Heslar Naval Armory

Land-locked Indiana boasts a historical naval armory. I was intrigued and signed up for the Indiana Landmarks tour of the site.

Indiana Landmarks offered multiple, staggered tours of the Armory one Saturday before renovations started to turn the building into a high school. While the high school plans to retain some of the characteristics of the original building, this was the last chance to see the building as the Navy and Marines left it when they moved out in 2015.

The white building sits on a branch of the White River on Indianapolis’ near west side. The Armory was built by the WPA from 1936 to 1938 for $500,000. It was bomb proof at the time, and during World War II became a training center. In 1964, the armory was renamed for Captain Ola Fred Heslar, the Commanding Officer of the Naval Reserve in the Indiana from 1921 to 1940. In the late 1970s, the Marines also used the Armory for recruiting and training. In the 2015, the Navy and Marines moved out and into Fort Benjamin Harrison on the northeast side of Indianapolis. Since then, the Armory has stood empty.

Indiana Landmarks is involved in the adaptive reuse of the Armory, subleasing the building to Herron High School, a charter school. Herron High School is renovating the building for use as a second high school, Riverside High School. The renovations will cost $7.5 million and judging from the looks of things, will continue after the incoming class of 200 freshmen occupy the building in the fall.

The building is in need of some serious repairs, inside and out. The hope of opening the school with the 2017 freshman class seems optimistically aggressive. The school is hoping to keep a lot of architectural touches but many will likely be lost. The Armory has sadly been left to decay over the years, even though it only stood empty for a year.

Although the Armory has been renovated over the years, it certainly didn’t seem like any of those renovations were in the last several decades. The building had a time-capsule feel to it. Nautical themes were everywhere: doors with porthole windows and rope wound around stairway railings. We wandered through the floors, crisscrossing other tour groups as we stopped in different rooms to hear our tour guide give mini lectures.

We started on the second floor in the Drill Room, which was a gym with “temporary” classrooms on either side. Four murals of naval scenes created by WPA artist Charles Bauerle in 1938 still stood crisp after all these years: John Paul John’s ship in the Revolutionary War, Lake Erie in the War of 1812, the Battle of Manila Bay, and the arrival of the American fleet at Queen’s Town in Ireland during WWI.

The second floor of the Drill Room/gym also sported a mock bridge and crow’s nest with semaphore flags and lights for practicing Morse code. The Armory was the location of radio school training and yeoman training. (Some of the lights still worked.)

This mock bridge is accessible via the Officer’s Mess on the third floor. The Officer’s Mess, while small, has a lovely view of the White River. A carving of the USS Constitution graces the fireplace with ship lanterns and anchors on either side. Globed light fixtures are images of the world with metal waves and ships around their mid-section. The Officer’s Mess was also the site of social events such as weddings and dances. Down the hall was the officer’s bar. (The high school has not yet decided what it will do with this tiny bar room.)

We quickly buzzed through the fourth floor, a collection of classrooms and storage, basically what it will continue to be in the building’s next incarnation as a high school. On our way down the stairs to the first floor, we passed the kitchen, a time capsule in its own right and likely the object of some serious renovation.

On the first floor, we visited the patio room, an enclosed glass room with a balcony that overlooks the White River. Incidentally, the White River was dredged for five miles around the Armory and used for small boat training.

The last room we visited was the most unique and will not be changed but left as is: the sub room. The sub room replicates multiples compartments on a submarine that can be flooded to simulate disaster and practice recovery.

At the end of the tour, we were led to a room that contained blueprints for the building. And then the search was on to find the places we saw and places that no longer exist. The Armory used to have a swimming pool (for water rescue and training), a rifle range (!), a machine shop, and a simulator for a ship boiler…all inside the building.

In addition to blueprints of the building, there were early maps of the area. And suddenly light bulbs went on. The Armory was located in a historic neighborhood. Literally right next door was the Riverside Amusement Park. And Riverside Park includes the Thomas Taggert Memorial, named for a man important in local politics and in the history of the French Lick resort.

No historical site would be complete without a ghost. The Armory is no exception. Oddly this ghost is rather recent. After retiring, Navy Senior Chief Norman “Red” Bolduc took up residence at the Armory. (He is known for his contributions to the construction of the USS Indianapolis memorial on the canal and for helping organize annual reunions of the USS Indianapolis survivors.) He was found dead in his Armory apartment in 1993. Some people who have spent the night at the Armory claim to have seen his ghost in dress uniform or heard door alarms when no doors were being opened.

Touring the Armory gave me insight into a piece of Indiana history, but I am no closer to understanding why a Naval Armory was built in land-locked Indiana in 1936. My hope is that once the renovations are complete, the Herron High School (parent of Riverside High which will occupy the building) will invite us all back to see the splendor of the building’s adaptive reuse.

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