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!

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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