Charter school reviving 1930s naval armory in Indianapolis
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When it was decommissioned in 2015, the near northwest side wasn’t sure what would become of the Heslar Naval Armory.
The large white building perched on the edge of the White River at 30th Street could have become a blight on the area – another abandoned building. Instead, a high school is breathing new life into the building, restoring it to the building’s original purpose: education.
“It’s origin is as a learning facility,” said Katie Dorsey, principal at Riverside High School. “It was a training facility that had classroom space and a gym space and very much had the vibe of a school.”
Not only is Riverside restoring the building to its original purpose, it’s also preserving many of the building’s unique touches – from the compass inlaid on the floor to the submarine training room.
Riverside is the second charter high school run by Indianapolis Classic Schools, which originated with the popular Herron High School. Its founding class spent last school year in a nearby church while renovation at the armory was underway.
Because the building had been used for educational purposes, Dorsey said most of the work was behind the scenes. Many of the spaces just got a deep clean, she said.
“One of the most humbling parts of working in this job at this school is to do it in this building because our students are learning about events from throughout history in a building that played its own significant role in history,” Dorsey said.
Construction on the armory started in 1936 as a WPA project. The Works Progress Administration (later the Works Projects Administration) was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal plan to put Americans back to work through public works projects.
The armory was completed in 1938. Not only did it put Indianapolis residents back to work on its construction; it even included mural projects that gave work to local artists. Museum-quality murals of historic sea battles are still on display on the walls around the gym, Dorsey said.
“Then World War II happened,” Dorsey said. “Right after it opened it became a really significant training facility for servicemen who came here for a short time, then immediately went overseas.
“They lost their lives, sacrificed greatly. For that reason, it became a really important location for a lot of Indiana families.”
Dorsey said she’s even been told that its location away from the coasts made the building an attractive location for some high-level talks during the war. Eventually, she hopes Riverside students will have the chance to go to Washington, D.C., and dig into the history of their school building.
“For our students to learn U.S. history in this space is just amazing,” she said.
The uniqueness is also helping attract students to the new school. The first two classes have about 140 students each, which Dorsey said is right on target for ideal class sizes. Right now, it’s not occupying the whole building, but they’ll add a class each year until all four grades are full, and all five floors – including the basement – are in use.
Sophomore Lissania Perez, one of the school’s founding students, said it’s been exciting to finally be in their permanent home. She’s regularly called on to give tours to visitors.
“Most people,” she said, “when they’re looking around on the tour, you just look at their reactions and it’s a good feeling because they’re like in awe.”