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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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.