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There is no shortage of abandoned schools in Gary, Indiana; the declining population over the decades has left the school district scrambling to close and reorganize schools. Annually decreasing budgets complicate attempts to maintain or repair the crumbling structures.

The Emerson School was Gary’s first high school, built in 1909. It was the proud work of a confident new superintendent and would be at the forefront of racial integration decades later. When depopulation starved the school of students in the early 1980s, the district re-organized Emerson into a Visual & Performing Arts magnet school to keep it open.

The school would last another quarter-century before mother nature would close it in 2008, one year shy of its 100th birthday.

cover photo courtesy the Idiot Photographer

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The Ralph Waldo Emerson School

William-Wirt
William Wirt

When William A. Wirt became the superintendent of the Gary school system in 1907, it offered him an opportunity to employ his concepts under the Gary Plan.

Wirt expanded the school curriculum by adding music classes, physical activities, science labs, art classes, and recreation. He lengthened the school day, initiated teacher hiring standards, and even played a part in designing the schools.

Jefferson was the first school of Gary, opened in 1907. The school was housed in a 3-story building and built by the Gary Land Company, but it did not fit Wirt’s ideal.

Plans were quickly drawn for a second school to be built in Gary, one that would be better equipped to employ Wirt’s new education system.

St. Louis architect William Ittner was commissioned to design the school. Wirt’s requirements called for thirty classrooms, seven laboratories, separate band and orchestra rooms, art studios, and rooms for industrial and household arts. Ground-breaking began soon after.

Ralph Waldo Emerson School, 1909
Ralph Waldo Emerson School, 1909

In September of 1909 the Ralph Waldo Emerson School opened in Gary. It was Wirt’s masterstroke, a grand structure which featured all the latest amenities. Emerson was the first high school in Gary and was very avant-garde, even incorporating a student-run bank and a zoo.

Map it!

The new learning center was the first school to have an indoor swimming pool, and combined with the double-deck gym with upstairs running track, they were among the most advanced of their kind in the world.

Top: Emerson postcards 1910, 1914, 1946. Bottom: Emerson Pool, 1910

Emerson-School-pool-1910*

Work-Study-Play

Emerson-School-exterior-3The Emerson school was the flagship learning institution for Gary superintendent William Wirt, who would later be considered an innovator of education.

Wirt used the Ralph Waldo Emerson School to be the first to employ his revolutionary new Work-Study-Play system of education.

Work-Study-Play called for students to be separated into two platoons, the first utilizing academic facilities while the second used the non-academic facilities (gym, workshop, auditorium, and track).

Emerson-School-1913
Ralph Waldo Emerson School, 1913

The constant movement would be efficient in keeping all facilities in use at all times, thus reducing cost – and it was thought the continuous change would stimulate student creativity.

Emerson-School-exterior-2These concepts, which might seem straightforward today, were revolutionary to education 100 years ago.

The Work-Study-Play concept would sweep across the United States, which was largely still utilizing the old schoolhouse method of learning at the time.

The method was controversial for its time, but it would eventually earn Wirt international fame in the 1920s.

Even in present day, schools around the world still employ concepts from Wirt’s original platoon-style system of Work-Study-Play.

Emerson-School-memorial *

Integration Attempts & Failures

Emerson-School-classroom-pianoEmerson was originally a white school, but overcrowding in 1920s Gary saw the introduction of black students to white schools.

To alleviate crowding issues, superintendent Wirt approved the transfer of black students to select white schools in Gary.

Six black students would attend Emerson in 1926, and another eighteen were allowed to attend in 1927. Many in the white community did not stand for it, and large numbers of students staged a walk-out which eventually grew into a strike.

Emerson-School-classroom-2Over 1,300 students, parents, and other protesters stood in front of Emerson School, refusing to go back inside or disperse until the school was returned to “all-white” status.

With the standoff, Wirt was forced to act.

He agreed to establish another school for black students and transferred black Emerson students to then-new Theodore Roosevelt High School.

