Hail to Lew Wallace - and Farewell
All good things must come to their inevitable end, and on April 4, 2015, the Gary Public School Corporation opened Lew Wallace High School one more time for an auction of the contents.
Those attending the once-postponed auction found themselves in for a rude jolt upon entering the building: there were no utilities such as electricity or running water and the ceilings had suffered water damage causing water to pool on the floors where they tried to walk, albeit in accumulated dust and debris as well. The story very quickly circulated of water standing in one of the sub-basements, asbestos dust in the walls and mold. Anyone with respiratory problems was in for a rough day.
According to ‘75 alumnus Marianne Baldea McCombs, entering the cafeteria on the 45th Avenue side of the school building was an exercise in gag control. It was discovered that when the electricity was shut off to the building, the refrigerators were left filled with food which was now rancid and pungent. People were fleeing the room from the stench..
The auction company contracted by the school board to broker the auction was Kraft Auction Services out of Hobart, Indiana. Jonathan Kraft and his crew claim they had very short notice that they were to conduct this arduous task in a darkened building. Per Mr. Kraft, it was not in his contract to provide the appropriate environment for the sale. Since no items were cataloged or tagged for identification by the school authorities or the auction house before the sale, the day at best was going to be a rugby scrum. It has been verified through a source with extensive auction trade experience that under such circumstances there is absolutely no control over the physical inventory, where it’s located or what actually has been purchased or purloined.
Therefore, beginning in the windowless Polk Gym, the auctioneers began their task. If a prospective buyer had not brought a flashlight or other means, they were literally in the dark. Tales abound of moving from room to room as heaps of junk thrown into abandoned classrooms were sifted through for salable items. Reportedly, unsold items were left where they were found.
There was great post-sale debate as to why there was no inventory listing provided to buyers. After some research, it was learned that inventory could come either from the holder of the assets to be sold, which would be the Gary Public Schools Corporation, or by the auction house contracted for the sale. The Gary Public Schools Corporation could not be reached for comment. Kraft Auction Services stated to this writer that they often do non-inventoried auctions, but that the conditions at Lew Wallace made things doubly difficult, causing incredible delays.
Witnesses testify that student and faculty records were scattered freely about the floor of several rooms in the main office suite, prime pickings for anyone seeking to obtain personal information. A grand piano which ended up selling for $7,000 was located under a pile of wood and debris in the auditorium. There apparently was no one providing security, and once the building doors were opened, persons were roaming freely in all parts of the building, exploring and taking with them items they had not run through the auction vendor. No one was in charge of checking paid receipts at the exits, and pilfering was reportedly rampant.
One of the major complaints about the auction service was their lack of flexibility - after all that has been noted above - when an item or two would be brought to them with an offer of payment that was probably above what would be auction value. Buyers who were attempting to be honest were told it wasn’t their turn and to please wait. This is highly irregular in a non-inventoried, untagged sale such as was held that day, according to other sources in the business.
It has also been reported to this historian that buyers - legitimate or otherwise - were using crude and unprecedented means to remove their items from the building. Multiple stories have been told of copy machines being thrown over the banister of the main staircase, not only damaging the machines, but also the floors and steps below. Witnesses also tell of items being pitched out of upper story windows in the same manner; steps and sidewalks outside the building had taken quite the beating by the time it was locked several days later to prevent further theft. Apparently the school building was left accessible to “buyers” to remove their purchases for a few days after the sale with no provision to check proper ownership of items being removed. Copper piping and other scrap-metal worthy items were taken from the building at that time, and at least two break-ins led to arrests by the Gary Police in the months following the April auction.
Article - Kim Steinert
Photos - Chuck Walla, Diana Rudd
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