Froebel School, Gary Indiana

Date added: May 05, 2022 Categories: Indiana School

The Froebel School, located in Gary, Indiana, was constructed in 1911-1912. Named for 19th century educator Fredrich Froebel, this mammoth school occupies approximately four city blocks (approximately 15 acres) and is surrounded by park-like grounds. The school, located on the south side of Gary, was instrumental in the assimilation of the vast ethnic population that came to work in the steel mills. The Froebel School was in use until 1977 and has been vacant since then. Demolition was pending in 2004 when newly elected school board members opted to try to save the building.

Gary, Indiana was incorporated on July 17, 1906 by the United Steel Corporation. The company purchased 9,000 acres of land and seven miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan's southern tip to establish production facilities. All elements of the new town had to be planned and the subsidiary Gary Land Company was created to do just that. The first subdivision platted was an 800-acre grid with 4,000 lots including what would become the downtown. By December 1909, Gary had 10,000 residents. The population grew to 133,911 in forty-six years, making Gary the second largest city in Indiana by the 1950 census.

Gary's south side was home to a variety of ethnic groups that moved to northwest Indiana to work for U.S. Steel. They could not afford to live in the Gary Land Company subdivisions, nor were they welcome there. Instead, they lived in a neighborhood consisting of shacks, tents, barracks, and boarding houses intermingled with the religious and social buildings of the approximately 30-plus nationalities residing in the area.

It is no wonder then that the assimilation of the new immigrants was going poorly. Poverty, unemployment, and crime were prevalent on the south side. In an effort to keep children busy and out of trouble, improve the educational and, therefore, employment opportunities for children and adults, and to provide a community and social center for the south side, a school was proposed for the south side of Gary. The Froebel School, known as the "immigrant school," met the needs of the entire immigrant family. The parents could attend night classes to learn English and other skills to live and work in America. The children could experience first-hand the educational reform that was happening in Gary in the 1910s-1920s.

William Wirt was hired in 1907 as the first school superintendent for Gary, Indiana. He thought that schools should "be built in or near parks; that the city's museums, libraries, zoos, gardens, and playgrounds be integral parts of the school; that they be available to all members of the community on the basis of an extended day, week, and year." Wirt's ideas meshed nicely with those of architect William Ittner, who designed Froebel School and others in Gary. Knowing the complimentary opinions of both superintendent and architect explains the park-like setting of the Froebel School and the location of a branch of the Gary library within the school (1913). The library remained there until 1918 when Bailey Branch Carnegie Library was constructed diagonally across Madison Street.

Although incomplete, Froebel School opened in 1912 with over 1000 students on a ten-acre parcel. At the heart of the Gary school plan's educational curriculum was Wirt's work-study-play concept which came to be known nationally as the Gary Plan, Wirt wanted to offer an extensive variety of educational opportunities and envisioned the school as a community center to be used night and day by both children and parents of the multi-ethnic population. During the day children in kindergarten through high school would attend a variety of classes based on Wirt's platoon system. The platoon system divided students into two groups: one group studied academic subjects while the other studied vocational and cultural subjects. The groups would switch during the school day so that both could obtain the full educational experience. This system assured that both standard classrooms and task-specific rooms (workshops, auditorium, conservatory, etc) would be in use throughout the day. This arrangement proved particularly useful to ease overcrowding when student enrollment was high.

The academic subjects taught at Froebel included what standard schools offered; reading, math, writing, spelling, history, etc. However, Froebel offered many other options to occupy a student's time. The school was equipped with band and music rooms, a miniature three-room apartment to practice housekeeping, art room, science laboratories, and libraries. The school had conservatories and gardens to not only beautify the grounds but to also afford students an opportunity for "play". Other "play" opportunities included the covered play courts, athletic fields, track, and two gymnasiums with swimming pools and suspended track (separate for boys and girls). The "work" elements involved many of the manual/vocational facilities including: wood shop, electrical shop, drafting room, welding shop, two machine shops, pattern shop, and metal shop. For the girls, there was a sewing room, cook room, and nursery. Many of these shops produced goods that would be used by the school. For instance, the girls cooked the lunches that were served in the cafeteria and the woodworking classes made bookshelves, desks, and cupboards for classrooms.

