The Heslar Naval Armory sits on the Eastern bank of the White River on 30th Street in Indianapolis, Indiana. Construction began on this armory in 1936 as a project of the Works Progress Administration. Two years later, the building was already being used, though construction was not complete.
It may seem surprising, but the building was designed to be self-sufficient. Included in the original design were a metal shop, carpenter shop, pipe shop, electrician shop, a walk-in freezer, and a meat locker. The third floor includes a full kitchen.
Before the armory was built, the Naval reservists had no official home. They would meet wherever they could between 1922 and 1936. The first meeting in Indianapolis was held at a medical building at Market Street and Senate Avenue. Another meeting location was at the former Propylaeum located at North and Pennsylvania Streets, now the location of a government building. Another move left them meeting at the Cole Motor Company building, recently closed because of a looming recession. Of note, reservists were not paid to drill at this time. All volunteers participated of their own accord, learning naval skills such as knot tying, boatswain's calls, flag semaphore, flaghoist, and other skills required for duties aboard ships. With no dedicated space and a growing force, constantly changing locations was becoming a hindrance to training.
The Ninth Naval District and the city of Indianapolis authorized the construction of this, the third Naval armory in the
Ninth Naval District, in 1935. All of this was due to the efforts of Captain Ola F. Heslar. From the time he was designated as the commander of the Indianapolis reserves in 1922, he petitioned again and again to have a dedicated armory built to house the Naval Reserve forces in the area. The location was donated by the city of Indianapolis to the state of Indiana, and groundbreaking was celebrated on January 16, 1936. Dedication ceremonies occurred on October 29, 1938, though the facilities had been in use as early as the previous year, while construction took place around them.
Made from a reinforced, concrete shell, the structure of the armory was built to withstand the blast from a bomb. Outer walls were poured first, allowing the supporting structure for the drill deck to be built, which was constructed using copper bracing, and a tar-covered, steel roof. Originally, two tall radio antennas were built on the East and West sides of the roof, accommodating the radio school that would be held here, although lightning strikes were said to have caused massive damage to the roof on several occasions.
Also in the design, famous admirals were to have their names engraved on the building. Their names appear blue against the white of the building. By some accident, the name of Rear Admiral George Henry Preble was engraved "Prebble." The other names are: Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, Captain John Paul Jones, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, Admiral David Dixon Porter, Commodore Stephen Decatur, Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley, Rear Admiral Richmond P. Hobson, and Captain James Lawrence.
Just in time for World War II, the inland location was eyed as a perfect place to discus secret military plans only a few years after its completion. The ample space inside of the armory was a great place for high ranking officials to gather and confer about operations such as the invasion of Normandy.
While bridges along the White River did not allow for ships to make the journey to the Heslar Naval Armory, the armory in Michigan City, Indiana was a great location to ship out. Sailors in the 9th Naval District utilized the U.S.S. Hawk, and the U.S.S. Sacramento for training. The U.S.S. Sacramento was manned by mostly Indiana sailors on December 7, 1941, when it had just come out of dry dock in Pearl Harbor. It is credited with destroying two Japanese airplanes on that day.
Because of its location (right next to the river), the armory is subject to occasional periods of high water from the White River. There is a reinforced flood door in the basement, which helps keep the water from rushing through the entire basement. There have been several floods that have affected the armory, but one that is noted in the scrapbook of the armory is from May of 1943. There is an inscribed plate mounted near the reinforced door noting the high water mark for this flood. It sits roughly four feet from the level of the parking lot, the lot generally being four feet or so above the level of the river.
The Navy and Marine Corps has leased the facility since its completion. An active duty staff conducts duties during normal business hours. A number of reserve units then drill when scheduled, typically one weekend each month.
The Marine Corps Reserve units in Indianapolis were not always stationed out of the armory. For several years, the Marine Corps Reserves operated out of Quonset huts in what is now a baseball/football field in a nearby park. These facilities were not built at the same time, and the 16th Battalion was a new unit. This would bring about the same problems the Naval Reserves had faced.
History regarding the Marine Corps units from Indianapolis is more sparse than that of the Naval Reserves. It is Tomlinson Hall until 1946, when it is presumed the Quonset hut or huts were built in the park near the armory. Damage to this facility and the desire to combine the Navy and Marine Corps forces spurred a renovation of the building in 1977. The plan for this renovation included filling in the pool, and the acquisition of the land formerly owned by the Riverside Amusement Park to use as a parking lot. The roller coaster, "The Thriller" once stood where the parking lot now is, and can be seen in a couple of the pictures included here. A damage control trainer was installed where the garage once was, and the rifle range in the basement was likely converted to offices around this time. An emergency exit stairwell was added to the northern side of the building, and a vehicle maintenance facility for the Marine Corps was built to the north where a shower facility once existed. Stairs leading to the river were filled in to level the parking lot between the building and the river. A massive generator was installed as a backup power source in the Northwest corner of the building, right next to the damage control facility. The radio antennas were also likely taken off of the roof around this time, as the combination of the metal in them and the metal support structure of the gym and roof made lightning strikes more frequent, sometimes blasting holes in the armory roof.
During the 1980's, the computer battle simulator that was planned for the renovation was finally installed. It was a
very advanced system at the time, allowing for 16 concurrent missions to be simulated. These renovations kept the armory a modern facility.
A working restaurant and bar operated in the facility until the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that put all of the nation's military forces on alert. Much like the Pearl Harbor bombing 60 years prior, military members marched around the facility with weapons. The attacks prompted the facility's security to be assessed. It was noted that there were many issues. Riverside Drive was diverted, moving its outlet from directly in front of the armory to a location approximately 350 feet to the East. Concrete barriers, topped with iron fencing, were placed around the parking lot (expanded slightly because of the diverted Riverside Drive) and other portions of the facility.
The building is now beginning to show signs of its age. The terazzo flooring is cracked in many places, as well as the outer concrete shell. Once an advanced feature of the building, the damage control trainer is unusable, as it leaks into the basement. A flag recovered from the U.S.S. Fechteler and donated by a survivor from her sinking is falling from its pins in a cracked case. Paint is peeling from the once grand and celebrated ballroom on the third deck, as well as from the fifteen-feet square oil murals that decorate the gym on the second deck, the floor of which is quite scuffed and scratched. Outlines of various naval vessels bearing the name or class of Indiana and Indianapolis that once decorated the gym floor have been worn off of the gym floor.
An uncertain future awaits the armory. New facilities are being built on land near the commissary of the former Fort Benjamin Harrison to accommodate the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve units. When they relocate, it is anticipated that the Indiana Army National Guard will take possession of the armory. This brings concern that the murals in the gym will be painted over, and the building will be renovated. This would ruin the history that has been more than 76 years in the making.