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Video: Historic abandoned Ind. school destroyed by fire

Twenty-mile-per-hour winds caused flames to spread quickly, leading to “(severe) damage” and the collapse of most of the roof, the Gary Fire Department said

By Rebecca Johnson
Chicago Tribune

GARY, Ind. — An investigation is underway into a “heavy” fire that broke out Saturday evening in the roof and attic of the abandoned Emerson High School, according to the Gary Fire Department.

Firefighters responded to a blaze at the four-story brick school, at 716 E. 7th Ave., at about 9:45 p.m., the department said. Twenty-mile-per-hour winds from the west caused flames to spread quickly through the structure, leading to “(severe) damage” and the collapse of most of the roof, the department said.

The fire was mostly extinguished by 3 a.m., the department said, and no injuries were reported. Firefighters from Merrillville and Munster helped control the blaze.

Gary’s fire department and the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office are investigating the cause and origin of the fire.

The school is known for a four-day boycott in 1927, where hundreds of students demanded that administrators kick out 18 Black students. The Black students, who endured racist threats, eventually returned to the non-accredited Virginia Street school.

“I was saddened when I arrived on the scene to see such devastating damage to Emerson. This building contains so much history to so many of us in Gary,” said Gary Fire Chief Mark Terry . “I have many fond memories here having attended many events when my son was a student here.”

“The birthplace of our modern educational system was started right here, and this school was the first school in the country to have a swimming pool,” Terry added. “There have been so many famous alumni that roamed these halls.”

The school on the city’s east side, closed since 2008 when the Emerson School for Visual and Performing Arts relocated, has been the site of multiple recent crimes. In July, three East Chicago men and a juvenile girl were arrested after shots were fired inside the building, while another fire broke out at the school a month earlier.

In 2015, police found a 17-year-old Chicago teen dead inside the blighted building, which opened in 1909.

The fire department said the property was transferred to the Gary Housing Authority in December 2020 , but it’s been unused and is considered “uninhabitable.” They said there were no active utility connections to the building.

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