Seymour’s Shields Gym: A Beautiful Tragedy
It is hard not to miss it as you drive from the interstate on 6th Street towards the high school, but not much has changed with its appearance over the past few years, except for a couple more broken windows. It’s a relic of another time situated in a large grassy area surrounded by residential homes. The James B. Shield Gymnasium, the former home of the Seymour High School Owls basketball program, is a beautiful tragedy.
I originally passed the building on my way to the current school’s home the Lloyd E. Scott Gym, which was hosting the regional championship between New Albany and Castle High Schools. It was during Romeo-mania, and I wanted to get there before 8,000-plus fans took up all of the spots in the parking lot. Finally, I had my chance to visit old Shields on my way back from a game in Scottsburg.
The structure is abandoned and has been for quite some time. Just like with many other former sporting facilities, what exactly do you do with them once they no longer serve as home to a sports team of some type? However, this tragic beauty is noticeable in the 17,000-plus residents of Seymour.
The basketball arena is smack-down in the center of a residential neighborhood and on the main street, where multiple cars pass by daily. I can only imagine what a passing motorist thought of me taking pictures and videos in front of the old gym. However, I am not one of the many visitors who have left their mark with graffiti and broken glass.
The pieces of jagged glass and the uncovered windows provide a glimpse inside the squalid conditions of the 70-year-old building. Pieces of glass crunch underneath my feet as I get closer to the windows to take a peek inside. The best glimpses are the former bathrooms, but there is a perfect view of a former classroom complete with a chalkboard that is now littered with graffiti.
There is also a shot of walls, spackled with spray paint, dormant staircases leading to nowhere, chipped paint and rotten wood, and a small sight of the grandstand through one of the doors. Many have been inside since the building has shut down to harm, but many more experience wonderful memories during its time as a basketball arena.
The gym opened as the home of Shields High School on November 14, 1941, with a 23-17 loss to Columbus. The capacity crowd of 4,000 waited for four years for it to be completed by the city and the Works Progress Administration.
The building was viewed as “one of the finest and most modern arenas in the state” by the local media. That first night, the gym was packed to the rafters, and “yell leaders”, the school band, and the basketball team wore new “swanky outfits” on the “honey-colored floor”. There would be many more nights like this in the next 29 years.
“We have some good games in the “Cracker Box” Shields gym.” said former Seymour standout and Indiana Hall of Famer, Baron Hill in 2000. “It just felt like the fans were right down on top of you there. I liked playing there better, actually than in the big gymnasium.”
Frank B. Shields purchased the land that was adjacent to the high school for $15,000 and donated it to the city for the purpose of a new gymnasium. The school’s gym, at the time, had been built in 1923 and was no longer adequate to hold crowds, especially the lucrative regional tournaments.
It was not uncommon for schools at the time to construct larger gyms to accommodate the increased interest in the sport. Towns across the state in Washington, Berne, Veevay, Morristown, and Hebron were all erecting new buildings. The size and price ranged in stature; Richmond High School constructed a new gym for $230,000 and had seating for 4,000, and Summitville High School Gym built a 1,000-seat venue for $54,000.
However, the Seymour gymnasium should have been completed within a year of its first shovel in the ground. Work was halted more than halfway through the project due to appropriations being exhausted. Everett I. Brown Company of Indianapolis was hired as its architect and at the end of its completion, cost $185,887.
The original price tag was $95,000, but an additional $78,000 was needed to complete the basketball palace. Seymour issued bonds to help with the additional cost. The WPA paid $106,804, Seymour offered $69,083, and the civil city $10,000. There was even an architect’s fee of $7,866.
The concrete and steel gym was designed to be fireproof and is 129 feet by 170 feet with a playing court of 50 feet by 76 feet. Its capacity is 3,500 and also houses classrooms and offices for the boys’ physical education department, music and industrial arts department, and the rehabilitation office.
The Owls continued their success at Shields and captured 21 sectional titles from 1942-1970–including 12 consecutive from 1954-1965. There would also be 6 regional championships that culminated with an undefeated regular season in 1970. The magical season ended with an 80-78 loss to Loogootee in semi-state action, and the team finished with a 25-1 record for its last season at Shields.
