the campus must be used for education, and IPS saw no such use in the historic school’s future. With considerable help from Indiana Landmarks over considerable time, a non-educational reuse through a long-term lease was deemed acceptable. Revenue from the lease will help support IPS, thus meeting the original legal requirement. And another New Deal building is saved!

A Quintessential CCC Picnic Grove

The Hominy Ridge shelterhouse, © 2016 Glory-June Greiff, All Rights Reserved

The Hominy Ridge shelter house, repaired and restored. © 2016 Glory-June Greiff, All Rights Reserved.

In the early 1990s I was approached by an older gentleman named Euclid Dearing, a veteran of the CCC in Indiana, to write a National Register nomination for the Hominy Ridge shelterhouse in Salamonie River State Forest. He was a member of Company 589, which had originated at McCormick’s Creek State Park. After completing a number of projects there, in 1935 the company was assigned to a new camp in the northeastern part of the state in what was to become a state forest.

The majority of Indiana’s state forests were developed in the 1930s by the CCC, often from played-out farms or on terrain too difficult for agriculture (although that did not stop people from trying). Salamonie was no exception. The mission of the state forests differed from that of the state parks. State forests were intended as tree reserves, plantations, and places for silviculture experimentation. However, as the trees were going to be there for awhile, the Department of Conservation added a secondary recreational mission and oversaw the building of picnic groves and shelters in portions of the forests.
Typical of these in Indiana, the Hominy Ridge shelterhouse sits amidst an oak grove surrounded by stone-and-timber picnic tables. When I wrote the nomination, a pump with a stone base was still present; today there is only a remnant, along with the stone foundations of the pit toilets that were removed decades ago. Still, the site, high above the Wabash River, is largely intact and lies adjacent to a dam built by the CCC that impounds an 11-acre lake. The shelterhouse boasts two huge stone fireplaces that face inward; on their opposite sides are stone grills that serve the five-sided porches at each end. The building’s footprint is an elongated octagon. There are a few other CCC-built shelters of this interesting style, all in state forests or on properties that had been state forests.
Arsonists burned the Hominy Ridge shelterhouse in the early 2000s, but the Indiana Department of Natural Resources opted to restore it–rather than simply build anew, as had been more their style in the past–and they did a fine job. In the past two decades, DNR has come to realize and celebrate its New Deal resources.

Indiana’s First CCC Museum

The ribbon cutting was also a celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Indiana State Parks.

CCC veteran Otis Stahl and Glory-June Greiff at the museum opening on July 31, 2016.
The ribbon cutting was also a celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Indiana State Parks.
Photo Credit: Eric Grayson

Thirteen of Indiana’s 24 current state parks were developed or improved by New Deal agencies. Pokagon State Park, in the lake-filled glacial moraine of the far northeast corner of the state near Angola, is the only one listed virtually in its entirety in the National Register of Historic Places.

For years Pokagon has gone all out to celebrate its Civilian Conservation Corps heritage, with good reason. It had the longest continuous CCC presence of any of Indiana’s parks. Company 556, initially formed in the fall of 1933 to do several projects at Indiana Dunes State Park on Lake Michigan, established Camp SP-7 at Pokagon the following year. The ambitious development program for Pokagon included reforestation, landscaping, road building, and construction of numerous outdoor recreational facilities. The CCC boys hewed local timber and split native glacial stone to construct buildings that harmonized especially well with the local environment, following the guidelines created by the National Park Service for state parks.

The former gatehouse was built by the CCC using native materials.

Pokagon Historic Gatehouse Pocket Museum
The former gatehouse was built by the CCC using native materials.
Photo Credit: Glory-June Greiff

Nearly all the park’s present landscaping and buildings–the saddle barn, shelterhouses, much of the group camp, the beach and bathhouse, overnight cabins, and the old gatehouse–are the work of the CCC, which remained in the park until January 1942.

Veterans of Company 556 began an annual reunion at Pokagon in 1953, always the last Sunday of July. This year, not only was the 63rd annual reunion held, but also the dedication of the CCC Gatehouse Pocket Museum, housed in the former gatehouse standing at the north side of the entrance. Styled, typically, like a tiny English cottage, it is built of brick and glacial stone trim with a massive fireplace chimney.

Woodcock served as a stonemason in the park. His dream was to establish a CCC museum at Pokagon.

Museum display honoring the late Roger Woodcock.
Woodcock served as a stonemason in the park. His dream was to establish a CCC museum at Pokagon.
Photo Credit: Glory-June Greiff

“Pocket museum” is an accurate term; essentially it is no more than a single exhibit celebrating the work of the CCC here and in other of Indiana’s parks, a wonderful reuse for the old but charming gatehouse that stood idle all these years. The majority of the artifacts on display are those of one man, Roger Woodcock, who died in 2007. Roger was the man behind the annual reunions, the man who funded the National Register nomination for the park’s two-story shelterhouse and, later, who partly funded the nomination for the entire park. His story, which I recorded more than 25 years ago, is archived at the Indiana Historical Society. A photograph of Roger, nearly life-size, watches over the exhibits with pride.