Hallowed Hoosier Halls: New Deal Gymnasiums in Indiana

Recently I wrote about the demise of the 1940 Pine Village gym, several miles west of Lafayette – the latest to fall in a string of these useful and attractive buildings. Meant to serve the entire community for adult education and recreation as well as school activities, these buildings proved the worth of the New Deal to communities large and small. Unfortunately, appreciation for them has dwindled, which is surprising in a state that worships basketball! But these were gymnasiums, after all, even though they also served their communities as a whole in many other ways. Scores of these community buildings were constructed under New Deal auspices around Indiana, and the majority are no more.

Pine Village gym
Pine Village gym.

Back in the 1980s when I began seeking out WPA-built structures, these gymnasium/community halls were already disappearing.  This was largely the consequence of school consolidations, which started in earnest in the 1960s. Indeed, sometimes the entire community has dwindled to almost nothing. Take the case of Little York in the southern part of the state, whose WPA gym was already being used as a barn over 40 years ago, the once-adjacent school long gone. It’s still there, somewhat the worse for wear. At least it still stands as a three-dimensional document, although few people realize what it once was.

Former community center, Little York.

Not so the once-attractive stone gym at Springville in Lawrence County. While their school was gone, this small but mighty community got together thirty years ago to rehab and save the former school’s WPA gym to be used as a community center — imagine that! All was well until a fire gutted it several years ago. They have been trying to rebuild, but a GoFundMe campaign garnered little cash, so the work proceeds slowly.

Springville Community Center under reconstruction.

Not far away in the town of Oolitic, limestone center of the nation, a beautiful WPA gym addition built of its famous stone and designed by premier architects McGuire & Shook languishes, along with its school and WPA-constructed band room.

Abandoned 1938 gymnasium and classrooms, Oolitic.

Even worse is Shields Gym in the town of Seymour, which has a storied basketball history that, at the moment, seems to be the only thing keeping it standing. It remains on the Ten Most Endangered List issued by Indiana Landmarks.

Abandoned and forlorn, Shields gym in Seymour sits alone in the middle of an empty block.

Not all is gloom and doom, however.  Jeffersonville’s 1937 community building, later called Nachand Fieldhouse, never went out of use and recently was rehabbed. It adjoins a newer school and is much used by the neighborhood.

Nachand Fieldhouse in Jeffersonville.

Tiny Trafalgar’s community building, constructed in 1939, also appears to be well used. 

Community building in Trafalgar, about 30 miles south of Indianapolis.

Still, of the several WPA community buildings mentioned as examples in an article published in 1991 and subsequent lectures, only half remain today. What a waste of these handsome, useful structures!

Glory-June Greiff is a public historian based in Indianapolis. She has been researching the work of New Deal for 35 years.

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