Cher Coggeshall sits at her desk in the Steuben County Plan Commission and Building Department in the same place she learned how to take dictation some 50-plus years ago.
“I learned to type over there and I learned shorthand in here,” she said from her desk as she kept busy at work on a recent morning.
Where Coggeshall learned these valuable skills — there were few career tracks for women in the 1960s, she laments — is now where she is employed, the old Angola High School, which for a little more than 25 years has been the Steuben Community Center.
In 2017, as her Angola High School class of 1967 celebrated its 50th reunion, Coggeshall toured the building with her classmates and guests. They were led by building Superintendent Gary Fair and Commissioner Jim Crowl, who often lead former Angola High School classes and other groups on tours of the facility.
It’s the heartbeat of Steuben County government where numerous offices are located, ending years of what had been a scattered collage of offices in cramped buildings and rented space in downtown Angola.
Last fall marked 25 years that Steuben County government took over the former Angola High School in what became the Steuben Community Center.
To many, it was and continues to be a successful repurposing for a building that at one point stood to be razed because the community could not come up with a new use for the structure, where young people had been educated in the greater Angola area since 1932.
“I think this was an absolutely wonderful decision when it was made years ago. Of course, it was a different set of commissioners, a different council. Since that time, yes, we have put some money into that building, but it’s going to continue to serve the public many, many years to come,” Crowl said. “It’s a solid structure, and engineering firms come in and marvel at this beautiful building.”
After many people and a variety of ideas had been floated — including senior housing — the Metropolitan School District of Steuben County was ready to auction off the old high school on Oct. 27, 1990. If the school district could not find a buyer, the final option was to raze the building.
In the final month before the auction, former Steuben County Republican Central Committee Chairman Kenneth Meyers mounted a drive to get the MSD Board of Education to sell the building to Steuben County for use as a senior center and government offices.
Meyers’ son, Phil Meyers, led a petition drive to help convince the powers that be that the school be saved for community use. More than 1,000 people signed the petition.
In the end, Steuben County ended up buying the building for $1, yet a look back at news stories published at the time show a somewhat comical conclusion when it came time for MSD to turn over the building to the county.
In October 1990, the county and MSD came to an agreement to sell the old school to Steuben County. The deed transfer took place Dec. 10, 1991, but bonding to convert the school into government offices and a senior center and landing a state grant didn’t take place until 1992.
At the time, Dr. Galen Williams, president of the MSD board, jokingly asked as he was signing paperwork to complete the deal, “Will we actually get a dollar?”
A dollar apparently did change hands, but the county, which had some reluctance to taking over the building because of the costs involved, supposedly didn’t use taxpayer money for that.
“We have had a dollar donated, so it’s actually not costing us anything,” chuckled Dale Hughes Jr., president of the Steuben County Board of Commissioners, during the signing ceremony at a MSD school board meeting.
“Unfortunately, a lot of communities let buildings sit and go into ruin,” said Ron Smith, the current president of the board of commissioners. “I would give credit to those who wanted to keep that building. It’s straight, it’s strong, it continues to serve us well, yet every building has expenses, but they did a wise thing.”
The cost to renovate the building was nearly $2 million. The county ended up bonding to pay for the work and putting a $2.5 million cap on the cost of the project. Funds left over from the bond went toward upgrades, mainly technology, in the Steuben County Courthouse.
A separate line item for asbestos removal from the old school was a little more than $30,000.
Asbestos was one of the many reasons the MSD board decided to build a new Angola High School that opened over spring break in 1990 at its current location on John McBride Avenue on the east end of Angola. Other reasons included lack of space and the need for new mechanicals and technology.
Smith noted that the heat in the building was uneven and it lacked air conditioning, a couple of huge updates when the building was converted to community use.
“You know, the students of Angola High School didn’t sit in classes that were air conditioned unless the windows were open,” Smith chuckled.
MSD administration remains in its McCutchan Administrative Center at the southeast end of the building. That renovation cost the MSD some $1.3 million at the time. It occupies the second and third floors of the building. MSD took ownership of it a couple years ago.
Meanwhile, the county did receive a $423,500 grant through an Indiana Department of Commerce program to turn the old high school into a government and senior center, with the latter included to entice grantors to approve the project.
In September 1993 county offices that had been spread throughout the Steuben County Courthouse and Steuben County Courthouse Annex started moving to the newly created Steuben Community Center.
In addition to government offices and the Senior Center operated by the Steuben County Council on Aging, a number of nonprofit groups from the community also ended up locating in the building.
Nonprofits generally were on the third floor with some county offices — mainly building, planning and surveyor. Purdue Extension Steuben County has always had a large presence on the first floor, on the north end opposite the Senior Center.
Other government offices have been in the building over the years, such as a detective bureau for the Indiana State Police, the Attorney General’s office and Indiana Department of Workforce Development.
The Steuben County office of Women, Infants and Children and the Well Child Clinic have always been on the third floor.
Others have come and gone over the years, and there currently is space available for rent.
“It’s a good mix,” Crowl said.
Steuben County Commissioners at the time included Hughes, South District; Norris Lehman, Middle District; and Roger Barry, North District. Shortly after the county had unpacked its bags in the new facility, in October 1993, Barry resigned and F. Mayo Sanders, at the time a member of the Fremont Town Council, was appointed to fill out the remaining year-plus of Barry’s term.
County Council members at the time included Rod Wells, John Hughes, Kenny Crandall, Dick Dodge, Bill Booth, Mark Chrysler and Wayne Cosper.
“It’s a great campus. One of the hidden treasures is the auditorium. It does need some repairs, it needs new seats. It doesn’t get used as much since the Furth Center (for Arts) was put in (at Trine University), another beautiful building in the community,” Crowl said.
“It is a gorgeous structure. Gary Fair, our maintenance person, takes a lot of pride in it, as does everyone who works in here. It’s special, very special,” Crowl said.
“There’s one other thing. Let’s take the what if. What if that building had been removed? What if it had been turned into something such as residential, commercial, whatever? Would the alternative to what we have now even compare with the utility of how the space is used now?” Smith asked. “In other words, you don’t know what you’re going to get when something disappears.”
The old high school has provided the county with a building that is like the hub of a government campus that’s very serviceable for the community.
“I believe it is absolutely the best thing that could have happened,” Smith said.
The building reflects the many different offices that inhabit the space. You know when you’re at the health department on the third floor or the offices of the Steuben County Lakes Council on the first floor.
Every now and then, you’ll see signs for free plant starts from a county staff member.
In some of the old classroom spaces, you’ll still find black boards, some of which still are used, but not for math problems or for making points during a lecture on U.S. history.
The lockers that used to line the hallways are gone, but it takes a keen eye to see what happened. A couple of local artisans painted the new drywall that was installed to mimic the 1930s-era clay tile that surrounded the lockers. You can barely tell lockers were ever in the building.
The old cafeteria was repurposed into a multipurpose room where a variety of activities take place. It accommodates large government meetings, like those that can attract crowds for the Steuben County Plan Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals. It is also used by the Council on Aging for its many programs.
Instead of posters urging the Hornets on to victory in some sport, Fair has put together large collections of framed, historic postcards from Steuben County that adorn the hallways on the second floor of the building.
Another gem is a Depression-era U.S. Postal Service mural, “Hoosier Farm,” by Charles Campbell, that was removed from the old East Maumee Street Angola Post Office before its demolition. The mural, on loan, was installed behind glass in an oak case on the second floor of the Community Center. It was part of the New Deal art program from the President Franklin D. Roosevelt administration that started in 1932.