One element that William Wirt was particularly proud of was the auditorium. Centrally located within the building, the auditorium has a balcony and stage/proscenium. Here students participated in public speaking and drama classes and could hear lectures and presentations on cultural subjects. Student literary societies would present regular programs. Beginning in the fall of 1913, students had an "auditorium period" where programs would vary "from music and expression to talks on scientific lines."

Before Froebel opened, ail high school students attended Emerson. However, most students were not concerned with actually graduating from high school. Instead, their focus was on gathering the necessary skills and knowledge to get a job. In this regard, the vocational training students received at Froebel was invaluable.

In an effort to promote the school as a true community center, Froebel offered evening events for neighborhood residents. These included educational, social, and recreational functions. Night classes were offered to recent immigrants from April through November in subjects like English, history, and geography. All helped with the Americanization of the variety of cultures that now called Gary home. Later a vocational track was added with classes in chemistry, physics, mechanical drawing, architecture, drafting, typing, book-keeping, commercial arithmetic, and German. Night classes were offered up to five nights a week from 7-9. By 1914, there were over 2000 people attending night school at Froebel. Wirt did not encourage the idea of children attending both day and night classes and few immigrant women took advantage of the courses. However, entire families would come for the recreational and social events held at Froebel such as games, music, recitals, spelling bees, and lectures.

The Gary plan was successful on a nationwide scale. William Wirt traveled around the country promoting his plan and visitors were a regular occurrence at Gary schools. In 1914 the Gary schools even had an exhibit at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco. The number of cities implementing some degree of the platoon system grew from four in 1915 to eight the following year. By 1920, thirty-two cities had adopted the Gary plan. Within the next decade, the number of platoon schools exploded to over 1000.

William Wirt died in 1938 and the Gary system quickly fell apart. The lack of a strong guiding force, in addition to funding problems, began to plague the school system. The enrollment at Froebel hit an all-time low of 1797 students in 1946-47. In 1969 the Froebel School became a middle school and by 1977, it was vacated by the school board. They maintain ownership of the school but lack of maintenance and vandalism has taken its toll.


William B. Ittner, a Saint Louis architect born in 1865, became one of the premier school architects in the first quarter of the 20th-century. Educated in what could be described as dreary, prison-like schools, Ittner refused to design such buildings during his fifteen-year career as the building commissioner of the School Board of Saint Louis. Such schools were still the norm and had dimly-lit corridors; too-wide classrooms that received light from only one source, resulting in difficult working conditions; no indoor plumbing, with unsanitary facilities behind the school and children drinking from a community schoolyard dipper, unsafe stairways and too few exits; dingy basement classrooms; and generally had inadequate and inconvenient facilities necessary to provide a quality education.

Ittner wanted schools to inspire students, not intimidate them and thus began his quest to design a better school. He traveled to several Midwestern cities to study what their current schools looked like. His first schools were not revolutionary but there were interior improvements in lighting, indoor plumbing, heating and cooling systems, and fireproof construction. A trip to Europe broadened Ittner's vision and, upon his return, he began utilizing his signature "open plan" which called for classrooms on only one side of the hallway. He incorporated this into a variety of H-, cruciform, and U-shaped school buildings before finally settling on an E-shape for the majority of his schools. The Froebel School is an example of the E-shaped open plan.

Ittner wanted to make schools safer and healthier for students. He declared: "the complete school environment should be a model for health. To accomplish this desired goal, sanitation, cleanliness, perfect lighting, airiness, and cheerfulness must, of necessity, constitute the eternal, unwritten laws of successful school planning." He used as many windows as possible for increased lighting and better air circulation. He also carefully chose materials to ensure that the schools would be fireproof. Ittner chose to surround his schools with park-like landscapes.

As word spread of the innovative work he was doing for schools in Saint Louis, other communities hired Ittner to design schools for them. He worked in twenty-nine states and designed over 500 schools. "Ittner's intelligence, sophistication, intuition, training and civitas translated high standards into a physical form of grace and rationality."

