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This Greek Revival building served as the Indiana Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb from 1850 until 1911. The asylum grounds were on the southeast corner of the National Road (East Washington Street) and State Avenue. With roots dating to 1843, the school became the sixth state school for the Deaf in the nation and the first to provide free education. After renting three downtown locations, in 1849 the state hired architect Joseph Willis to design and build this structure east of town. The new school opened in 1850 at the cost of $30,000. After over six decades at this location, the buildings were in poor condition and in 1911 the school moved to a new campus on East 42nd Street just north of the Indiana State Fairgrounds. At that time a more politically correct name, the Indiana State School for the Deaf, was adopted. In 1961 the name was again shorted to the Indiana School for the Deaf.

Photographer Charles Bretzman, with the help of Orson Archibald, made this panoramic photograph labeled “Alumni reunion, ‘Ladies’ Group’, Indiana State School for the Deaf, June 6, 1908, old Institution grounds named ‘Willard Park’, May 29, 1908.” Archibald, an alumnus and teacher at the school, is known for donating eighty acres near Brookston, Indiana for the creation of the Archibald Memorial Home for the Aged and Infirm Deaf. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007661705/)

William Willard

William Willard (1809-1888), a Deaf educator, promoted the formation of the school and encouraged Indiana legislators to support a state-operated school. In 1843 he and his wife, Eliza Young Willard, rode on horseback throughout Indiana seeking students. They enrolled twelve pupils by the time their private Willard School opened that fall with Eliza in charge of the girls and William in charge of the boys. After the school became state funded in 1844, William briefly served as the school’s founding president, but was replaced by a hearing administrator. Willard continued to teach there for about twenty years when he sued the trustees for decreasing his salary without just cause. William prospered through his investments in real estate, banks, stocks, and as a commissioner of the National Road. He and his family lived in a substantial Greek Revival-style house on eighty acres north of the institution. He died of cancer in 1888.

1876 map of the Deaf School

In 1876 the state owned many acres on the near east side used for the Deaf Institute and the Female Reformatory Institute (today known as the Indiana Women’s Prison). To the north were Woodruff Place and the United States Arsenal, now Arsenal Technical High School. (The Illustrated Atlas of the State of Indiana, Indianapolis map, 1876)

1876 map of the Deaf School, close-up

A close-up of the 1876 map shows that the main building faced west toward the curved drive and State Avenue. Behind the main structure was a two-story building that housed the classrooms and chapel. President William Willard’s land was located north of the school between State and Randolph Streets. The National Road (East Washington Street) toll house stood east of the institute grounds.

Willard Park Plan, 1913

By 1911 the state sold the old asylum property to the City of Indianapolis. Although there was a push to use the land for a coliseum and convention hall, the Indianapolis Park Commissioners chose the site for the newly-named Willard Park. After the main building was demolished and other structures such as a gymnasium, car barn, greenhouses, and partially-burned ice house were auctioned to the highest bidder in early 1912, the city hired landscape architect George E. Kessler who prepared this drawing in 1913. His plan called for milder sports, mainly for women and children, in the well-wooded western section. The section between Walcott and Randolph Streets, formerly the site of the Deaf School buildings, was already clear of trees and ideal for a centralized building, pool, and smaller playground; while the eastern half provided space for two baseball diamonds and athletic field surrounded by a quarter-mile track. Knowing that this was not in the budget, Kessler suggested that a local philanthropist could fund the project. Later maps and photographs indicate that only part of his plan was implemented as drawn, although the park was developed in 1914 and 1915 with tennis courts, ball diamonds, the athletic field, and over 200 trees had been planted. (Drawing from the Indianapolis Sunday Star, September 28, 1913, p. 10)

Willard Park, 2011

Today, the eleven-acre Willard Park is still maintained by Indy Parks. Recently the neighborhood park underwent a $500,000 renovation and now contains a picnic shelter, playground, swimming pool, spray pool, soccer field, baseball diamond, walking trail, and basketball courts. Three acres were carved off of the west end of the park in 1990 to build a fire station and the MECA tower (Metropolitan Emergency Communications Agency). In 2001 a stone memorial was dedicated in honor of Sylvia Likens, a local girl who was tortured and murdered in a nearby house in 1965. Today many of the nearby houses in Willard Park of Holy Cross-Westminster Neighborhood are being revitalized and the park gets extensive use. (Photo by Heritage Photo & Research Services)

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3 responses to “Then and Now: The Old Deaf School and Willard Park 1901 E. Washington Street”

  1. Virginia Swift Singer says:

    Spent many summer days at Willard Park. Stood in line for hours to get into the pool.

  2. Matthew S. Moore says:

    Thanks for featuring this look at a fascinating bit of Indianapolis history! As an alumnus of the school founded by William and Eliza Willard, I’d like to increase awareness about the Willards and ISD’s rich history among the general public. I’ve made preliminary plans to form a memorial committee. One of our goals is to restore the damaged pillar marking the Willard Family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery, and possibly to replace the weather-worn stones with new ones (while preserving the originals). If you know of any living descendants of the Willards, please contact me at Editor@deaflife.com.

  3. C.Ottinger says:

    I’m curious to know how one might be able to find the state records from the 1912 auction. It would be interesting to try to track some of the building contents to see if anything could be found.

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