Ralph Waldo Emerson School, 1935
Ralph Waldo Emerson School, 1935

Pressure to de-segregate Emerson would return in 1945 but the white students would march out in protest once again.

Emerson-School-desksThe cultural clash in Gary was large enough to even draw the attention of Frank Sinatra, who came to the Gary Memorial Auditorium as part of a benefit to ease area tensions.

Frank used his podium to speak of acceptance and equality but his calls fell on deaf ears as most of the crowd were there to see Ol’ Blue Eyes and had no interest in the protest.

By 1948, change in Gary leadership had finally brought the walls of integration in Emerson down.

Emerson-School-classroom
courtesy the idiot photographer

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Re-organization: Visual and Performing Arts Center

Emerson-School-LibraryThe Emerson School flourished for decades, but it experienced a steady decline in enrollment with the shrinking tax base of Gary.

By 1981 enrollment was so low the district was forced to transition the facility. A magnet school for the arts would draw additional subsidies to the beleaguered school district, so the financial decision for the board wasn’t difficult.

Emerson closed as a high school in 1981. It would re-open as a magnet school for the arts a year later with 120 students from grades 5 through 7. Over the years Emerson would expand its enrollment until it eventually included grades 6 through 12.

Emerson-School-appleOne catch: the magnet program meant no more athletics for Emerson. But what the school lost in sports, it gained in culture. Students could now major in art, dance, drama, band, piano, strings, or voice.

Confusion over the school’s mission and name persisted throughout the 1980s as the school fought to stay funded.

Students called the institution the Gary School, Gary High School, Gary-Emerson, Emerson High, or Emerson VPA. The lack of a singular name or identity forced the school board to address the issue.

[ In 1987 the starting salary for Gary teachers was $16,900 ]

Emerson-School-main-stairway
courtesy the idiot photographer

 

In February of 1987 the school board made the name official when they finally announced the school as Emerson School for the Visual and Performing Arts – five years after it was re-opened.

Emerson-School-art-in-the-hallIn 1998, the Gary school board planned a $950,000 renovation for the Emerson School.

The work included a stage drapery and rigging project as well as renovations to several interior offices.

A computer lab was added, and the indoor swimming pool–which had not been used for some time–was filled and turned into a shower and dressing area.

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Defeated by Mold

Emerson-School-TrophyBy 2007 Emerson was just two years away from its 100th birthday, and the building looked its age. Untended structural issues plagued the complex for years, and the school district could no longer work around them.

When students started getting sick, environmentalists were brought in.

It was soon discovered Emerson had a serious mold problem, although the extent of which was initially understated. A deteriorated roof and the antiquated plumbing had sprung leaks above classrooms and behind walls; by this time the mold had infiltrated most of the school.

The school board acted quickly with the limited funds available. In March of 2008 major clean-up efforts took place at Emerson; contractors replaced drywall, ceiling tiles, moldy window shades, and plumbers took care of leaking pipes. Parts of the school’s roof were patched. Several classrooms received new carpet and the hallways fresh paint.

Emerson-School-hallway-2
courtesy the idiot photographer

In April a hasty evaluation of the school’s air quality convinced the board the cleanup had been a success. The Gary school board announced mold levels were reported to be within “acceptable levels.”

However a more-thorough inspection revealed the mold issues were not only still present, but more severe than originally thought.

[ view Emerson on a map ]

With funds depleted, the school board had little choice. During the last week of the 2008 school year, the board announced for the next year they would shift students from Emerson to the former Kennedy-King Elementary School in Miller, on the city’s far east side (today the Benjamin Banneker Achievement Center – map).

mr-lemmon
former desk of Daniel Lemmon, band director of Emerson.
(photo courtesy Tabula Rasa)

When the bell rung to introduce summer in 2008, the Ralph Waldo Emerson School closed its doors for the final time. When the school closed, little was removed before it was abandoned. Instruments and student files had been kept and stored, but equipment, furniture, and books were left behind.

