It stands like a monument, this Art Moderne building on Indianapolis’s Northwestside.

Heslar Naval Armory

The first time I saw the Heslar Naval Armory was 20 years ago. I had a job Downtown and I drove I-65 every day to my suburban home. But a major project closed the highway for a couple months, and the detour led drivers west along 30th Street. At the White River, 29th and 30th Streets share a bridge. The Armory is nestled where the street curves to meet the bridge.

Imagery and map data © 2017 Google.

From a distance, it appears to stand right in the middle of 30th Street. As I approached it for the first time I couldn’t believe not only that it existed, but also that it was in this rough neighborhood of factories and low houses in ill repair. (It wasn’t always this way. The neighborhood used to be solidly middle class. And at one time, the region east of the armory and north of 30th St. was a popular amusement park!)

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

The armory was built in 1936 as a project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was one of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. It was designed by architects Ben Bacon and John Parrish to serve as a naval training facility, offering everything a sailor would find on a ship. Walking through, every detail affirms the building’s naval purposes.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

Perhaps the armory’s most important days came during World War II, when its inland location away from high surveillance on the coasts made it an attractive place for generals and admirals to plan their campaigns. Key portions of the Battle of Normandy were planned here.

We toured the armory late last year thanks to Indiana Landmarks, which became involved with the building after the Navy (and the Marines, who in later years shared the space) decommissioned the building and moved out. Our tour took us through the mess hall. Tables and chairs had been removed, but the nautical decorative details were still in place.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

Even the mess hall’s light fixtures were cool: little globes.

Globe Light

One more shot of the lights, because they’re so interesting.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

The third floor includes this little bar, a space for officers only back in the day. Notice the porthole windows in the doors. This was a feature throughout the building.

Heslar Naval Armory

Even the bar carried strong naval themes.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

Much of the armory is given over to offices, but it does also include a gymnasium. The deck on which I stood to take this photograph is an open bridge that was used in training exercises. I wish I thought to photograph it from below!

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

The armory’s most remarkable feature was its submarine simulation area. It can be flooded! A training exercise apparently involved sailors trying to figure out how to stop water from coming in.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

It was a pretty cramped space, but our tour guide assured us that a submarine is even more cramped.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

This first-floor space even had steps and a hatch up to the second floor. It was cordoned off for us tourists, but I’m sure that sailors who didn’t figure out how to stop the water from coming in were grateful to have it.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

The armory is named for Ola Fred Heslar, born in Brazil, Indiana in 1891. His tour of duty with the Navy began in 1907 and continued into the Naval Reserves in 1922, where he was named Chief of Naval Affairs for Indiana. He oversaw the construction of this armory. Heslar returned to active duty during World War II and took command of the armory. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1944. He died in 1970.

Indiana Landmarks brokered a deal for Herron High School, a classical liberal-arts college-preparatory charter school on Indianapolis’s Old Northside, to buy the building. Herron’s building has long been at capacity, and they wanted a second campus to carry on their mission. They’re renovating it now, including tearing out some interior walls, to open it as Riverside High School. Because Indiana Landmarks is involved, all construction will keep the building’s outstanding architectural features. Riverside High School hopes to take in its first students in the fall of 2017.

iPhone 6s and Canon A2e, 50mm f/1.8 Canon EF, Kodak Tri-X.


14 responses to “Touring Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis”

  1. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    What a wonderful building.

    I was recently reading about the similar armory in Detroit. It was not as impressive, but had many similar details. Unfortunately it has also not been preserved nearly as well.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I didn’t know about the Detroit armory! So I looked it up just now. Oh, the humanity. Abandoned and in serious disrepair. :-(

  2. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    In 1984-85 I would drive past this building regularly. It always fascinated me, especially why a facility of the Navy would be in this location.

    A couple of years later, I was invited along when one of the guys I worked for went to lunch with his father. The dad was a WWII Navy pilot and a retired naval reserve officer and suggested lunch at the armory. It was a treat to go inside. I didn’t get the full tour, but I remember being wowed by the architectural details of the building.

    It is good that it is getting a new life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The building wows from the outside, so I shouldn’t have been surprised it wowed on the inside!

  3. Dani Avatar

    Fascinating! I’ve driven by on many occasions but had no clue of its history.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Who knew my blog could be so educational?

  4. Myrl Miles Avatar

    WOW!!! I’ve driven by it several times and often wondered what it looked like inside.. didn’t know it was being renovated for a school now… Great pics .. Thanks for posting them!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! I got in thanks to Indiana Landmarks, which offered this tour.

  5. Joshua Fast Avatar

    That’s incredible Jim. I used to hold summer car club meetings at riverside park and I always noticed this building. It was hard to miss. Glad to see you’ve aired some of it’s mystery!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I always love getting inside cool old buildings like this! Being and Indiana Landmarks member has paid off more than once in this way.

  6. hmunro Avatar

    How marvelous and fascinating, Jim! Between your narrative and your wonderful photos I feel as if I was right there with you.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Glad you enjoyed the tour!

  7. roykarlsvik Avatar

    Very good, and very much fascinating, Jim.
    A training ground for marine officers and sailors quite far away from any salt water is an interesting idea for sure. And what a building it truly was, and is for that matter.
    Great post, as usual.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Roy! It is unusual to find a naval training location in such a land-locked place.

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