“It’s a historical building, but I guess it’s progress,” said Marv Blessing, an alumnus of Pine Village High School, in a recent interview with IndyStar. After decades of work in historic preservation, little pains me more than this continuing assertion by many that demolition is necessary for “progress.” Why have we bought into this fallacy? I ask this every time I hear it said–either in celebration or resignation, as in this case. It breaks my heart.
I went up this weekend to Pine Village in Warren County to see this wonderful gym that is slated to be torn down in March. New Deal-funded and constructed in part by the Works Progress Administration in 1940, here is a building still much loved and much used, a three-dimensional document. It was built next to the old high school, which succumbed to fire in the 1940s. That school’s replacement stands in front of the gym and is soon to be demolished as well.
The town is very small, only a little over 200 people. It’s a farming community. You can stand in the middle of the intersection of highways 26 and 55, and the edge of town is just a couple blocks away in all directions. Much of the town’s identity and heritage are tied into this building, a place where the community still comes together (but not for much longer). It was home to the tiny but mighty Pine Knots basketball team, who won the sectional in 1972–the smallest team to do so–the year before Pine Village’s high school was consolidated. Most folks in town think it’s shame to lose the building, but what can they do?
As I ran excitedly around the building trying to get some photographs of the interior through the entrance sidelights, a young man walked up and offered to unlock the door for me. Turns out he is the school custodian and like everyone I talked to in town, an alumnus. The gym was immaculate––after all, there is one more basketball game on the schedule this week. I felt a shimmer and I was back in my long-gone high school gym, also a New Deal project with a similarly designed interior. The stage was still framed with deep blue curtains emblazoned with “P V” at the center. Behind the stage off to the sides were two classrooms, one the former bandroom. The other room was filled with art supplies and projects in various stages, ready for pupils to return.
Stories vary as to why this beloved building must go, but it boils down to money. Still, many would see saving this gem, clearly eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, as a good investment. The roof is only a few years old, yet the custodian showed me the black mold on one wall of the bandroom and leaks elsewhere. I may be an outsider, but this suggests a problem that should be taken up with the contractor who installed the roof. There may be boiler issues; in the town’s quick stop gas station a woman, who also had attended the school, said there were sewer problems, although I did not run across this issue mentioned elsewhere. Why isn’t Indiana Landmarks involved in trying to find alternatives to demolition? It seems the school corporation had not mentioned tearing down the gym when plans for removing the non-historic school came out, and apparently no one thought to seek help from the organization when the plans grew to include it. And so another beautiful New Deal structure, not one that had stood abandoned for years, but a well-used building that is the beating heart of the community, disappears. It breaks my heart, too.