School to spend millions to rehab nautically themed armory

June 18, 2016
Herron officials said they hope to preserve many of the building’s unique nautical elements. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

One of Indianapolis’ most unique historic structures, a naval armory vacant since early last year, soon will be bustling again—this time with high school students.

Herron High School is forging ahead with plans to open a campus in the armory and is launching a $7.5 million capital campaign to fund renovations.

The college preparatory charter school received approval June 9 to rezone the 4.6-acre site on the White River at West 30th Street and hopes to welcome its first freshman class in the fall of 2017.

Riverside High School would start with 200 freshmen—twice the size of Herron’s first class in 2006—to ease a waiting list at Herron that is approaching 500 students.

The high demand to enroll at the high school occupying the former Herron School of Art & Design building on East 16th Street is mostly driven by a rigid core curriculum of math, science, social studies, English and Latin. It’s responsible for a graduation rate of 98 percent and a senior class this year that earned $16 million in scholarships.rop-armorymap-602016.jpg

Herron’s leadership began searching three years ago for a site to start another school and jumped at the Heslar Naval Armory when it became available.

The boiler will need to be replaced, and interior office walls demolished to accommodate more classrooms. But much of the building will remain intact. Construction is expected to start this fall.

“There are some significant changes that will need to be made, but we will preserve as much as possible the history of the building,” said Janet McNeal, Herron’s head of school.

Completed in 1938 for $550,000, the armory is a west-side landmark standing at attention on the east bank of the White River. It originally was known as the Indianapolis Naval Reserve Armory but was renamed in 1964 for Capt. O.F. Heslar, the armory’s first commanding officer.

The building has been vacant since the departure of Navy and Marine Corps reserve units in early 2015. The city inherited the site after the state found no interest in the property from its agencies.

McNeal McNeal

In October, the Indianapolis Department of Public Works voted to put the armory under the control of Indiana Landmarks to preserve the property. The not-for-profit either will give the building to Herron or sell it at a nominal price, said Marsh Davis, Indiana Landmarks president.

“It’s a very distinctive building,” he said. “The fact that it has this nautical architectural theme makes it even more interesting. It gives a bit of whimsy to it.”

The nautical theme is evident throughout the four-story building. It was designed by Indianapolis architects Ben H. Bacon and John P. Parrish, who also designed a historic armory in Michigan City.rop-armoryfactbox-602016.jpg

Inside the front doors, visitors are greeted by a “welcome aboard” sign and a depiction of an anchor set in the concrete floor. The doors to the classrooms, where radio operators trained for sea duty during World War II, sport portholes to mimic a ship.

The classrooms, double gym and mess hall helped convince Herron officials the building could be converted for academics.

“It’s a very natural attraction for a school because part of its original use was for training, so it’s conducive to classrooms,” said developer John Watson, a Herron board member who owns Core Development.

Watson’s expertise in refurbishing historic structures, such as converting the old Bush Stadium into the Stadium Loftsapartments, should be beneficial to Herron when it applies for federal new market and historic tax credits to help fund renovations.

One of the most iconic features of the armory is the two-story concrete room that resembles the inside of a submarine, complete with a ladder stretching to the heavy steel latch that closes above. Training involved repairing a blast hole in the side of the wall while the room filled with water. While the room serves little purpose for a high school, Herron nonetheless will maintain it to preserve its historic significance, McNeal said.

Handrails for the stairs leading to the upper floors are encased in rope. The double gym will be used by basketball and volleyball teams from Herron and Riverside. Herron lacks its own gym, leaving the school to forage for availability throughout the city.

The mess hall on the third floor will become the school’s cafeteria. The adjacent bar, whose woodwork and decorative glass still capture the original era, will be converted to a coffee bar—not a teacher’s lounge, as has been jokingly suggested.

Other unique elements: four 12-foot-by-15-foot murals depicting famous naval battles and events.

Davis Davis

During World War II, the armory served as a top-secret site for developing Navy strategy in the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns. Some believe elements of the D-Day invasion and the war-ending bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were charted at the armory, though McNeal said she’s been unable to confirm that.

The building features art moderne architecture, with curved corners, smooth surfaces, and parallel lines to create a streamlined look sugesting speed and movement.

The armory is listed as a contributing property to the Indianapolis Park and Boulevard System, along with several other sites and buildings. The buildings together form a historic district that has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003.

“It’s probably one of the most significant buildings of that art-deco style,” Davis of Indiana Landmarks said. “It’s built to last.”

Herron on June 23 will host a tour of the armory. The school is not accepting enrollment applications yet. Enrollment is on a first-come, first-served basis.•


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