For the first time in several years, I toured the inside of the old Central High School last week as contractors are set to begin renovating the landmark to become the new home of the Oklahoma City University School of Law.
What I saw was a property that has long fallen short of its potential — and one that may significantly alter adjoining Midtown and Automobile Alley.
The last time the building was a school, the building's roof leaked, the plumbing was shot, the wooden windows were rotting and the school system itself was seeing its population plummeting.
Southwestern Bell Telephone bought the building for $2.7 million in 1981 and launched a $10 million renovation that converted it into the headquarters for the company's Oklahoma operation.
That renovation likely saved the building from the sort of decades-long neglect that has plagued the Page-Woodson School just east of downtown (both of which were designed by prominent early-day state architect Solomon Andrew Layton).
The Central High renovation rightfully won accolades and awards. But it also turned the building into a virtual fortress with little interaction with the surrounding neighborhood. To be fair, the surrounding neighborhood back then was a pretty depressing sight. But the gated-up historic entrances and bunkerlike underground entrance and parking structure added to the west of the former school helped create a building that could only be admired as folks drove by.
The surrounding neighborhood was well on its way to a revival when Southwestern Bell, later absorbed into AT&T, sold the building to American Farmers and Ranchers Mutual Insurance in 2007.
The insurance company was no more of a presence in the neighborhood than was AT&T. Much of the building remained unused as the insurance company's staff stayed at less than 200 employees.
During my recent tour, the office complex was beautiful, yet void of life. The outside was eerily quiet on what was otherwise a beautiful autumn morning.
I stopped to imagine a different scenario; a law school filled with several hundred students and faculty attending classes, studying in a reading room created in a restored auditorium.
I tried to imagine how this law school, the entrances no longer gated, the outside recast to encourage students and faculty to enjoy the surrounding neighborhood, would make this virtual fortress a lively gathering spot.
If the hours of the current law school, located on the OCU campus, are of any hint of what's to come, the old Central High will be lit up at night and a place where students gather seven days a week.
If the old Central High had the appearance of a fortress, the surface parking lots to the north and south acted as moats. With a more transient population and OCU far more interested in connecting with downtown, trustee and developer Bill Mee confirmed the school may entertain development proposals for those lots — if structured parking is part of the deal.
Oklahoma City University is set to spend millions ensuring the old Central High is around for a second century, but the infusion of life into a dead spot separating Automobile Alley and Midtown may prove to be priceless.