Historic Structures

Ralph Waldo Emerson School, Gary Indiana

Date added: May 1, 2022 Categories: Indiana School

In the area of education, Emerson School was the first of the five Gary schools designed by architect William Butts Ittner to be built specifically to utilize the Platoon System, a famous educational innovation first instituted in Gary. Students were divided into two groups; one to study academic subjects, the other to study vocational and cultural subjects. The groups switched activities during the day, ensuring that all students would study both kinds of subjects and the classrooms would be in use the whole time. This system was the forerunner of our present high school curriculum. Emerson is also significant in the area of social history for its role in the planned company town of Gary, where it was used to assimilate immigrant children and adults into American society, and to instill those values deemed important by commxanity leaders. Finally, it is significant for its association with William A. Wirt, Superintendent of Schools in Gary. Wirt developed the Platoon System in Gary, and introduced it into schools nationwide. Emerson was designed according to Wirt's instructions and included special rooms for recreational and vocational classes. It was the first public school in Indiana to have an indoor swimming pool.

In 1907, William Wirt was hired to become the first Superintendent of Schools in the new planned community of Gary, created by U.S. Steel. Wirt believed that urban influences could be harmful to weak-willed youth, leading them to crime and vice. His schools would train children to resist temptation by instilling the values formerly taught by church, home, and the farm. One of his theories was that children should be trained to be useful members of society, while giving them the freedom to choose activities that suited their needs. To this end, he instituted what he called the Work-Study-Play plan, also known as the Platoon, or Gary System. Emerson School was the first of five schools designed expressly to utilize this system.

The Gary system was intended for children in junior high and high school. The students were divided into two groups. While one group studied math, English, reading, and history, the other group would use the wood and metal shops, gymnasium, and auditorium. This plan would keep both classrooms and special study rooms in use all day (at that time, students remained in one room for all of their studies). Since Gary was growing rapidly during this period, the platoon system helped alleviate some of the overcrowding in the schools by utilizing space that normally would be vacant for much of the day. The school day ran from 8:15 to 4:15, but the teachers had a 20% shorter day than the students. Special teachers taught some of the vocational classes, allowing regular teachers to work shorter hours. The school day also allowed time for private music lessons, religious training, and visits to the Y.M.C.A.

Word of Wirt's new system spread, and in 1914, he was hired as a part-time consultant to institute his program in the New York City schools. By 1930, over 200 cities were using Wirt's system. Detroit alone had 110 of its city schools on the platoon system in 1928.

Wirt envisioned Emerson School as a total learning environment. He worked with architect William Butts Ittner, the foremost school architect of the time, to design a building that would house all of the activities Wirt thought necessary for students' development. The physical layout of the school on its lot emphasized Wirt's philosophy that the school should be separated from the city by a park-like lawn in front and by playgrounds and athletic fields at the side and rear. Ittner designed four other schools in Gary: Froebel High (1912), Horace Mann (1926), Roosevelt (1928), and Lew Wallace (1931), all of which are still standing. Prior to his death in 1936, Ittner had designed over 500 schools throughout the country. His schools were convenient, solidly-constructed, artistically-designed, sanitary, and had excellent lighting, heating, and ventilation systems. His buildings cost two-thirds less than comparable schools.

The Emerson program tried to prepare students for real-life work. The vocational classes produced products to benefit the school. The girls' home economics class cooked and served school lunches in the cafeteria. The print shop printed Wirt's speeches and articles on the Gary system. The cabinetmaking class crafted bookshelves, desks, and cupboards for the classrooms. Emerson added a forge, foundry, and machine shop in 1912, but discontinued cabinet-making and painting in 1914. In 1913, Emerson opened a public health lab where students ran water quality and other tests under the supervision of professionals.

Wirt considered the auditorium one of the most important parts of the school. Students learned public speaking and drama here, as well as having special presentations on cultural subjects. The school was also the first in the state to have an indoor swimming pool.

Wirt controlled the Gary schools with a strong hand. He was obsessed with creating a strong work ethic, strict order, and efficiency. The School Board allowed him a free hand, as his policies corresponded to its own ideas of education. Wirt's educational practices also advanced the cause of U.S. Steel, the city's primary industry. U.S. Steel wanted a corps of workers to fill factory positions, not independent thinkers and rebels.

One of the Gary plan's intentions was rapid Americanization of immigrants. Emerson school had 66% foreign-born students (Froebel School, built in 1912, had 87% foreign-born). The predominant ethnic group in Gary came from the former Austro-Hungarian empire, containing Slav, Czech, Polish, and other south-central European peoples. Other ethnic groups were Russian empire, Italian, British Isles, German, and Scandinavian (Emerson had a higher percentage of Scandinavian and British Isles students than the other Gary schools). The school offered classes in several foreign languages, but none in English as a second language. Teachers sought to assimilate immigrants by undermining their ethnic identification. They Americanized the students' foreign names, and made them observe patriotic and religious (Protestant) holidays. Emerson School also taught night classes for adults until 10 P.M. At one time, there were more adults enrolled for night school than children for regular classes.

The Gary system exerted social control over children and adults who attended its schools. It taught American Protestant values and ideals to working-class immigrants. Night classes often prepared immigrants for citizenship. Emerson turned out a steady stream of workers for the Gary steel factories, although it did place more o£ an emphasis on academics than the other Gary schools, which were in more heavily Central-European immigrant neighborhoods.

William Wirt died in 1938 from a heart attack brought on by overwork. After his death, the Gary system quickly fell apart. Budget cuts and the absence of Wirt's controlling hand caused the Gary schools to lose their individuality. Although elements of the Gary system exist in secondary schools today, the system as originally conceived by Wirt ended in 1938. When last used, Emerson School was a magnet school for students in the visual and performing arts.

In 1981, Emerson closed as a high school. For approximately 17 years, the facility housed a performing arts magnet program, which has since relocated and is still in operation. The original Emerson High School facility closed in 2008 due to lack of funds and building dilapidation, including mold.