Ultimately it was a fungus that would shut down Emerson, but not before it served the Gary community for nearly 100 years.

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Emerson Continues in Spirit

Emerson-School-hallwayThe magnet program would continue on in the  remodeled Kennedy-King Elementary building.

Gary’s school district would spend nearly $500,000 during the summer of 2008 to convert the former elementary school into a Visual and Performing Arts high school.

The school would not be converted in time for the 2009 school year, leaving the Emerson students with a partial school facility.

The school board’s financial woes would continue to worsen, and by October of 2008 they were facing a massive budget shortfall for the coming year. The board had to find a way to trim $23 million from next year’s budget.

With most buildings in the district crumbling and at half occupancy, the board unanimously voted to restructure the entire school district. Plans would call for the closure of 12 schools over the next two years.

photos courtesy the idiot photographer

One of the schools to close in 2009 was Wirt High School, not far from the old Kennedy-King Elementary building in Miller. Even though Wirt was not in good condition, it was better-suited as a high school than the partially-converted Kennedy-King Elementary building.

Once again, the school board decided to relocate the Emerson VPA students.

For the 2010 student year, the old Wirt High School was re-opened as Wirt-Emerson Visual and Performing Arts High Ability Academy (map).

The students, who had been moved twice in three years, affectionately referred to the locations as “E-1, E-2 and E-3.” They also shortened the new school name to the simpler “WE.”

Emerson School gym
Emerson School gym today

The situation is easier to understand if one appreciates the challenges faced by Gary’s school district.

Property tax caps, the city’s low tax collection rates, and significant depopulation have decimated the district’s finances, forcing the school board to make deep cuts. Losing millions from the budget every year presents an annual re-organizational nightmare.

Emerson-School-Music-Class
courtesy the idiot photographer

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The Future

Whatever fate unfolds for the old Emerson School, it has already earned its place in history.

The now-decrepit building changed education worldwide, was an epicenter of racial tensions during the mid-twentieth century in the United States, and it witnessed everything from integration to the computer age.

Fortunately, others have recognized the historic importance of Emerson; the school was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, preventing it from being demolished by man.

Unfortunately, nobody is preventing Emerson from being demolished by nature.

pictures courtesy the Idiot Photographer

Emerson-School-mossy-classroom

Sometimes Interesting has teamed up with the Idiot Photographer to bring the reader a rare and unique insight to the history of Gary, Indiana. Over the course of this month we will feature various structures around Gary and share their history.

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59 COMMENTS

  1. When I see old buildings like this, knowing the history and lives that have walked those corridors, and to see it being ruined – always sad.
    Thanks!!

    • Isn’t that great? One of the best parts of urban exploration is the outdated technology you sometimes come across…. and it’s even better when it’s not vandalized.

      You’ll love the Horace Mann High School post coming later this month. There’s an abandoned computer lab filled with this stuff!

  2. Kinda wanna start a commune in and around this building just to save it.
    I really enjoy your photographs, and really really enjoy you taking time for these glimpses into the hidden histories around us. I especially enjoy the more creepy old structures and places you visit.

    • Thanks Randy. Knowing the stories behind the buildings certainly makes it easier to appreciate them, and I felt there was a lack of information compiled anywhere.

      I have to again thank the Idiot Photographer for taking us on this journey as well. Without her talents we wouldn’t have these amazing pictures. :-)

  3. How I love to read the history behind these buildings that once stood tall and proud. Again, another home run! The images portray the decayed building well… You both have a great eye for capturing the decay and what was left behind. Always treasures to find :-)

  4. This is my favorite school to photograph. I can’t stay away from it. Awesome info and thank you for the wonderful pics and history. I always wondered when I was in there I couldn’t find the pool :( I Was just there last week. It looks the same as your photographs with minor differences.

  5. love it
    love it nice post but looked like a dangerous area .looking for parking I was eyed out by a few rough looking characters so I kept driving

    • The neighborhood around Emerson is no more dangerous than any where else in Gary. The locals mostly just shake their heads in resignation at us coming in and photographing the buildings. When I was leaving Emerson there was a group of about 10 young men hanging out in the street, they first looked surprised, then waved and went back to what they were doing.

