by Connie Zeigler
“Dare to be True — Do Right” are the words engraved in the frieze at the top of Simpson Hall, a beautiful old brick building now threatened with demolition, on the campus of the Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD).
The school was established in 1907 as a pioneering effort to provide a state-sponsored education for Hoosier children with hearing impairments. Built in 1911, and designed by the Indianapolis architecture firm Rubush & Hunter, Simpson Hall can now be found on Indiana Landmarks “10 Most Endangered” list.
The building is one of a number of notable buildings designed by Rubush & Hunter in Indianapolis, including the Coca-Cola Bottling Company plant on Massachusetts Avenue (planned for a major redevelopment as The Bottleworks), the Circle Theater (now Hilbert Circle Theatre), the Madam C. J. Walker Building, and the Columbia Club, as well as a host of others.
Simpson Hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 along with five other buildings from the original Neoclassical quadrangle-style campus at 1200 East 42nd Street, immediately north of the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The campus once included a dining hall on the north, an academic building on the south, and flanking girls’ and boys’ dormitories on the west and east. The boys’ dorm was demolished in 1993. Simpson Hall was sealed in 1983 due to “asbestos issues,” according to the National Register nomination.
The three-story yellow-brick building with limestone trim has clearly seen better days, and has the dubious honor of being listed on Indiana Landmarks’ “10 Most Endangered” list twice, first from 1999 to 2005 and again in 2017. The state legislature has already appropriated nearly $1 million to demolish the structure, but Mark Dollase, Indiana Landmark’s vice president of preservation services, believes there’s still life in the old building. “We’re not giving up,” he wrote in recent email.
MORE: Pictures of Simpson Hall on the Indiana Landmarks Most Endangered list
Indiana Landmarks spoke out against proposed demolition of the building before the Indiana State Historic Preservation Review Board in January 2016 and again in January 2017. After the 2017 meeting, the review board requested that the Indiana Department of Administration (IDOA), owner of the buildings on the campus, send a request for proposals out to potential redevelopers of the property. According to Dollase, the IDOA has not yet sent out the RFP. He wrote: “I had letters from 3 developers at the January meeting interested in redeveloping [Simpson Hall], but they still have not been given the chance to submit proposals. Two developers have been in the building” and so have a good idea of what taking on the project of redevelopment might entail.
But, according to Dollase, “this is a very complex issue with many moving parts.” Even getting a handle on who the interested and involved parties are is somewhat daunting, he says. “There are numerous stakeholders involved.” Interested parties include the IDOA and the ISD as well as the neighboring Indiana State Fair Commission, which owns property north of the school and is looking for connectivity. Some in the Deaf community are concerned that their desire to save a piece of their heritage is being ignored. Dollase notes that because hearing technology is changing, some stakeholders “are asking questions about the future of deaf education and whether it should happen closer to home. Others see this as a large tract of property that developers might want, or for State Fair expansion. Others have proposed merging the Indiana School for the Blind and School for the Deaf for cost savings.”
In other words, it’s complicated.
Indiana Landmarks hired an engineering firm to complete a structural analysis of the building last fall, which showed serious issues, including a partial collapse of the second floor. But exterior walls are mostly sound and the roof is holding up . . . for now.
POTENTIAL FOR PRESERVATION
In a somewhat hopeful sign, the school has formed a working group of stakeholders to consider a number of campus issues, Simpson Hall among them. As part of that group, Indiana Landmarks is funding an analysis by Storrow Kinsella and Associates (SKA) of campus needs and the potential for Simpson Hall preservation. The analysis is under way, according to SKA principal John Kinsella. “There’s a sense of urgency for all the parties to understand the future of that resource,” he said. SKA’s work will be completed by late November and presented to the stakeholders for further review and discussion.
School Superintendent and CEO David Geeslin says that the school is “looking forward to the study being done right now by SKA, and seeing their suggestions. We do have concerns about the potential costs associated with saving the building as well as student safety, which is why we believe any solution must include the building remaining as state property managed by ISD.”
Meanwhile, Simpson Hall, home to seven decades of student memories, sits empty as campus life bustles on around it.
Historian Connie Zeigler is a consultant who writes frequently about historic preservation issues. Her website is cresourcesinc.com.
To see pictures of Simpson Hall on the Indiana Landmarks Most Endangered list: https://www.indianalandmarks.org/endangered-property/simpson-hall-endangered/