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A beach front, hidden piece of history preserved

Written by Nicholas Serrano. Posted in Community News, Featured, Uncategorized

Published on September 06, 2011 with No Comments

 

The Tuskegee Airmen Museum’s courtyard and garden.

Undiscovered by many local residents of Lake and Porter counties, a historical and architectural treasure rests among the dune grass and sandy beaches of Lake Michigan. The Gary Aquatorium, directly to the west of Marquette Park in Miller Beach, is a landmark representing a place in aviation history, a pivotal change in the racial complexion of the armed forces during World War II and a symbol of the dedicated work of local residents who fought to keep the building from being demolished.

Opened in June 1922, originally the building was known as the Gary Bathing Beach Bath House. Designed by famous architect George W. Maher, the bath house was a hybrid of modified Greek and Prairie School architecture. The building itself is iconic as it rests apart from any structure for nearly a mile in any direction. Its stone columns and strong structural lines clearly suggest this building comes from a past age.

Towering over the sand dunes, it offers an impressive and breathtaking view of the lake from its second-story balcony.

At the time of its construction, the city of Gary was just beginning to take stride as an economic powerhouse in the region. Thousands of its citizens would frequent the bath house during the spring and summer months. It was a popular place in which to change into bathing suits from street clothes. There was an adjacent playground and a hamburger shack. There was a mammoth parking lot. During the rockin’ ’60s, the area had a jukebox blasting as teens recreated scenes from the beach movies. It remained open for nearly 50 years until Gary began its fall into civic decline. The bath house shut down in 1971.

However prior to Gary’s rise to prominence and its eventual fall, this geographic location also had a historical significance reaching back all the way to the late 1800’s during the birth of modern aviation.

Railroad engineer Octave Chanute, after spending his life working in the railroad industry and then retiring, began dedicating his time and energy to the emerging new science of aviation. Chanute’s interest and ideas were widely shared among experts in the aviation field at that time including brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright.

In July of 1896, Chanute successfully flew the first heavier-than-air craft off the sand dunes of Miller Beach some hundreds of feet west of where the Aquatorium would eventually be built.

Chanute’s ideas regarding adding multiple layers of wings to hang-gliding planes directly influenced the Wright brother’s designs, ultimately leading to modern aviation as it is known today. The western half of the Aquatorium is dedicated to preserving the memory of Chanute and his place in aviation history.

The eastern portion of the building is dedicated to the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen, named after the Alabama military base where they were trained.

Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen, there were no African-American pilots in the military. In 1927, the Army Air Corps, a precursor to the modern day Air Force, conducted a “scientific” study which concluded black Americans were physically, intellectually and emotionally unfit to fly.

This ultimately prompted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to influence her husband to form and train America’s first all-black Army Air Corps wing in 1940.

By 1945, this group had proven themselves in battle, having not lost one bomber and yielding the fewest prisoners of war of any wing of the Army Air Corps.

In 1948, based on these results, President Truman put Executive Order 9981 into effect, which began desegregation of the American Army Air Corps.

As for the Aquatorium itself, after being shut down in 1971, it sat idle for 20 years. In 1991, people began to notice the deteriorating building in Marquette Park. The mayor of Gary at the time, Thomas V. Barnes, approached the Public Parks Board about the derelict building on the lakefront.

Public Parks Board president George Rogge and attorney Greg Reising got together and – with the help of other concerned residents, including Tuskegee Airman Quentin Smith, the first principal of West Side High School – formed the Society for the Restoration of the Gary Bathing Beach Aquatorium and Octave Chanute’s Place in History.

A private, 501 (c)3 not for profit organization, its first event was July 24,1991. The Society had its 21st annual event on Aug.13, raising more than $300,000, said Reising.

“The first event we had we invited people to come and pay what they thought was fair and raised over $5,000. Since then things have improved,” said Reising. “We’ve worked hand-in-hand with the city of Gary. We now have over 500 members in 35 states, 3 Canadian provinces. Over the years we’ve probably had over 800 members total.”

The society immediately went to work on the newly renamed Aquatorium, a term created by Reising’s oldest son stemming from Latin meaning, “A place to go look at the water.”

The first act of renovation was replacing the roof with one identical to the building’s original roof built by the same company who constructed it in 1921. Other renovations included a new sewer system and sidewalks, repairing and rebuilding the deteriorating exterior and interior walls, rebuilding the top deck with new balconies and a variety of other repairs and reconstructions. The construction of the Tuskegee Museum on the eastern wing cost $800,000 by itself and contains a stunning garden, information points of interest and an interior reception area for parties. The western wing is being renovated in spring 2012 and will be a museum dedicated to Octave Chanute. There are bronze statues outside the Aquatorium, commemorating and memorializing the Tuskegee Airmen and Octave Chanute.

The Gary Aquatorium, the people it helps remember and those who sought to make sure it remained a part of the local geographic history and culture are a symbol of resilience and determination. As Reising eloquently puts it, the building is a reminder of the history of the area itself.

“The building symbolizes the rise of Gary, Indiana, at a time when people thought all we had to offer was sand dunes, the city transitioned into a place of power in 1920,” said Reising. “Then it came to represent the decline of Gary when it was boarded up in 1971. Then there was rebirth when the building was saved in 1991.”

The Aquatorium is available to rent for special events. All proceeds go to the help the maintenance of the facility. To make donations, send checks to Aquatorium Society at 607 South Lake St., Suite A ,Gary, IN 46403. For more information call 219-938-8081 or visit

www.aquatorium.org.

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