Riverside High School, formerly the Heslar Naval Armory, originally was the home of the Indiana Naval Reserve at Indianapolis (1938-1976). It is located on the east bank of White River at the 30th Street bridge, adjacent to Riverside Park and the former Riverside Amusement Park. Work began on the $550,000 project in February 1936, with the building dedicated on October 29, 1938.

Sailors outside the Heslar Naval Armory, ca. 1941 Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

The four-story structure was built of reinforced architectural concrete with steel roof trusses. It housed a navigation bridge, signal hoist, magazine, battle telephones, boiler room, radio communication, watertight bulkheads, ship’s ladder, and gallery. It also included a 50-foot swimming pool, gymnasium, rifle range, classrooms, and mess and quarters for officers and staff.

On November 20, 1939, Capt. O. F. Heslar (1891-1970) took command of the armory and the USS Sacramento, the gunboat aboard which the naval reserve force trained on Lake Michigan each summer. Captain Heslar remained in this capacity through November 1940, when he was ordered to take his ship and its Indianapolis crew to Boston, Massachusetts. Here the vessel was transferred to the U.S. Navy and was docked at Pearl Harbor when the base was attacked by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941.

Troops by Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1945 Credit: The Indiana Album: Heslar Naval Armory Collection View Source

Throughout World War II, the Naval Reserve Armory remained a vital facility where radio and yeoman recruits trained for sea duty. Following that conflict, it returned to a peacetime reserve function. In 1946, the U.S. Marine Corps reactivated a battalion and assigned it to the armory for training. This unit was called for Korean duty in July 1950. The center was renamed the Heslar Naval Armory in 1962 to honor its first commanding officer.

In 1977, the armory underwent considerable renovation to repair its infrastructure and to make room for Marine reservists. This renovation, however, damaged the architectural integrity of the building by chopping up interior spaces, dropping ceilings, and adding carpeting. The building remained the Indianapolis-area Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Center until a new one opened in 2014.

The state gave the building to the City of Indianapolis when it did not succeed in finding another of its agencies to take up residence. At the same time, Indianapolis Classical High Schools had a long waiting list for admission at its one high school on the former herron school of art campus. The institution eyed the Heslar Armory as the perfect location for a second school. Indiana Landmarks petitioned the City to give the organization the building to buy time for Indianapolis Classical Schools to raise money to adapt the building. Landmarks passed ownership on to Indianapolis Classical Schools but put in place a protective covenant that guarantees the preservation of the historical architectural character of the building.

Indianapolis-based RATIO architects took on the project of making the building a high school facility while restoring its original character. Much of the building lent itself well to adaptive reuse. For example, “the drill hall serves as a gymnasium; the mess hall became a cafeteria.” Classrooms and offices retained their original purposes.

Interior walls that had been added during the 1970s renovation were taken out. Drop ceilings and carpeting were removed to reveal tall ceilings and terrazzo floors. RATIO retained original features like porthole windows, knotted-rope stairway handrails, ship’s wheel chandeliers, and rare globes etched with a map of the world. Large New-Deal-era WPA murals, painted by North Vernon, Indiana, native and artist Charles B. Bauerle, each depicting historic naval events, remain and adorn the gym walls.

Renovations to transform the armory for educational use cost $10 million. In 2018, the building reopened as Riverside High School. An in-district Charter School within the Indianapolis Public Schools system, the school follows a classical-based curriculum. Herron High School, on the campus of the former Herron School of Art, is its sister school.

Riverside High School won the Indiana Landmarks Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration in 2020.

Revised February 2021

Help improve this entry

Contribute information, offer corrections, suggest images.

You can also recommend new entries related to this topic.