Wigwam's place in history clear, but its future isn't

2013-03-02T20:15:00Z 2013-03-02T21:24:05Z Wigwam's place in history clear, but its future isn'tKyle Neddenriep The Indianapolis Star nwitimes.com
March 02, 2013 8:15 pm  • 

ANDERSON, Ind. | On a cold winter day, you can see your breath inside the building on the corner of 14th and Lincoln.

The utilities are turned off. The hallways, littered with fallen ceiling tiles, are spookily quiet. The only sound is a relentless west wind smacking the windows.

Nobody gets inside anymore, at least not on a regular basis. The iconic building, distinguishable by the 82,000-piece tile Indian head on its south side, was locked up in 2011 after 50 years.

Officially, it was named the Anderson High School Athletic and Educational Building, a 9,000-capacity marvel that came along at the perfect time, in the perfect place to capture the soul of Indiana high school basketball.

It was forever known, forever loved, as the Wigwam.

"The most talked about high school basketball gym in the world," said Jumpin' Johnny Wilson, Anderson's 1946 IndyStar Mr. Basketball winner. "When people found out I was from Anderson, they'd always ask me: 'What about the Wigwam?' It's a disgrace what's happened to it."

On Friday and Saturday nights the past two winters, the Wigwam has sat empty, a relic of more prosperous days when General Motors fueled the local economy and Anderson season tickets were passed down through the generations.

There are no plans to save it. There are no plans to demolish it. The building is quiet and dark, waiting for a miracle.

The woman who answers the phone at Felix Chow's office hesitates when told the nature of the call. "He doesn't really like to talk about the Wigwam," she warns, not without reason.

Chow, the Anderson schools superintendent, recommended closing the Wigwam in 2011 as part of a plan that would save the financially strapped district an estimated $550,000 in personnel and utility costs.

On March 8, 2011, the School Board voted 6-1 in favor of Chow's plan. It wasn't a huge surprise, as the school corporation faced a budget crisis, sagging enrollment and teacher layoffs. Some citizens and board members wondered aloud how much fiscal sense it made to keep the Wigwam open when it wasn't even a quarter-full on game nights.

Still, when coach Ron Hecklinski told the crowd, "The Wigwam is Anderson," before the final game in 2011, nobody disagreed. And Chow, to a segment of the population, was the person most responsible for closing its doors.

"I'm sort of a futurist rather than a historian," says Chow, who came to Anderson in 2010 after 15 years as a school administrator in Michigan. "It's nice to be nostalgic, but if you can't maintain (the Wigwam) then you have to move on. The realistic point is this: if some active community members find a viable use of it, I'm sure the board would be happy to make a go of it."

To this point, Chow tells The Indianapolis Star, no buyers have come forward with an offer. Though the building itself can be bought for a nominal price, the utility costs (roughly $350,000 a year) and general upkeep have kept investors away. There's also the issue of finding a revenue-producing venture for the facility.

Hecklinski, who coached the final 18 seasons for Anderson in the Wigwam before stepping down in 2011, said he's investigated options for the facility with three or four investment groups.

None have come to fruition so far.

"The catch is to be able to come in and get it up to code in some areas without making any money initially," said Hecklinski, who still teaches at Anderson. "There's an opportunity there for some independent people to come in and buy the building at a fair price. It's still a viable building, but there's no heat running through it now. Things will start breaking down."

As more time passes, the Wigwam slips further into the background and out of the headlines.

A group of 130 to 150 local business people formed a "Save the Wigwam" group in 2010 with the idea of hiring a full-time administrator to bring events into the facility and raise money for utilities and repairs. But that plan also would have kept the school corporation on the hook as the owner.

"It wasn't a cash offer, which is what the superintendent wanted," said Jack Graham, the former president of the "Save the Wigwam" group. "We had a plan, it was just going to take us some more time."

The "Save the Wigwam" group hasn't had any formal meetings in more than a year.

"We kind of threw our hands up and said, 'Forget it,'" said Graham, a 1960 Anderson graduate. "I don't go to the games anymore. I'll always be an Indian, but I don't agree with what happened."

Chow said he takes no pride in the closing of the Wigwam, acknowledging that "any closed building over time will become an eyesore." But he estimates it would cost more than a million dollars to raze the Wigwam, a figure the school also cannot afford.

So it remains in limbo, a victim of circumstances that could have been different.

On June 25, 1999, Jasuti Goss watched from her front porch at 322 W. 12th St. as smoke billowed from a raging fire at the old Anderson High School building. Hundreds of people, many of whom had attended classes in the nearly 90-year-old building, gathered as more than 200 firefighters attempted to extinguish the flames.

