A ‘Splendid’ School

As the last day of classes for the beloved, but run-down old Crawfordsville High School drew near, the stained glass windows in the main hallway were taken down for a scrub.

An old student painting was shipped off to a museum for a face-lift. And no sooner than Helen Hudson learned the names of her new colleagues, she was packing up her lesson plans for the move from the landmark building in the heart of the city to a roomier campus on the edge of town.

“It struck me as almost puppy-like the excitement that the staff had,” said Hudson, who was a temporary English teacher during the transition year. “They were so excited about this new building.”

Students and staff had fond memories of the old school, but they wouldn’t miss the pests and rodents.

“No more will there be cockroaches the size of sanitation trucks crawling across the floors and desks,” read the 1993 edition of “The Athenian,” the final one published from the old building. “This new school will have all of the facilities that the old school never had.”

‘Magnificent’ new building

When the old CHS closed in 1993, it marked the end of more than 140 years of education in Jefferson Square, bounded by Jefferson, College, School and Seminary streets.

Students first arrived in 1852. By the 1870s, the neighborhood was anchored by the Central school building, which housed all 12 grades. (The community’s first school opened in a log courthouse on East Main Street in 1826, three years after Crawfordsville was laid out.)

Central was remodeled after a fire, but by the dawn of the new century, students were complaining about small windows, dark corridors and poor ventilation.

More than $92,000 was spent to build a new school. CHS opened in September 1911.

“Ours has been the honor to initiate a magnificent new building,” the yearbook staff wrote. “A building longed for, worked for and anticipated by every former graduating class – a structure of beautiful, yet plain architecture, splendidly equipped in every modern aspect.”

The Prairie School style was common for turn-of-the-century Midwestern homes, public buildings and businesses. CHS was known for its low roof with overhanging eaves, and the copper cornice.

Later came more classrooms, an auditorium and the Works Progress Administration-era gymnasium, the longtime home of basketball sectionals. Once during a major snowstorm that canceled classes, students used tractors to haul spectators to a match-up.

Going forth to serve

Early on, students were active in athletic associations, debating societies, orchestras and other festivities.

Principal Anna Willson, who returned to helm CHS during World War I after a stint at Central, pushed the importance of community service among young people, giving them a wide berth to lead.

Willson pioneered the Sunshine Society, the service organization for girls. CHS hosted state conventions and chapters spread out across the state, supporting charities and raising money for Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.

The school was the old stomping grounds of future state senator and lieutenant governor Richard Ristine, astronaut Joe Allen, actor Dick Van Dyke and crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz.

Classmates remember Van Dyke as a class clown and Shortz, who now works for the New York Times, often doodled puzzles on his assignments.

Teachers reflect

By the 1960s, generations of students had walked through the doors. Teenagers could be found after school at the soda fountain in the Gold & Blue, where the College Street Deli later served sandwiches.

Giving new government teacher Steve Gentry his first walk-through in 1963, then-principal Ward Brown said it wouldn’t be long before the building would be retired.

“It was showing its age then,” Gentry said.

He stayed in the same classroom for 30 years, buying his wooden desk from an auction during the move. Gentry retired  in 1999, shortly before being elected mayor.

The school district received the state’s blessing for a new school in the mid-1980s. Construction began on State Road 47 in 1989.

Hudson and her family were new to town as the community began debating the school’s future. Dr. Kathy Steele, then a central office administrator, recruited her to teach a few hours of 11th grade English in 1992.

“It looked to me like a building out of the past,” Hudson said. “It very much had those beautiful archways and that dark brick that I associated with being a schoolchild myself decades and decades before.”

As the staff began packing, they uncovered a large wooden plaque with the names of students on the school’s first athletic teams, a gift from the class of 1916. Hudson saved old LP records from the trash pile.

The last day of school was bittersweet for students, some of which Gentry remembers were close to tears. Some seniors were jealous that the next graduating class would benefit from the air-conditioned new campus with its modern classrooms and Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“This school will always hold a lot of memories for me, and I am proud to say that I attended CHS, even if it was about to fall down,” senior Erica Whitehead was quoted in the yearbook. 

The building was given a second life as a fitness center and senior housing community. Athena Sports and Fitness opened in 2001.