  6. I have been in others around in Gary not inside Emerson but I will go back. I admire your dedication and work. (we probably know each other)

  7. Lived several blocks from Emerson, great place to be from, so sad to see what has happened to the whole city, got out (USAF) in 1962, came back in 1966 and lived
    there until Hatcher got in, departed to Portage, then Valpo then Florida, Gary was
    a wonderful place to be from like so many places.

  8. heart breaking….Gary and Emerson..were so beautiful…always be my roots though, no matter what…

  9. I was raised right across the street from Emerson, lived there until the end of my freshman year. The school has so much history, it is a shame and very sad to look at the pictures and see what happened to it. I remember sledding on the front lawn, swinging from the rope on the flag pole, yep, we sure did! And standing and jumping off the big rock on the front grass!

  10. Whenever I’m hanging out and about and I’m asked what high school I attended? I automatically respond with Much attitude and as if to say (how dumb of you to even ask) “I’m an Emersonian” then I say “there was only one high school in Gary and that all the others were daycares”! Anyway it’s a great ice breaker. I graduated with the great class of 75. A class of 250 (I was # 50), we had great teachers, very high school spirit as we were #1 in the city. We were proud of our grey and gold. We had a song called We Done and when I hang out with class mates it’s funny when we all recall the words and make any party our own. It goes: We hurt the Wirt, Banned the Mann, Fried the Side, Caved in Andrean, Demolished Lee Wallace, Melted the Velt and now we can’t wait to take the State yeah take the State ahh take the State !!! Needless to say when we got down state we were defeated by the refs oops I mean Lafayette Jefferson. Anyway I attended 7th -12th grades at Emerson with a diverse faculty and student body and staff. I’m not in Gary any longer but I’m nearby. I pretty much know where, and have visited most of the other buildings on this site in Gary all with their own memories but Emerson holds a special spot in my heart. Thanks for the photos and history.

    Athena Burkes Taylor

    • That’s fantastic Athena, thanks for sharing the memories. I very much enjoy hearing them, it adds life to the story of the school that I can’t read in newspapers online. It sounds like you had a blast during your time at Emerson, a common refrain I’m seeing. It sounds like it was a wonderful school.

    • OH My GOD!!!!! Athena!! I was reading the posts looking for someone who had actually attended Emerson and there you were…better yet….what had me jumping around the room and screaming was that you remembered WE DONE!! I wrote that!! Made it up…one afternoon sitting around on the steps..for Booster Club….put it in that little tacky newspaper we had and all these years later someone remembers it! Talk about making a day! In the midst of this depressing article a glimmer of light and oh so many good memories. Inger – The Spirit of ’76!

  11. Thanks for posting these albeit sad photos. Emerson is one of the most significant school buildings in American history, and the centerpiece of William A. Wirt’s “Work-Study-Play” system. It is a shame that the city lacks the resources to rehabilitate, or even secure, buildings like this. I don’t know of another American school building that was the subject of as much national, and international, attention as Emerson.

    To set the record straight, Emerson dates from 1909, not 1908. This is a common misconception. It was only a hole in the ground in 1908. The first day of school was Sept. 13, 1909, and the frist class pf nine students graduated in 1910. The Class of 2008 was, thus, on the 99th anniversary of the school, not the 100th. A centennial celebration was held in 2008, but they jumped the gun by one year. Moreover, it wouldn’t have been the 100th graduating class in any event because there were no graduating classes between 1982 and 1987. The original Emerson closed in 1981, and reopened in the fall of 1982 as the Emerson VPA. The first Emerson VPA graduating class was in 1988.

    Also, the second Emerson protest of integration took place in 1947, not 1945. The 1945 walk-out, which prompted the visit to Gary by Frank Sinatra, took place at Froebel, not Emerson. See Ron Cohen’s book “Children of the Mill,” for details or contemporary Post-Tribune articles.

