Herron High School 2014

110 East 16th Street
One look at the building and you just know it’s been an important location for decades. Mature trees, Indiana limestone, sturdy architecture. The near-north side campus, known to most as just “Herron,” boasts a rich tradition in the arts. Currently the location houses a public charter school that offers a college preparatory, classical-based education to students in grades 9 -12. The building was originally designed for another purpose, though — to house the Museum of the John Herron Art Institute–and what would become the IMA.


May Wright Sewell (1844 – 1920)

The Art Association of Indianapolis
It was Indianapolis suffragette and activist, May Wright Sewall, who first fomented the movement that would become John Herron Art Institute.  After organizing a series of popular art lectures, Sewall invited attendees to her home to discuss the formation of an art association.  The resulting “Art Association of Indianapolis” incorporated on October 11, 1883, with an original membership of 54. Their mission: “To provide opportunities for the public to look at pictures…and to provide opportunity for instruction in art.”


Circle Hall, home of the Indiana School of Art from 1891-1897 when the building was demolished.

In 1877, the first school in Indiana dedicated entirely to the teaching of art on a professional level was established. Early years of intermittent instruction slowly transitioned to a more  consistent program. By 1889, noted Indiana artist, T. C. Steele (1847–1926) taught at the art school located in Circle Hall.  Financial problems plagued this school and would likely have failed if not for the Art Association. With the patrons’ financial help, the school reorganized and incorporated in May 1891.  Steele taught at the school until 1895, to devote his full attention to painting.


John Herron (1813-1895)

As Indianapolis businessman John Herron was deciding how to best have his name live in posterity,  his attorney encouraged him to consider a bequest to fund the Indianapolis Art Association, where he could make a substantial difference, rather than spreading a smaller funds across a number of worthy organizations.  Upon his death in 1895, he deeded $225,000 to the Art Association of Indianapolis, for the purpose of opening a new art school and museum.  His gift stipulated that the new institution bear his name.  (Naming rights aren’t an invention of modern football stadiums, after all.)

The Art Association earmarked $150,000 of the gift for art acquisition, $10,000 for art school operation, and $65,000 to procure a building and grounds. The institution eventually located at the former Tinker Homestead, or Talbott House–which T.C. Steele had been renting as his art studio for some time– at the corner of Sixteenth and Pennsylvania Streets, opening in 1902 with only 10 students and five teachers.


The Tinker House, first home of the John Herron Art Institute. was already 75 years old by the time it was procured for the school 

Even in the early years, the school was a true resource for the community. Evening and weekend classes were established for students who worked during the day and special Saturday classes were provided for children and public school teachers. The old Tinker Homestead quickly became too small for both the thriving school and art collections so, in 1903, the Association began planning a museum building for the property. The architectural firm of Vonnegut and Bohn were awarded a contract to design the new facility. Unfortunately, the Tinker House had to be demolished for the new campus.


A 1929 rendering of the 1906 building.

A new John Herron Art Institute opened on a cold November evening in 1906. Among the many dignitaries in attendance was Hoosier poet, James Whitcomb Riley. The property now housed a school and separate museum space.  The Association grew with the property and so did their responsibilities. Class offerings, outreach to the community, and exhibitions increased exponentially. During WWI, though the school lost many students to the war, the remaining artists formed special classes to teach handicrafts as recreational therapy for convalescing soldiers.

On Thanksgiving eve 1920, a fire damaged the school. Repairs were made but the interim was miserable as art class enrollment continued to expand. In 1928, a gift of $200,000 was received for a permanent art school building, making expansion a reality. As one might expect, the Depression years were difficult for the Institute, with losses of both students and museum revenues. Budgets had to be slashed. First, salaries and then, positions were reduced. Unfortunately, the director, Donald Mattison, felt the wrath of the loyal student body when he was compelled, for the survival of the school, to fire nine faculty members in 1933. The students hung Mattison in effigy from one of the trees on the lawn and set fire to it. (Knowing the school’s reputation for producing the highest caliber of artist from amongst its ranks, however, one can assume that the likeness of Mattison was exquisite.)


Students sketching in the lobby of the museum, 1921.

Once again in the 1940s, war took a toll on the school by pilfering students and reducing means during WWII. However, when the GIs came marching home, the GI Bill helped fill the Herron classrooms. The 1950s were years of growth in both the size of the student body and in programs offered by the school. Two big changes were coming. The first, in 1966, when Josiah Kirby Lilly bequeathed a portion of the family estate (located at 38th Street and Michigan Road) to the Art Association, for a proposed art museum site. The Indianapolis Museum of Art eventually subsumed the Herron art collections. The second change came in 1967 when the Herron School of Art became a school of Indiana University and two years later, part of Indiana University Purdue University–Indianapolis (IUPUI). The school remained at the 16th Street campus for three more decades before eventually moving to the downtown IUPUI campus.

Spring ahead to 2003, when the founders of the new Herron High School focused on the adaptive potential of the vacant former John Herron Art Institute campus. Herron High School’s founders believed that the rebirth of the historic campus as a center of learning would provide an anchor for the community landscape and honor the heritage of the buildings.  The school’s liberal arts curriculum is even organized using an art history timeline.

Image credits: The Herron Chronicle, IUPUI Libraries, Herron High School. To learn more about Herron’s rich history, you may enjoy The Herron Chronicle. The book provides a captivating record of the school’s history, noted teachers, most famous students — and more than 200 historic photographs!

Were YOU a Herron student on the 16th Street campus?
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