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Fairmount High School.

Fairmount High School


one plus one

In 1875 the local public school district built its first high school. This school is the part on the left in the photo, with the bell tower and the arched doorway. About the same time, the Quakers built a private school right next to it. This building is on the extreme right in the photo, with darker brick and flat roof.

In 1900, after a quarter century of co-existence, the public school district bought out the private school and merged the two buildings. The annex linking them is plainly visible in the photo in lighter brick. The inside is even less of a perfect match, with ramps and winding stairs connecting the building's interiors. The new Fairmount High School was opened in 1902. In the mid-1950's a gymnasium with a connecting hall was added, and next to that a detached vocational shop.

james dean

In the late 1940's, James Dean attened the high school, studying drama under his teacher Adeline Nall and performing his first roles in the auditorium. He graduated in 1949 and shortly after left to begin his career as an actor. Later cartoonist Jim Davis (Garfield) graduated in 1963.

middle school

After the opening of the new Madison-Grant High School in 1969, Fairmount High became a junior high school, for grades six through eight. I was a student there for three years, during which the school really began showing its age. The auditorium had to be sealed off as unsafe.

By the mid-1980's the building was so dilapidated that the school board was forced to build a new middle school next to Madison-Grant High School. In 1986 the old high school was closed for good.


The gymnasium is still in use as a community sports center, run by a local youth sports league. The vocational shop building became a large storage shed. But the rest of the school fell into such delapidation that it was listed in Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana's annual Ten Most-Endangered List for 2001 and 2002. And the interior of the main building was found by a survey in 2003 to be gravely decayed, chiefly due to a badly leaking roof.

The connecting hall between the school and gymnasium, which held the school cafeteria and the middle-school band room (which I learned recently was the original gymnasium) collapsed in the late 1990's. The debris has long since been removed, and a new entrance built on the sports center.


At this point I would like to add that it is the memory of James Dean that has kept his old high school standing. In the past a school building that is no longer usable is torn down. Two other Fairmount schools met this fate. One was an elementary school on the northwest corner of town. The other, the town's first school, was on Washington Street between the downtown and the railroad; it was replaced by Park Elementary School in the early 1960's. Houses with that ugly pre-fab 1960's look now stand on its site.


Fairmount High being restored during autumn 2003.

In autumn 2003 plans were launched to renovate the bell-tower half of the high school into a community center/public library and to restore the auditorium. A foundation was established to promote the renovation of the building as the James Dean Performing Arts Center and Museum.

The property line between the school and the gymnasium was marked out; and a private preservation company bought the land and building. Work began in late August 2003 with the laying of a giant tarp (the smooth surface on the roof) on the roof of the bell-tower section, so that that interior can be stabilized. Iron girders were erected to hold up part of the back side of the building. The flat-roof half would be torn down to make way for a parking lot, its bricks to be sold to raise money for the renovation. The shop building would also be torn down.

Recent History

well begun, not done

When the restoration project began in 2003, it was hoped that the high school would be restored by the fiftieth anniversary of James Dean's death. The fifieth anniversary had come and gone. For mostly economic reasons there was no visible progress beyond further stabilizing the building shell.

james dean fest

There was an attempt in June 2004 to persuade Warner Brothers, producer of the three Dean films, to donate to the restoration. The attempt failed. Warner Brothers chose instead to spend its funds on a "James Dean Fest" in nearby Marion in June 2005. The festival was poorly thought out, attracted few people, lost lots of money, left a lot of ill will between Warner Bros. and Marion, and got the proxy for Warner Bros. convicted of fraud. The only good thing about the Fest was that Fairmount got some visitors on the side.

no library

It was hoped that, along with shops and a performing arts center, the newly restored building would house the Fairmount Public Library. But that would not be. Tired of the waiting, the board chose to acquire a state grant and renovate a couple of neighboring buildings into a single new Library, with much more space and the capacity for more services than a restored high school could have provided.

wear and wear

Since 2006 there had been no sign that anything was being done even to maintain the building's current status. Heavy winds tore away at the tarp on the roof, exposing the roof to the elements. The outside bricks on the tower lost much of their mortar. The roof over what was once the eighth-grade science lab, the southernmost room on the second floor, had collapsed completely, exposing the rest of the south end of the building to the elements. Given present conditions, it was only a matter of time before at least the south end of the old school would collapse on its own.


By the beginning of 2008 the citizens of Fairmount became impatient. Letters to the editor of the local weekly newspaper expressed frustration with the decaying building and the lack of progress from the preservationists. There was talk — and threats from the county — about simply tearing down the school, as it had happened to two other Fairmount schools, if no action was taken by the end of 2008.

Beginning of the End

On 7 April 2009 the preservationists had transfered title to the high school building back to the youth sports league and refunded all donations for the restoration. The preservationists were never able to raise enough money to restore the building, even in good economic times. They could do no more than tarp the roof and keep the walls up. And the building is now in even worse shape than when the project began six years ago.

The townspeople also learned that the preservationists were, in fact, a front for a fundraising organization. As such, the group was either incompetent or indifferent, to not be able to raise even the six million dollars or so to renovate the bell-tower half of the high school, which was their stated goal. The townspeople have been deceived, and they are angry.

The youth sports league is barely able to maintain its gym; to pay for the utilities to run it; and to pay for a fence around the high school to keep the curious out. The preservationists, pulling one final fast one, sold the northeast corner of the high school block, including the old vocational shop building, to an outside party. It was thought that the sports league would have to pay rent to park there, but the owner instead converted the old shop building into a garage and intended to turn the lot into a lawn.


Yes, the Fairmount High School is an important piece of history, both to fans of James Dean and to the local people who went to high school there. It is a sad thing when something that is a part of town life passes into memory.

However, the building was allowed to slowly decay to the point that it is ready to collapse in a cloud of brick rubble and asbestos dust. Restoration is now impossible. The fundraisers could not afford it; the youth sports league cannot afford it; and the town itself cannot afford it. And it is evident that the world in general — and Hollywood in particular — does not care about the fate of the building in any way.

But at least the stage, on which James Dean performed, has been salvaged by the local Lions Club. During mid-August 2010 the stage was disassembled on site, cleaned of nails, and stored as an undisclosed location for future use.

It is now a matter of time before the Fairmount High School falls down — or is torn down.

Collapsed section of FHS auditorium roof on July 2013.

The Collapse Has Begun

In the early hours of July 3, 2013, the section of the roof of the north end of the old high school collapsed into the back of the auditorium. As this picture shows, the collapse took out a section of the east wall and some of the auditorium windows. A little over a month later, the rest of the second floor plus the whole back roof caved in. It is a wonder that a cloud of asbestos was not thrown into the air; the collapse was mostly implosive.

This was not unexpected, given that the building has not been touched since the faux restorationists bailed out on the school, except for when the local Lions Club had the stage removed three years ago. (A pavilion for the stage is being planned.) The front of the school is now little more than a façade.

Copyright © 2013 by Andy West. All rights reserved. Last updated 23 September 2013.