Historic High School Gyms on the Rebound

When local gyms lost their original purpose, communities in Mooresville, Jasper, Lebanon, and New Harmony rallied for their preservation.

Memory Hall in Lebanon by Kurtis Crabtree
Today, Lebanon’s 1931 Memory Hall is used by residents of an adjoining apartment complex and rented for private events (Photo: Kurtis Crabtree)

Winning Game Plan

In Indiana, few landmarks stir as much local sentiment as historic gyms. They serve as symbols of local identity, the focus of hometown pride, and the backdrop for generations of memories. As schools grow and consolidate, however, many of these local landmarks end up as second-string players, replaced by larger gyms with more modern amenities. When historic gyms lost their original purpose, communities in Mooresville, Jasper, Lebanon, and New Harmony rallied for their preservation.

In December, Mooresville celebrated the 100th anniversary of its historic Mooresville Gymnasium, marking the landmark’s long history within the community. Dedicated in 1920, the gym became Morgan County’s first facility built specifically for basketball. On the condition they would be repaid and with the promise of free passes to home games in the first year, Mooresville residents and businesses made $100 loans to the school’s athletic association, raising $23,000 to build the new gymnasium. The school’s boys basketball team helped dig its basement and transport gravel for the concrete foundation.

The gym served the high school until 1959, when the school corporation built a new high school and gym. It continued to use the old gym for junior high team games and elementary school physical education classes. In 1996, as the aging gym began to fall into disrepair, locals formed a committee to save the building, raising donations and securing a $77,150 grant from Lilly Endowment for much-needed renovations.

Today, Mooresville Gymnasium is part of a campus of historic buildings, including the 1861 high school (known as the Academy) and 1936 Newby Memorial Elementary School. Still owned by the school, it’s primarily used as a gym for the Mooresville Junior Basketball League and occasional school functions.

In 1939, the Public Works Administration helped fund construction of Jasper High School’s yellow brick gym for $100,000. In 1984, school leaders rechristened it the Cabby O’Neill Gym to honor Coach Leo “Cabby” O’Neill, who steered the Wildcats to win the state championship in 1949. After the high school moved out for newer facilities in 1977, the Art Deco landmark became home court for Jasper’s middle school.

When the school board considered demolishing the gym in 2009, the Dubois County Historic Preservation Committee and a friends group, with Indiana Landmarks’ support, successfully appealed for its preservation. The initiative raised funds for the gym’s renovation, including a new roof, heating, plumbing, and electrical work.

The victory proved fortuitous in 2011, when the roof collapsed at the newer high school gym, making the Cabby O’Neill Gym the high school team’s home court once again for two seasons. Today, the gym hosts community and school events year-round, even the occasional Wildcats game.

Long before it had its moment in the spotlight as a stand-in for the Jasper gym in Hoosiers, Lebanon High School’s 1931 gym starred locally as the home court of the Tigers and venue for several sectional tourneys. After the high school moved to newer facilities in 1968, the City bought the gym for use by its recreation department and the local YMCA.

Memory Hall in Lebanon by Kurtis Crabtree

Memory Hall, Lebanon (Photo: Kurtis Crabtree)

In the ’90s, city leaders sought a new use for the deteriorating gym and neighboring historic high school, repurposed as apartments for seniors. Now part of a luxury apartment complex, The Flats of Lebanon, Memory Hall serves as a fitness center for residents and rental space for private events. Where the stage used to be, a mural commemorates the gym’s history, including former player Rick “the Rocket” Mount, who played for Lebanon from 1962-1966 and became the first high school athlete featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

In southwest Indiana, New Harmony’s 1924 Ribeyre Gymnasium became another Indiana gym to gain fame on film, featured in the 1992 movie A League of Their Own. Today, following a dedicated student and community-led initiative to repurpose the building, it’s The Ribeyre Center, the town’s largest events venue. Faced with a decaying building, New Harmony students formed the Ribeyre Gymnasium Restoration Group (RGRG) in 2001. The group raised over $1 million to restore and update the gym. Used for weddings, banquets, conferences, and festivals, the center’s business took a hit in 2020. “We were going fantastic until COVID hit,” says Rick Johnson, a former New Harmony teacher and RGRG board member. “Hopefully things will pick up this year, because we still have improvements on our to-do list for this awesome building!”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Indiana Preservation, Indiana Landmarks’ member magazine.

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