Roberts School Revisited

Early in 2006 the Indianapolis School Board announced that Roberts School 97, a striking example of 1930s Art Moderne architecture, would be demolished to make way for a parking lot. Neighborhood residents and historic preservationists took strenuous exception. Five years later, after a lot of wangling, the building is still standing but also still endangered.

I live a couple of blocks from the school. My contribution to the dialogue was the following article, published in the summer of 2006 in Urban Times, a downtown Indianapolis monthly presided over by veteran journalist Bill Brooks. He gave the piece a centerfold layout and added some pertinent photos. Comments I received seemed to indicate that the article helped spread the word about the building’s significance. 

My essay was online for a few months but subsequently disappeared. In early 2011 Roberts School is back in the news again, with rumors flying that an alternate use for the building has been found. I thought it might be useful to re-post the essay, in case anyone is still seeking background information about the controversy.

The campaign to save the building has a Facebook  page. There are several pages of contemporary photos of the school and a couple of historic photos here on Flickr.    

Roberts School Reverie

In every city there are small, jeweled places that linger in the memory. Years ago as I walked along a side street in Palermo I noticed an open door, and peered in, and encountered a trompe l’oeil stairway, made of thousands of pieces of ebony and mahogany and spruce, that seemed to rise to a shadowy landing on the second floor. 

I was in fact looking at a flat, inlaid panel only a few feet distant from where I stood in that narrow entrance. The pattern created a momentary illusion of depth and space. No guidebook listed this wonderful Sicilian joke. Some eighteenth-century townsman had installed it for his own pleasure or amusement. In semi-tropical Palermo, it would last a very long time, constituting yet another secret in that city of many secrets and mysteries.

Similarly, I was much intrigued when I finally reached the top of the Eiffel Tower, and discovered, at the center of the highest observation point, a tiny office, enclosed in glass, no more than a meter wide, complete with a wooden desk and chair, a few books, and writing paraphernalia. It was Eiffel’s own office, where, we are told, he sometimes repaired, after the completion of his masterpiece, so that he could read, and meditate, and look out over the city, and, one supposes, catch up on his correspondence. This, too, was a jeweled space, unexpected and delightful.

In Indianapolis there is a jeweled space of considerable proportions in the great hall at the top of the War Memorial. No visitor to the city whom I have ever taken up the long flight of marble stairs, and into this vast, hushed interior, has failed to be awed. It is one of the most remarkable architectural enclosures on earth. The great white multi-pointed star hanging in the center is utterly transfixing. One well-traveled friend stood and surveyed the room for several minutes without saying a word. Finally he spoke. “This must have been what the Parthenon was like, originally,” he said, “with the statue of Athena by Phidias. This kind of majesty.”

The next time you are out walking on Mass. Avenue, at the northeastern end, take a moment to locate a sealed entryway into the old Coca-Cola Building, which is now owned by Indianapolis Public Schools. Its glazed tiles are covered with grime, its handsome bronze grills tarnished and pitted. But find a clear space to peer through the glass at the lobby and the stairway. This, too, is a jeweled place, evocative of the great era of sleek design and streamlining that characterized the 1930s. It is an architectural time capsule – secret, hidden, splendid.

So, too, then, the hydrotherapy room of James E. Roberts School no. 97, located at 1401 East 10th Street, and presently endangered, as the entire building is now being considered for demolition by the Indianapolis School Board. The building sits at the extreme northeast corner of the large historic federal land-grant that includes Arsenal Technical High School and two other public schools. In itself Roberts School is a masterpiece of the Art Moderne style characteristic of the 1930s. I toured the building not long ago in company with other concerned neighbors and Near Eastside activists. 

Told by an IPS spokesperson of the irreparable structural damage, we were shown the empty classrooms and allowed to wander the halls. It is a beautiful, one might say, priceless building, the pure product of style and design in the year in which it was built, which was 1936. Nothing prepared me, however, for the striking interior space that was, originally, a room where children underwent the allegedly therapeutic and restorative process of hydrotherapy.

Roberts School was originally conceived and built as a special school for physically disabled or handicapped children. One does not need to search out the records of their specific illnesses. The building itself bears testimony.  The long interior ramps that lead from floor to floor attest to the fact that many were in wheel chairs, while others moved with the assistance of crutches.  If we turn away from such practice now – of segregating those whom misfortune seemed to set apart – the architecture itself demonstrates that we cannot rewrite history.

Many diseases of childhood that have now been almost eradicated were quite common in 1936, when Roberts School was donated to Indianapolis by the philanthropist Henrietta West Roberts. Even penicillin had not yet been discovered. The president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then in his first term, had been afflicted with poliomyelitis when still a young man. Effective inoculation for this dread affliction would not arrive until the mid-1950s. During the Depression, treatment by heat, and by immersion or hydrotherapy, were among the methods assumed to alleviate the wasting effects of this disease..

Thus we come, toward the end of our tour, into a small, high-ceilinged room, on the south side of the school, where the floor consists of dark, plum-colored tiles. An enormous interior wall of glass blocks filters the afternoon light. We are in a slightly different world now from blackboards and books and multiplication tables. This is a place of rest and recuperation, of the strange comfort of water heated almost to body temperature, yielding and buoyant and refreshing. Muscles and limbs that had been constricted by disease could here be gently stretched and extended again amid the ever-pliant waters.

An interior ramp circles a large tiled receptacle that is the hydrotherapy tank. Today, the tank is capped and dusty – unused, undoubtedly, for many years. Cardboard boxes of supplies are piled on top.  The room’s original purpose forgotten or abandoned, it now seems to function as a teachers’ lounge. But its inordinate beauty remains unchanged. 

One can almost visualize the small child being led up the ramp by the therapist, and encouraged to descend the inner steps into the shimmering depths of the pool. Sunlight coming through the trees outside passes through the refracting blocks of glass, and shines like a benediction on the figures engaged in this timeless process. This is a place of hope, of comfort, of belief in a future that can, with philanthropic generosity and professional care, be made available to all.

It is one of those jeweled places to remember, and, if possible, to treasure.  If we lose it, we lose something of ourselves – an awareness that our fathers and mothers, too, confronted sickness and hardship, and did their best to reach out to others less fortunate. Henrietta West Roberts reached out, and so did the devoted teachers and therapists who worked for so many years in the building she endowed. A structure that perpetuates this spirit of caring, and that encapsulates that spirit in its architectural details, seems eminently worth saving.

1 comment to Roberts School Revisited

  • jerrydreesen

    My wife, Sandy, remembers School #97 well. She passed it on the way to Tech HS when she was a student there in the ’50’s. She remembers the cement ramps that accommodated physically handicapped children.

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