The Horace Mann School of Gary, Indiana is on the short list of American high schools that have graduated more than 75 classes of students. A creation of innovative educator William Wirt, the unique school took seven years to build and was finished in 1928. The campus set a new standard for the area’s public schools by featuring landscaped rolling hills, multiple gyms and pools, and even a man-made pond.
Horace Mann’s fortunes would ebb and flow with those of Gary; when the city’s population declined so did enrollment at the school. In 2004 the school board voted to shutter the building, and nine years later the ailing building still stands vacant and crumbling. Is the school’s rich history enough to secure its future?
Plans and Establishment
Minutes from downtown Gary, U.S. Steel executives and their families once lived on the tree-lined streets of the town’s upper west side. The Horace Mann-Ambridge neighborhood was defined by classic Georgian brick and stucco architecture.
Homes in the neighborhood would boast similar design cues as the region grew and established an identity. The upper west side was pleasant if not beautiful, but growth was limited as long as the the neighborhood lacked its own school. As the town of Gary grew, so did the need for more schools.
When the residents appealed to Gary Schools Superintendent William Wirt, he listened. Wirt’s new platoon-style method of education called “Work-Study-Play” was deemed a success during its launch at nearby Emerson School in 1908.
Wanting to expand on his earlier success, the aggressive superintendent drew up plans to add at least four schools over the next two decades. The schools – Froebel, Roosevelt, Horace Mann and Lew Wallace – were all 3-stories tall and to be constructed in a similar red-brick-with-white-trim classical composition style as Emerson.
Wirt’s public school to serve the growing west side was named after education reformer Horace Mann, who pioneered the concept of public funding for schools regardless of sex or race. Mann would be the steel city’s third high school when it was established at West 5th Avenue and Garfield Street in 1918 – but it would be constructed in pieces and not officially completed until 1928.
At first Horace Mann consisted of two portable trailers near the street on the large property. The first class consisted of 45 students who had previously attended Jefferson School. Demand for the west side school was greater than initially thought, and in 1919 three more portable units were added behind the first two.
A year later Wirt realized permanent structures would need to be built, and in 1921 construction on the present-day Horace Mann School would begin. By 1922 the east building had been erected, and the west building followed two years later in 1924.
On November 8th, 1926, the cornerstone for the central building at 524 Garfield Street (map) was finally laid.
But Wirt didn’t stop there. The Horace Mann School was about to receive a landscaping makeover which would set it apart from every other Gary school and turn Mann into the premiere school in town.
Horace Mann postcards: 1938 & 1940
Growth & New Campus
Neighborhood residents were more than a little confused when steam shovels and dredging equipment appeared at Horace Mann in 1927 . Superintendent Wirt’s elaborate plans called for landscape architects to alter the property’s topography to produce a lagoon and rolling natural park behind the school. At the time a small ravine ran through the center of the property, rendering any development difficult and expensive.
This did not deter Wirt; soon the land was dredged and the lagoon filled with water. Classic small pedestrian bridges were inserted across the narrower portions of the pond and a bird sanctuary was added. A rock garden was placed near the flagpole directly in front of the school. Compared to other town schools Horace Mann was set back some distance from the major roads and city activity, its rolling lawns and large pond feeling more like a park than public school. To Wirt, this was by design.
The Horace Mann complex itself was constructed as an ensemble of three buildings in a classic Tudor style. The main building was larger than the others and boasted a grand red and brown brick entrance offset by white columns and pilasters.
The central building featured 48 classrooms as well as offices for principal, assistant principal, and their immediate staff. It also contained two libraries, an auditorium, a cafeteria, a refectory, two gyms, and two swimming pools (at the time the boys and girls used separate facilities).
When it opened, the finished school served Kindergarten through 12th grade.
Horace Mann: 1950 & 1954
The west building initially served Kindergarten through 3rd grade, but later it included the music department, ROTC headquarters, a general shop, and additional classrooms and offices.
The west building would also host the school’s new modern gymnasium, which was added to the rear of the building later in 1985.
The east building was largely administrative offices and contained the school’s printing department in the basement.
The front of the building featured the pond, the north bank of which had a series of terraced steps and lead to the entry of the central building. The arched windows of the main entry were designed in a Tudor Gothic style while the stone quoins on the corners of the structure further accented Horace Mann’s English lines.
On the grounds behind and north of the buildings were a gravel playground and grassy athletic field, book-ended by wooden bleachers and surrounded by a running track.
When the finished school was dedicated in 1928, it was celebrated during an event in Gary called “Circus Night.”
There was entertainment for everyone: boxing bouts, athletic demonstrations, dancing, and other various games were available as well.
When new, Horace Mann proved to be wildly popular in Gary. Enrollment in 1929 during the first year of the new establishment had already reached 870.
1929 First Commencement, 1929 Freshman class, 1931 “Horace Manual” Yearbook
Decades of Education and Transition
By 1937 the staff at Horace Mann had increased to 80 while enrollment had grown to 2,386. The school’s athletic program had enjoyed some success during this time, producing one of the school’s most famous alums in Tom Harmon.
Harmon would earn 14 letters at Horace Mann en route to leading the team to the school’s only state football championship. He would go on to win the Heisman Trophy at the University of Michigan and earn various medals while serving in World War II – not to mention the brief stint he spent playing in the NFL.
