By CHARLES CANTRELL
ART DECO: The terra cotta bas-reliefs on the side of Will Rogers High School are excellent examples of Art Deco architectural style works and were used to embellish the exterior.
CHARLES CANTRELL for GTR Newspapers
In a quite neighborhood in mid-town lies a Tulsa treasure. Born of the depression and a New Deal Public Works Administration project, Will Rogers High School, located at 3909 E. 5th Pl., has endured for over six decades and now has been nominated for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. There are over 2,400 National Historic Landmarks designated by the Secretary of the Interior because of their importance to all Americans. This quintessential deco-style building may soon join this honorable category.
The story of how the school came to be began when the University of Tulsa moved from Muskogee in 1907 to a tract of land near 11th Street and Harvard Avenue. The surrounding area began to grow and houses sprang up. Helping that growth was a trolley system that transported inner city workers back and forth. Eleventh Street became part of the “Mother Road,” U.S. Highway 66, and was one of the busiest streets in Tulsa. Additionally, by the mid-1930s, the need for a new high school was evident because Central High School, the only high school serving “all but black” students, was housing over 5,100 students in a structure designed to hold 2,500. The growing area around 11th Street and Harvard Avenue, one of Tulsa’s first suburban developments, was an obvious choice.
Also happening at the same time was a movement in education introduced by the Progressive Education Association (PEA), an attempt to reform the “common school” and make it a tool of social reform. Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) began participating in an “Eight Year Study” conducted by the PEA and TPS was singled out as one of the most progressive systems of all school systems involved. Tulsa teachers worked on curriculum changes with the PEA and by 1936 the school district adopted a new curriculum formed to “promote experiences and activities that would develop a child’s attitude, appreciation, understanding and skills essential to effective living in a democratic society.”
One of the features of the progressive education was a learner-centered and experience-driven approach to teaching that required a facility that would incorporate science labs, woodworking shops, home economics classrooms and well-equipped gymnasiums. This was a departure from the traditional box classroom where learning was teacher centered and content driven. Guided by this educational model, the school board hired Nickolaus Louis Englehardt from Teachers College, Columbia University to ensure the building design would fit with the progressive education movement curriculum’s needs for space.
The Art Deco style of architecture was chosen in part because it achieved the goals of the Progressive Education Movement by instilling pride and creating an environment that is intellectually stimulating through the use of colors, textures and embellishments. It was a style of architecture that embraced the Arts and Crafts movement notion of turning everyday objects into works of art including public buildings. It was also the architectural style of the times and fit well the mission of the Public Works Administration because it required lots of manual labor. Building an Art Deco building put many depression idled craftsman back to work. Finally, it was an architectural style that had reached its maturity and Will Rogers High School’s look and feel beautifully reflects this fact.
In September of 1936 the school board purchased 26,894 acres of land that would become the site for Will Rogers. Arthur M. Atkinson became the supervising architect, W. C. Rhods was the Mechanical Engineer and architects Leon B. Senter and Joseph R. Koberling were hired. Today Senter and Koberling are considered major contributors to significant buildings throughout Oklahoma. By late 1937 construction was well underway.
A tour through the wonderfully appointed interior of the school is a walk back in time when craftsmen were available and affordable to create the intricate designs and tiled patterns that characterize Art Deco. The cumulative effect of their talents creates a stunning visual experience, one that grows more valuable as time passes. To the credit of all who have been involved in the maintenance and operation of the building over the years, the original interior and façade are intact. More than any other reason, this successful preservation effort makes it an excellent candidate for historic monument status.
Paramount to the criterion by which a structure is deemed fit for recognition as a monument on the National Registry is whether it is “of significance to the nation, the state or the community.” The school came about at a moment in the community’s history when progressive views on education flourished in a city on the move – a city growing fast with an eye on the future and on how to best prepare the next generation of Tulsans to continue to succeed through quality education. It was a time when resources were plentiful to build lasting institutions of public education in order to better everyone’s quality of life. If nothing else, Will Rogers High School stands as a monument to Tulsa’s history, its self-image and its cultural mind set.