Obviously, schools primarily served children but Ittner wrote that education "is a continuous process, with the public school serving all ages." Nowhere was this more true than at the Gary schools and it is no wonder that Superintendent William Wirt chose William Ittner, a fellow leader in school reform, to design the city's schools. It is known that he designed Ralph Waldo Emerson (1908), Froebel (1912), Horace Mann (1926), Roosevelt (1928), and Lew Wallace (1931) schools. With the exception of Lew Wallace, all of the schools received an outstanding rating in the Lake County Interim Report. Emerson School is the only Ittner-designed school to predate Froebel. The two are similar in form and in plan. Both are three-story, E-shaped buildings set in a large, park-like setting with ball fields, playgrounds, and basketball courts (Froebel also has a cinder track). They have centralized projecting entrance bays and projecting end bays. Both are red brick with limestone accents. Emerson utilizes Jacobean Revival details on the entrance and along the parapet and brick quoining at the corners but is a relatively plain building. Froebel, also Jacobean in style, exhibits much more detail. The interior surfaces incorporate linoleum, terrazzo, marble, glazed brick, and plaster, The. most notable difference between the two buildings is that Froebel was closed in 1977 while Emerson remained in use as a visual and performing arts high school until closing in 2008.

The Glen Park School, constructed in 1909, was designed by Charles Kendrick in the Romanesque Revival style. It replaced an 1882 school that burned in 1908. Constructed to house grades 1-8, enrollment began at nineteen and within ten years, grew to 1000. Lew Wallace School was constructed in 1931 to help ease the overcrowding. The building itself is a 2-story, red brick building with a centralized 4-story tower that projects slightly. The school is roughly square in plan and resembles a large rural school rather than the immense urban schools that Froebel and Emerson represent. The entry is recessed within the base of the tower and is highlighted by a low, wide arch. A brick beltcourse divides the first and second floors and limestone lintels with keystones top the windows on the front facade. Like the Froebel school, the Glen Park school is vacant and suffering from neglect.

Ethnic Heritage

The Gary steel mills attracted a great variety and number of immigrants. Many were of Eastern and Southern European backgrounds; Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Serb, Croat, Greek, Poles, Romanian. They could not afford the homes constructed by the Gary Land Company so they ended up living in the south side of the city. In 1910, 49% of Gary's 17,000 residents were foreign-born while 63% of the students in Gary schools were the children of one or more foreign-born parent. A decade later, 30% of the 55,000 residents were still foreign-born. When Froebel School opened in 1912, 90% of the students were foreign-born, or children of foreign-born and in 1917 the school had twenty-nine different racial groups.

With this amazingly diverse student body and surrounding neighborhood, the school was in the position to help not only the children but the parents succeed in their new lives. Other organizations existed to help with this transition but Froebel School played an ever-increasing role for both students and parents. Kindergarten was used to Americanize "preschool immigrant children by exposing them to English and, in general, weaning them from the perceived cultural limitations of their family environment." Night school helped assimilate the parents. The Gary Evening Post called the night school "the saving grace of Gary. Without them, the leavening process by which 29 different nationalities are being leavened into perfect American citizenship would be impossible." Although most night schools held classes 2-3 nights a week, Froebel offered night classes five nights a week for two reasons: 1) the demand was there and, 2) the classes aided the Americanization effort.

Not all cultures were given the same opportunities. Prior to the construction of Froebel, African American students were segregated in poorly-equipped, overcrowded buildings. In 1913, 140 black students were transferred to Froebel but they were confined to two classrooms with two black teachers. Students were allowed to use the gyms, manual training rooms, and playgrounds but were excluded from many activities. In response, the students formed their own school club.

With the advent of World War I, steel production increased. To maintain that increase, more workers were necessary and a wave of blacks from the south filled the need. This influx of African Americans dramatically increased the number of black students at Froebel. In 1916 there were 267 but by 1920 there were 634. The numbers continued to grow and by 1930 there were 2759 African American students at Froebel and two small all-black schools. Historians call this period of southern influx "The Great Migration," and Gary was a significant part of this trend.

A separate night school was begun in 1914 at Froebel for African-American parents. There were two areas of study and 173 adults took classes in cookery and automobile driving.