    • Hello Kendall, thank you for stopping by and sharing that information! The data in the article was sourced from archived Post-Tribune articles, several books published about immigration in Gary I checked out from the library, and the online DePauw archives. It is possible the Post-Tribune and/or books I read had published incorrect information, but it is the only source I have verified. I do strive to maintain accuracy, so if you could link me to a reputable source online with the above information I would be very grateful and could update the info in the article. Cheers!

  12. Hi!

    The Post-Tribune often publishes incorrect information, usually because the reporters are working against deadlines and don’t bother to go back to the original sources, such their own contemporaneous articles. A few years ago, a reporter took information from a student-created web site (now pulled) that said, among things, that Emerson opened in 1908 as a middle school (rather than the K-12 school it was from its inception). Furthermore, the quality of P-T reportng has declined over the years.

    Cohen doesn’t give the exact date Emerson opened, saying “mid-Sepetmber, 1909 (p. 15 “Children of the Mill”), but it was 1909 clearly. But I have photocopies of the Post Tribune for Sept, 13, with an article entitled “New School Year Begins Today,” in which the opening of Emerson is described. The walk-outs of 1945 and 1947 are both referenced and dated in “Children of the Mill.” The 1947 walk-out was at Emerson, and it resulted in the football team having to forfeit games. I wrote my M.A. thesis on William A. Wirt and published a history of Gary in 2006. I am now at work on a history of Emerson.

    You can go to the Emerson65.com web site to find a list of graduates from 1909-1974. However, the three 1909 graduates were from Jefferson School. I only included them to provide a complete record of graduating seniors in Gary. The first graduating class from Emerson, in 1910, consisted of nine students. The names and dates are based on he school yearbooks. of which I have a complete collection.

    Unfortunately, not everything is online. Most of the reputable or original sources are either in print (e.g. Cohen) or on microfilm (P-T). I’m a retired librarian as well as an historian so I’ve dealt with these issue alot. Another source is the WPA index at the Gary Public Library on E. 5th Avenue. WPA workers indexed the Gary papers from 1906-1939.

    Hope this helps.

    Kendall

  13. These photos are great. I’m a graduate of Emerson and I was very saddened when the school closed. The only other comment that I have is that the picture labeled gym is actually the dance studio. You can tell my all the mirrors on the wall.

    • The reason I called it the gym is that was the original use, there is still a little metal plaque that says “Boy’s Gym” over the door. Once inside you can see how it was re-purposed to a dance hall for the last few decades it was open.

  14. I’d like to thank you all for doing this article, as a 2006 alumni of Emerson VPA- drama major, I will say it literally breaks my heart to see our school like this. I was one of 52 of the graduating class that remained at that school from the 6th-12th grade. We took pride in our school, the way we carried ourselves, our academics and the things we ere taught. Those were some of THEE BEST memories of my life, scrolling through those pictures I could tell you tons of stories about what happened in each picture captured. :( I’m tempted to start singing out school anthem but I’ll just leave with this…. “Tornado’s ( our school mascot) all day, and EVPA for life!” ( drops mic and DRAMATICLY walks off stage left!)

    • Hello Nikita, thanks for the comment! I enjoyed it. :)

      I’m sorry to see your school in the condition it is today, but I do see the beauty in its history. I look at Emerson fondly through the many positive stories I’ve read from students who spent time there. We wanted to collect and immortalize the history of this once-great school. Credit to the Idiot Photographer and Tabula Rasa for doing a great job capturing the images of today; the pictures sometimes tell more than the words.

  15. I actually went to school there and seeing those pictures hurts. It makes me sad. But knowing that it’s still standing, it makes me proud. I loved the article and appeariciate the person who took the time and effort to write and post the pictures. Thank You!

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, the feedback drives us. The condition is not something to celebrate, but the silver lining is the school is on the historic register. If we could get the building to a state of arrested decay, I would consider that a victory.

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