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A Call for the Preservation and Reuse of IPS School 86 in Butler-Tarkington

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

This blog post is different from others. Not so much the history of some site in Indianapolis, it is a plea for the preservation of a site, the former School 86 building at 49th Street and Boulevard Place. The history of this school and building were covered in this blog post from last year, so I will try to avoid going too in depth here. As noted in that post, the School 86 property has been owned by Butler University since the late 1990s when IPS closed the school, and until the summer of 2022 School 86 was used by the International School. Since 2022 the property has been vacant while Butler considers its next steps for the site. Those next steps are still pending, but as with any old building, myself and others in the neighborhood are concerned that the school could be demolished in favor of a new construction, whether academically related, or otherwise.

School 86 is a landmark within the neighborhood. First constructed in late 1930s, and then expanded in 1950, the brick building is an example of the Federal style of architecture, and it was the site of a diverse and successful school in a neighborhood which was at the forefront of the integration movement in the 1950s and 1960s. So much at the forefront that the court in the integration litigation against Indianapolis Public Schools specifically cited to School 86 as not needing the court’s action to implement integration because it was already integrated due to the diverse nature of the neighborhood where it sat (again, read the blog post above where all of this is covered). Additionally, a large number of School 86’s alumni are still in the Indianapolis area, with many still residing in Butler-Tarkington, and in other neighborhoods around Indianapolis, a testament to the ‘neighborhood school’ status School 86 had earned when it was operating.

I’m not an expert on historic preservation, nor am I naïve to the obvious challenges. Preserving an old building takes time, money, probably more money, and an underlying desire to put forth the effort to preserve the building and its history. Older buildings can be difficult to renovate, especially for conversion to other uses. The easy way to deal with a historic structure is to simply demolish it. It’s no secret that it is easier to destroy than to build, an unfortunate truth which has played out many times in Indianapolis, and other cities. But school 86’s geographically conspicuous position within the neighborhood, its somewhat unique all-brick construction, and its prominence as a community institution, demand that it be preserved. As noted on the Indiana Landmarks ‘About’ page, their preservation efforts are partly to “reconnect people to heritage,” and that saving buildings “heighten our sense of place and connect us through the generations. They help us remember what’s important in our lives.”

Indiana Landmarks is not involved with this property, but their rationale for preserving buildings is still sensible and acutely applicable to School 86, and its preservation. And I believe that a genuine, serious, and most of all public, effort should be made to do so. There is no shortage of old buildings, including those much older than School 86, which have been renovated to continue with their original use, or adapted for other uses. Churches and, coincidently enough, old schools are often the focus of such projects. On the near eastside of Indianapolis School 97, built in 1936 (around the same time as School 86) was on the Indiana Landmarks 10 Most Endangered List, before it was redeveloped with the help of Indiana Landmarks for residential use. Unfortunately, other former school buildings, like the old School 43 building in Butler-Tarkington, have met the wrecking ball.

On the church side, the former Meridian Street Methodist Church at St. Clair and Meridian was preserved and turned into residential space.

An adaptive reuse seems perhaps the even better situation Understanding that Butler, or perhaps a third party, would want to utilize the land which sits behind the school for a more modern construction, an adaptive reuse which could incorporate all or part of the School 86 building and blend it with a new construction on the north side, could be an option. Examples of adaptive reuses like this can be found around the city. Old Bush Stadium was converted to condominiums several years ago, while still maintaining much of the exterior detail and the field itself is available for resident use as recreation space. Several sections of the outfield walls were also preserved.

Another example is the old St. Vincent Hospital, which underwent an extensive renovation and adaptation for use by Ivy Tech Community College.

A final example is the Bottleworks Hotel complex on Mass Ave in downtown Indy. The building was first a Coca Cola bottling plant and later a storage and operations facility for Indianapolis Public Schools. It underwent an amazing transformation into one of the most prominent hotel and commercial complexes in the city, while still maintaining its historical character and many historical features.

Reuse is possible, especially when there is the desire to honor the past and recognize the connections a historical site or structure has within a community. School 86 is one of the oldest, nonresidential structures (some of the old homes on the CTS campus are older) owned by Butler, after Jordan Hall and Hinkle Fieldhouse (Robertson Hall was built at about the same time as School 86). While not traditionally a Butler building, Butler’s purchase of School 86 was an example of Butler crossing into the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood proper, and outside its traditional footprint. With that move should come responsibilities to honor the history of the neighborhood, and to work to preserve that history in a way that will be beneficial to the neighborhood, and the university.

With their recently announced future expansion plans (see this Inside Indiana Business article, and this article from The Butler Collegian), I imagine Butler is looking to expand their presence in the city and Indiana as a whole. No doubt new, sleek, modern buildings help attract prospective students. But there is something to be said for the older, resolute buildings at a university, that are a testament to the longevity of the institution, and past upon which it is anchored. Butler has previously demolished the 1956 Schwitzer Residence Hall in favor of a new construction. Despite this, newer buildings on Butler’s campus have still harkened back to the design and appearance of these older buildings. The new Lacy School of Business was constructed with steel and glass, but also natural rough-cut stone, which seems to mimic the construction of the older buildings on campus, like Jordan and Atherton Halls, a short walk across the campus’ south mall, as well as the demolished Schwitzer.

I hope that the city of Indianapolis, Butler University, the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association (“BTNA”), neighbors, historic preservation groups, and developers who specialize in historic projects can engage in discussions and work together to find a reuse for this property which would preserve its historic character, like what was done with the Drake Apartments near the Children's Museum. I especially encourage alum of School 86 and members of the community to make their voices heard on this issue. If demolition is pursued, the university could damage their relationship with the community for a generation and will have to deal with neighbors whose memories are long, as is their desire for action.

Note: This post represents my personal viewpoint on this subject. I am not speaking in my capacity as the president of the BTNA, or on behalf of BTNA’s board of directors.

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