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Naval Armory Conversion Wins State’s Top Restoration Prize

INDIANAPOLIS, IN — For putting new wind in the sails of the Riverside neighborhood’s Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis Classical Schools has won Indiana Landmarks’ 2020 Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration.

Built in the 1930s by Works Progress Administration workers as a training site for U.S. Navy recruits, the nautically-themed building faced an uncertain future until its transformation into Riverside High School. Indiana Landmarks, a private nonprofit organization that saves historic places, awarded the 2020 Cook Cup to Indianapolis Classical Schools at its annual Rescue Party in Indianapolis.

Most recently used as a Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Center, the National Register-listed building sat empty for four years after the Naval Reserve left in 2014. Designed by architects Ben Bacon and John Parrish with nautical features including a navigation bridge with signal hoists, magazine, boiler room, radio communication room, ship’s ladder, and galley, the four-story building prepared countless sailors and marines over the decades. During World War II, radio operators and yeomen received training there, although the building’s middle-of-the-country location on a non-navigable river fed rumors that it also hosted top-secret meetings to draw up plans for important battles.

When state officials could not find a use for the decommissioned Art Moderne structure, they transferred ownership to the City of Indianapolis, which also struggled to find a viable purpose for the facility. Indianapolis Classical Schools, on the other hand, saw the building as the perfect site for a high school, especially since its existing institution — Herron High School, a charter school offering a classical, liberal arts education in the original Indianapolis Museum of Art building downtown — had a long wait list for admission.

To give Indianapolis Classical Schools time to raise money for the armory’s adaptation, Indiana Landmarks petitioned the city for ownership of the building. Once funds were raised, Indianapolis Classical Schools purchased the building from Landmarks and launched a $10-million restoration.

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Hired to return the building to its original vision, RATIO Architects and Brandt Construction found ways to repurpose some spaces and maintain others’ original purposes: The drill hall was converted into a gymnasium, the mess hall became the cafeteria, and classrooms and offices retain their roles. The restoration team’s work revealed tall ceilings, terrazzo floors, and other original details.

Some of the unique architectural elements that have been restored include porthole windows, stairwell handrails wrapped in rope, lighting with anchor sconces, and WPA-era murals depicting Naval battles.

The community quickly embraced the new school, which opened as the Riverside neighborhood’s first community high school in decades. Students come from dozens of area middle schools. In the fall of 2020, Riverside will enroll its fourth freshman class, bringing the student body to around 600.

“To be able to offer a classical college prep education to a community that really has been deprived of a quality school is just amazing,” said Indianapolis Classical Schools President Janet McNeal. “I truly appreciate an award such as this to lift us up, to say, ‘Look what you’re doing in this building that has so much history.’”

In addition to establishing a new school in the armory, Indianapolis Classical Schools is also working to re-establish the building as a community anchor, hosting reunions for military groups and an annual Pearl Harbor Remembrance event. Basketball teams from nearby Marian University and a local league practice in the gym, and students take P.E. classes across the street in Riverside Park. The school welcomes the community inside its walls for community tours, neighborhood coffees, and small meetings and seminars.

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“Great buildings are great community assets, and the Indianapolis Naval Armory is a perfect example,” said Indiana Landmarks President Marsh Davis. “This restoration project demonstrates once again our belief that preserving a historic building isn’t just about saving a structure. It’s about giving a historic place renewed purpose within its community.”

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