INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A portion of the Indiana high school where James Dean was first exposed to acting collapsed early Wednesday, dimming hopes of saving the long-shuttered brick schoolhouse in the actor's hometown.
Dean grew up on his aunt and uncle's farm near Fairmount, about 50 miles northeast of Indianapolis, and performed in high school plays that fueled his interest in acting. Dean fans and local officials had tried over the years to shore up the weathered, three-story red brick and limestone schoolhouse, which closed in 1986, and installed a rubber covering on its roof to keep out the elements.
But a southeast corner of Fairmount High School gave way about 3 a.m. Wednesday, said Fairmount clerk-treasurer Jo Ann Treon, and officials are now concerned one of the 115-year-old school's exterior walls could collapse next.
"It's just too far gone from the elements," Treon said. After graduating from Fairmount High in 1949, Dean headed to California and then New York, before landing iconic roles in the movies "Rebel Without a Cause," ''Giant" and "East of Eden." He died in 1955 at age 24 in a California car crash.
David Loehr, curator of the James Dean Gallery that's a few blocks from the school, said various proposals to restore the building and turn it into a library, museum, community center — or some combination of those and other ideas — never came together.
"There was a lot of interest, but the money didn't come with it," he said. Loehr said the third-story section of the school that collapsed was above the portion of the building that once housed the wooden stage where Dean performed in school plays. That stage was removed years ago from the deteriorating school by the Fairmount Lions Club, and Loehr said that group is working to raise money to restore it and someday give it a new life for performances in another building.
The school was listed on Indiana Landmarks' list of the state's 10 most endangered landmarks in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Tina Connor, the preservation group's executive vice president, said the group found a California developer who pledged to restore the 1898 Romanesque revival and neoclassical school, but he was unable to line up hoped-for funding from Hollywood celebrities.
"The building is in such terrible shape. It's probably not salvageable," she said. "It's a shame because old schools were well built. They had style that we can't generally afford today, and if they're maintained they're really super steady buildings."
Dean wasn't the only notable to graduate from the school. Garfield creator Jim Davis and retired CBS correspondent Phil Jones are also alumni. Treon, the clerk-treasurer, said the school is owned by the Madison Grant Youth Basketball League. She said the East Central Indiana Regional Planning District has provided a $500,000 grant for demolition of the building, but so far efforts to raise an additional $100,000 for that task haven't panned out.