Students of Horace Mann in the 1950s had positive recollections of their experiences – the pond in particular. In the spring they spent their lunchtime feeding the swans bread.
In the summer it was a popular spot for fishing, and in the winter the pond would freeze over and was a place to ice skate. Even if the students couldn’t always be proud of their football team, they always had the pond.
The student base continued to grow, and by 1956 Horace Mann boasted an enrollment of 2,597 – greater than the school’s designed capacity. Overcrowding would soon force the school to split. In 1958 the wooded area in front of the school was cleared, the land flattened, and a new school–the John H. Vohr Elementary–was built in its place.
When the elementary school was added in front of Horace Mann, the pond was removed as well. Despite being a favorite feature of the students, it occupied valuable real estate for two schools starved of parking spots with a hospital next door.
The pond was eventually drained, filled, and paved to provide much-needed additional parking for Horace Mann High and Vohr Elementary Schools.
Reduced Funding and Contraction
When superintendent Wirt constructed black-only schools to appease Gary citizens, it only lessened the pressure on white schools like Horace Mann to desegregate.
Gary would eventually become a hotbed for racial segregation issues and Horace Mann was not immune, but by the 1960s the barriers had come down and the school was integrated. Meanwhile overcrowding issues would persist and integration only exacerbated the issue.
In 1965 the school board voted to shift the lower grades away from campus and turn Horace Mann exclusively into a high school.
Horace Mann Auditorium: 2004 (below) & 2013 (above)
The 1960s would see the greatest change in Gary; the steel industry would contract, reducing available jobs. Unemployment then skyrocketed and crime increased. The declining opportunities in the steel town would see the population cut in half and become primarily black.
When Gary elected its first black mayor in 1967, the exodus was expedited. Tens of thousands of white residents moved away from Gary in what became known as “white flight”. The changes to Horace Mann’s student body were no different; enrollment had shifted from 100% white in the 1950s to 98% black and 2% Latino when the school eventually closed in 2004.
When the population of Gary dropped in the 1960s and 70s, so did the school district’s enrollment. The city’s tax base was dwindling and the school board was watching its budget shrink every year; balancing the annual cuts was challenging. A budgetary reprieve in 1985 would see the school district build a modern gym for Horace Mann High School students.
The original gym had long been unsuitable for intramural sports, and until the modern gym was opened the Horsemen had only been playing away games. That year the school also received an updated cafeteria as well as a new shop area. By now Horace Mann’s enrollment had fallen to 1,226 students with 55 teachers employed at the school.
Horace Mann gyms: new & old (photos circa 1990s)
The school board decided to restructure and update the city’s school system.
Schools with low enrollment were the first to be nominated for closure, among them Horace Mann, running at one-fifth of capacity servicing only 546 students by 2003.
For students and teachers of Horace Mann High School, news of the closure came via newspaper article in March of 2004.
In the article it was announced the Gary School Board had voted on April 13th to close Horace Mann that June. The board reportedly voted 5-1 to close Mann along with a middle school and three elementary schools in a budgetary move.
A predictable backlash ensued. Parents lobbied to keep their neighborhood school open while board members defended their actions by pointing to the slashed budget and falling enrollment.
Soon it became and back-and-forth, and the board would waffle; it seemed whenever the board considered closing a school, objections from residents loyal to the school persuaded the board to back down.
Horace Mann was one of ten schools planned to be closed between 2004-2006, and in April it was announced Mann’s students would be diverted to Roosevelt and Wirt High Schools for the following school year.
The resistance to closure was great until June of 2004 when supporters finally accepted the school’s fate. On the 9th of the month, a ceremony was held for the closing institution.
Families, friends, and alumni packed the west side auditorium to bid farewell to the last class to graduate from the 76 year-old school, and on the 10th of June it was closed for good.
Several attempts were made to re-open the school as an administrative center, but in August of 2008 a consortium of inspectors revealed their results after they spent the summer analyzing the interior, exterior, roofing, mechanical, electrical, and technology systems of Horace Mann.
Today, furniture is overturned and scattered about while old computers lay smashed and abandoned.
The science labs were victimized as well, smashed Pyrex littering the floor between loose containers of chemicals and exposed specimens.
Piles of semi-charred books lay strewn outside the administration offices; another room contains stacks upon stacks of surplus textbooks (below).
After closing, the school appeared to be on borrowed time. Nearby Froebel School, a vacant building of the same vintage as Horace Mann, was scheduled for demolition as the city paid a $1 million contract to raze the complex.
In 2005 Froebel School–which had been closed since 1977–came tumbling down. Residents winced and wondered, would Horace Mann be next?
Ironically, what closed Horace Mann School would be what saved it from demolition. The city’s lack of money meant razing closed schools was a luxury, and Gary was in no place to afford such spending.
Additionally, the school board was still dealing with the fallout from the outraged community over the decision to spend money razing the Froebel School.
The building was not completely left alone, however; metal salvagers have stripped the building of pipes and conduit while vandals have left their mark by adding graffiti and destroying whatever was left.
Horace Mann would faithfully serve Gary for 76 years, and during that time nearly 100,000 students walked its halls.
The school produced Nobel Prize and Heisman Trophy winners. Even a world-famous tenor once called Horace Mann home.
vintage pictures courtesy Calumet Regional Archives, present-day pictures courtesy the Idiot Photographer.
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 and tell their history.