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?
Share your memories in the comment box below.



15 responses to “Friday Favorite: Art History”

  1. Laura Huff says:

    Lisa – my great-aunt was the first principal of the Herron Art school. She (Edna Shover) and her sister (Lucy) had a home at 1468 N. New Jersey and so were quite close to the school. They were both spinsters and devoted their lives to art. I have a letter written to Aunt Edna by William Forsythe (one of the Indiana Artist Group) when he got a telegram that T.C. Steele had died. Another one of the teachers at the Art School was Paul Hadley who designed the Indiana Flag. I also have some of the original mock-ups of the Indiana flag. I have a great fascination for the Indiana Artists. I love to drive by William Forsythe’s tombstone at Crown Hill.

  2. Ann Stewart says:

    For years my family and I visited there – still have programs from exhibits there – 300 years of Dutch paintings, miniature rooms, etc. loved them all. Later I had a scholarship there as well, moved to Louisville – a great museum there as well, but the classes were nothing like the ones at Herron, they were so disappointing, I gave up art and switched to history! One major disappointment early on though was the dismanteling of the statue of Columbus in front of the museum, like many statues in Indianapolis it was a victim of the war effort!

  3. d m shea says:

    We still have artifacts including pair of winsome Staffordshire dogs purchased at huge street sale when Herron closed to move to present location. And other books etc. At the time Herron had major collect ion of Turners and had a major exhibit for which I handled media, PR etc. Many later-famous people studied there–Eleanor Lambert who singly handedly created fashion industry in US (NYC Fashion Week, world’;s Best Dressed etc,) and perhaps sculptress Janet Scudder? Anyone know?

  4. DNABRAMS says:

    The Herron dean who was hung in effigy was named Donald Mattison. I wrote a wiki article with the help of some classmates a few years ago. We had access to some of Mattison’s personal documents, newspaper clippings, etc at IUPUI and he was a well-respected dean for almost 40 years despite the initial backlash from spending cuts and the way grades were awarded.

  5. Ronald L. Mattison says:

    Donald Mattison was my father’s first cousin. Sadly, our families never contacted each other. I was born in 1941 and would have had many chances to have met him and his family, as we weren’t that far apart (Rockford, IL). I have been researching him, and we have one of his works.

  6. Loretta Yvonne Kinney says:

    In 1949, I lived across the street on Talbot. I spent many hours walking in the museum as a very young child. I took my sketch book and pencils and went in and tried to draw the art works as I saw many students doing. Many of the students took time to help me while sitting out eating lunch on the ground. At age 12 in 1956, my teacher at school #2 sent a piece of my art work in for a chance to win a series of classes. I had no idea she had done so until she handed the envelope with the class times on Saturdays.
    Neither parent thought much of it, so I was allowed to walk to the school until the weather got too bad for me to do so. I had to walk about 2 miles. It was the best experience a child could have had at that time in my life.
    While living in Italy and touring many museums there and in other countries as a military wife, I still always remembered my time there at John Herron. I am so happy it is still involved in the same area and community.
    I am giving a speech in the Capital for students who won the Congress Art Competition on June 24. I plan to mention how wonderful John Herron was and how it inspired me to continue studying however I could and to keep painting. I have been involved with art all over Europe and the Middle East, as well as in the States as a military wife. I have sold art to many people throughout that time and know my art is in many countries.
    I have established an artist guild and been involved with Art Center, Art Councils wherever and whenever possible. It was my exposure to the fine staff and students who helped me to know I was talented. My art has been my life line many times during these 71 years and kept my mind sane during hard times.
    I just wanted to let you know how thankful I am for the John Herron Art School on 16th Street. I will soon have my website back up and running.

  7. Wendy Mills Guion says:

    According to old newspaper articles my husband’s great grandfather, Henry James Hale, often posed for students of portraiture in the early 1900s. Do any old portraits still exist?

  8. DONNA mIKELS sHEA says:

    I think you mean “hanged)–naughty connotation if Donald were “hung”—but while I remember Donald Mattison (wife Kitty maybe?) he was the go-to portrait painter ladies of means (perhaps gentlemen too?) to have oversized oil portrait over the fireplace mantle. I seem to remember one he did of iconic organist Dessa Byrd (later Rappaport)—and perhaps a re-marriage but memory dims with age and clearly there is a short in my switch. (But my old proof-reading skills survive!)

  9. Anonymous says:


  10. Doug Brooks says:

    I studied piano here in the early 1950’s. I remember walking up a long beautiful staircase to my teacher’s studio. Her name was Mrs. Quigg and she always gave me a butterscotch lifesaver when I played well. Wonderful memories and went on to be a piano major at IU.

  11. Amy V Miller says:

    My mother and father both graduated and met at Herron in the late 40’s. My mother helped her professor Ruebens, with the cherub angel clock that Ayres downtown put up every Christmas.

  12. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    OH wow, that is an awesome bit of family connection! By any chance are there any photos of her in her Herron days or helping with the cherub? I’d love to add it to the story if so! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Ric Light says:

    When in early grade-school my grandmother Georgia Gill Schloeman paid my tuition to attend Saturday morning art classes. My favorite parts of classes is when we were allowed to venture into the actual Art Museum section with drawing pads and sketch some of the master works in galleries. Somehow it made me feel more grown-up to be seen as an “artist” when other adult patrons were walking through admiring the paintings an peeking over shoulders to see how we were doing with our sketches. A wonderful place to be on a Saturday morning.

  14. Pam Peirce says:

    My grandmother, Katharine Gibson, grew up in a house across Pennsylvania Street from the old Steele dwelling-. Her home is still standing, (It was 1632 Penn.) She attended Saturday art classes for children in the old Steele artist’s studio for 4 years. She later volunteered, telling children stories, while their parents toured the museum. Her mother, Emily Gibson, volunteered. with Forsyth to offer art lectures in public schools. Emily then followed Frederic Whiting to Cleveland, where he was the first director of the new Cleveland Museum of Art. Both places were pioneers in allowing children in galleries unattended and teaching classes for young people. I did ‘t know any of this until recently when I began to research Katharine Gibson’s life a few years ago in order to write a biography of her–which is now nearing completion.
    I attended life drawing classes, with models, when I was in Jr. High School (with leotards or swim trunks on the models to protect our innocence.) I attended Butler U. and took a number of classes at John Herron while I was there. I have many fond memories of the museum and the school, which have been enhanced by learning more and more about family connections.

    • Fascinating story, Pam! So you must be related to the architect Louis Gibson, presumably? I am pretty sure he designed the house of which you speak. Good luck with your book! Working on one now myself, and it is definitely a lot of work, but in the end, I think, worth it! Good luck and best to you!

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