In 1959, the school moved to a new campus and changed its name to Seymour High School. The original classroom building adjacent to the gym was converted into a middle school. The gym would continue to be used by both schools for various functions, and the high school remained at the gym until the 1969-1970 academic year when a new gymnasium opened that more than doubled its size.
The middle school would operate out of the school building and gym until it moved into its new school in 1981. The school offered the structures to the city for $1, but the mayor declined, indicating that the upkeep and repairs would be too costly. Mayor Christopher D. Moritz wanted to move the community center to the former high school, due to the current center needing a new $30,000 roof. However, this was turned down by its members.
The Seymour School Board then rejected a bid from Indiana Bible College because it did not meet the legal requirement of 90 percent of the appraised value. The IBC offered $50,000, even though the structure was appraised at $80,000. Less than three weeks later, the college purchased the gymnasium for $50,000, along with the former high school for the same price plus five plots of land for $28,000.
The Indiana Bible College renovated the two buildings in less than three months and opened for the academic year in September. At the time, there were high hopes that the university would put Seymour on the map in the same vein as DePauw University did for Greencastle and Hanover College did Hanover. Former Indiana governor Edward Whitcomb declared it “one of the most significant events in Seymour in the last hundred years.”
The school was affiliated with United Pentecostal Church International. Students of any faith could enroll at the college and enrollment that the first year was 70 with hopes of more in the upcoming years. The rehabilitated building featured a church auditorium, library, cafeteria, and dormitories.
The IBC closed its doors in town after seven academic years. This would lead to multiple discussions for the property’s future that included an area museum, a larger city hall, office space for the city parks department, and a branch for the Home Federal Savings Bank. The school building and gym had sentimental value to the city and many thought it would be used once again.
The main hindrance in converting the property was the cost of upkeep. The building costs $155,000 and would need another $80,000 to clear up the mortgage balance and interest. In contrast, it would be $40,000 to raise both buildings, plus renovations would be more of a project that the city would not want to take on at the time.
By 1996 the original school that was built in 1910 was severely deteriorating. Parts of it were falling down and vandals had broken many of the windows of the three-story structure. There were also two areas left unsecured that welcomed unwanted guests roaming the abandoned property.
By this time, Ralph and Greg Pardieck, two local businessmen bought the property and buildings and hoped to sell them for a profit. The school building would be razed in 1997 leaving only the Shields Gym standing. The gym would be used from time to time, including a haunted house for Halloween and social gatherings.
Pardieck offered to sell the gym to the city for 2.9 million dollars for use as a park in 2006. The park board suggested that he donate as a tax-write-off since the $12,000 monthly payment for the next 20 years would be out of the city’s reach. There was a need for gym space for recreational activities in Seymour, but the cost was too extraordinary. If Pardieck had donated the property, the city would have offered to rename the park after him. The board added that it would be a lot cheaper to build a brand-new building from scratch.
The current P.A. and radio voice of Seymour basketball, Curt Nichols, indicated that the gym is stuck in the middle of it being too expensive to renovate and that the last will supersede the emotional attachment to its history. He would not be surprised if it is eventually razed to clear the property for other purposes.
A Save Shields Facebook Group has been established to create awareness of its continued neglect under private ownership and seeks to have it returned to public use as a community center. However, the site’s last update was over three years ago. One last item from the property was moved to another part of town. Pardieck relocated the front arch of the school to the Chateau De Pique Winery.
The building’s most recent news was in October of 2018 when firefighters were called out to put out a fire. The smoke billowed out of the upper windows and looked to be the work of an individual since the power and electricity had shut off for some time. Luckily, there did not appear to be any major damage, but that might not be the case the next time someone decides to enter the gym with nefarious intent.
However, like many other sports venues from Hamtramck Stadium outside of Detroit, Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey, and Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, they have either been resurrected for usage or are in the process of being renovated. In Indiana alone, several former basketball gyms have been repurposed for current use from a restaurant and brewery in Whitestown to a bourbon distillery in Newtown. However, it takes a vision and a little capital to make enterprises like these a reality.
Perhaps that will be the case in Seymour, Indiana. However, time is the building’s foe, and the future looks gravely dim. It will need a miracle shot at the buzzer to save it.