The Bicknell High School Gymnasium, razed in 1995, was one of many Knox County buildings constructed by the New Deal agency the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression.
Work on the gym began in mid-1938, and, plagued by financial concerns, the structure was not completed until the fall of 1940. Fashioned of Bedford limestone, the gym was one of the most attractive, architecturally significant buildings in northern Knox County. It served as the location for countless high school basketball games, housed home economics classrooms, and was used for many other large community events.
There had long been a need for a large gymnasium in Bicknell. The old gym in the Westside School had very limited seating and could not be used for high school home games.
Lester Routt, of the Vincennes architectural firm Sutton & Routt, drew preliminary plans for the gym in early 1938. On Feb. 19, the Bicknell School Board announced submission of a $47,300 Works Progress Administration application for a building of concrete and reinforced steel. The application was given final WPA approval on May 10, and on May 19, the Bicknell City Council voted unanimously to allow the school board to issue $11,500 in bonds as their share of the project.
The gym would be located near the Central School at Fourth and Miami streets. An annex building on the site was removed during the summer. In July, the planned concrete was changed to Bedford limestone, which would have a major impact on the gym’s final appearance.
Work on the project officially began on July 19, 1938, with 25 WPA workers removing trees and shrubbery. The first bids were advertised and awarded in August. Also, that month, plans were altered to include home economics classrooms under the gym’s permanent bleachers.
By Sept. 10, both the north and west foundation walls had been poured, and a month later stonemasons began laying the limestone. In the fall, besides stonemasons, 65 WPA workers were on the job.
Two limestone bulldog faces (the Bicknell team was the Bulldogs) would embellish the walls, both fashioned by master Bedford stone carvers. One bulldog was complete by February 1939 and the second was nearly finished.
Work continued on the massive project through the spring and summer of 1939, and by fall, a good deal of the major construction was complete. It took a week and 600 pounds of putty to put the 744 panes of glass in the windows. Still, much work remained and all WPA monies had been spent.
Initially, the school board planned to apply for supplementary WPA funds, even drawing up and submitting the application, before deciding to finish the project with other sources of revenue. In January 1940, the school board did a $6,000 bond issue, which bonded them up to the legal limit. An additional $2,000 was taken from the school budget and, that spring, the Bicknell City Council issued $7,500 in bonds to complete the building. During the summer, among other tasks, the maple playing floor was installed, as were lights. Finally, on Sept. 4, the basketball goals went up, and, after two-plus years the gym was complete.
A couple of big events were held at the gym as work was being wrapped up. The Bicknell American Legion had their annual indoor fair there in March 1940 and a political event took place at the gym in October.
The final project cost came in at approximately $75,000. The gym had seating for 1,200, including temporary bleachers that could be erected on the stage. Beneath the stage were locker rooms, shower rooms, coach’s quarters, the boiler, and coat rooms. There were dressing rooms and rest rooms on either side of the stage.
Bicknell kicked off their 1940-41 basketball season in the new gym on Wednesday, Nov. 20, with the Bulldogs hosting the Vincennes Alices. Matt Walker, who had been basketball coach at Bruceville for ten years, was the new Bicknell coach. Woody Weir was coach for the Alices. There were 1,114 fans present for the inaugural game, where the Alices defeated the Bulldogs 29 to 22.
In 1995, the North Knox School Corporation Board gave permission for the 55-year-old building to be razed. Mementoes, including one of the stone bulldog faces and stones listing Bicknell officials in office during the project, were salvaged and placed in Bicknell along Ind. 67, where they can be seen today.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.