"It was awful," said Goss, who returned as an adult to live in her childhood home on 12th Street. "I started walking down to the school and people came running the opposite direction yelling that the school might explode."

There was no explosion and the Wigwam suffered only minor smoke damage. But the school, which was vacated in 1997 when the students were moved to the closed Madison Heights building on the city's south side, was mostly destroyed.

From there, two ideas emerged. One, pushed by a "Save Our Schools" group of alumni and residents, called for a new downtown high school on the site of the old school.

At the same time, then-mayor Mark Lawler proposed for the city to acquire the Wigwam. The $10 million plan was to allow the school to continue to lease the facility for events, while it and the remaining part of the old high school would also house the Anderson Police Department, the city's Parks and Recreation Department headquarters, a senior citizens center, the Police Athletic League and a café.

"We are ready to step up to the plate," Lawler told the School Board in 2001.

Neither idea was realized. The school corporation instead chose to move its central offices to the Wigwam, allowing it to close and sell three other buildings. The School Board approved $300,000 in renovations to the Wigwam in early 2002 but then moved its central offices to another building when the Wigwam was closed in 2011.

"It's my opinion that building a new high school downtown would have solidified our community," said former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher and Anderson resident Carl Erskine, 86. "The Wigwam was left standing there by itself, isolated."

Current Mayor Kevin Smith said the city isn't in a position financially to do anything with the Wigwam except to aid the school corporation in finding a willing business partner.

"The tax stream is not there to support it so you have to look to a private enterprise," Smith said. "It's a great public space and we want to see it used. It was a main focal point of Anderson for a long time. But shifting the financial burden to the city probably isn't the answer."

National media frequently made visits to the Wigwam. With a capacity of 8,996 fans, it was second only to the New Castle Fieldhouse as the nation's largest high school gym.

Anderson is a different place now than in the Wigwam's heyday in the 1970s. In 1970, General Motors employed more than 30 percent of the city's 70,000 residents. The population had dropped to 56,129 by the 2010 census, the same year Anderson Highland High School closed, leaving the city with one public high school.

High school basketball also changed dramatically. Many people in Anderson point to the end of the single-class tournament in 1997 as the beginning of the end for the Wigwam, which lost out on sectional games it had once hosted.

But the Wigwam's thinning crowds followed a trend of many Indiana communities, particularly schools in mid-sized cities like Anderson, Muncie, Richmond and Marion, all with gyms of 6,500 capacity or larger.

"Interest was starting to go downhill even before class basketball," said Jim Bailey, a longtime Anderson Herald-Bulletin sportswriter who still writes a weekly column. "The number of season tickets were dropping every year."

Hecklinski saw it firsthand. But like others who are critical of Chow and the School Board's decision, he doesn't believe the Wigwam was utilized to its full potential in recent years for community events outside of basketball games.

"What I see is a viable building downtown in a city that is struggling," Hecklinski said. "It tugs at my heartstrings. There are a lot of people that say, 'Get over it, blah, blah, blah.' But it's just one more thing we've allowed to go down."

In his coach's office after a recent 73-67 win over New Castle, second-year Anderson coach Joe Nadaline sounds like a man who is conflicted.

Nadaline, 47, played at New Castle, the only high school gym in the world larger than the Wigwam. Those were the days when places like Anderson, New Castle, Marion and Muncie were the axis of Indiana basketball.

The Wigwam's first season was 1961-62, the same year a record 1.55 million fans attended the state boys basketball tournament.

"I was lucky to be in those places every Friday and Saturday night when they were full," Nadaline said. "We tell our kids about it, how it used to be. But they never saw it and never will in their lifetime. When there is 1,500 or 2,000 people in the Wigwam, it felt empty. It's a shame. I love the Wigwam and wish we could support it, but we've made a nice little niche here in this building."

Nadaline has one regret. "It didn't get sent off the way it should have," he said. "I'd love to play one more game there and people come from all over and fill it up. It deserves that."

The clock is ticking. Every week/month/year of inactivity that goes by will make it more costly to get the Wigwam into shape.

"You could walk in there and play a game tomorrow," said Ron David, Anderson's scorekeeper for three decades and a 1949 Anderson grad. "But five years from now ..."

David's voice trails off, but the implication is there. The Wigwam becoming a downtown eyesore would be the ultimate embarrassment.

"Everywhere I go people always ask," David said, "'What's going to happen to the Wigwam?' "

For now, there is just silence.

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