In 1981, Emerson closed as a high school. For approximately 17 years, the facility housed a performing arts magnet program, which has since relocated and is still in operation. The original Emerson High School facility closed in 2008 due to lack of funds and building dilapidation, including mold.
Gary School Superintendent William Wirt used the Ralph Waldo Emerson School to be the first to use his new Work-Study-Play system of education, a "Whole Child" philosophy. This philosophy drew international attention to Emerson.
The building opened in 1909 and included an auditorium, gymnasium, pool, and even a zoo. St. Louis architect William Ittner designed the school. There were over seven laboratories, separate band and orchestra rooms, art studios, and rooms for industrial and household arts. Athletic facilities, advanced for their time, included an indoor swimming pool, and an upstairs running track.