When Lowe Runkle steps inside the old Central High School, it's not just history for him — it's a family legacy.
More than a century ago Runkle's great grandfather, Solomon Andrew Layton, designed the five-story landmark, which was destined to join the State Capitol, the Skirvin Hotel and the Oklahoma County Courthouse as his finest work.
Runkle himself is an architect, and the firm he works for, Frankfurt Short Bruza, is overseeing the conversion of the old school to the new home of the Oklahoma City University Law School.
“He was a pioneer, and he did many wonderful things,” Runkle said during a recent tour of the school. “We've done a disservice to him tearing down his many wonderful buildings. We very much live in a disposable society, so to preserve a great piece of architectural history like this is exciting.”
The renovation of the school, 800 N Harvey, set to begin this month, is also a reunion of sorts for Chris Wilson. His construction company, Anderson & House, built Central High back when the firm was known as Campbell & Price.
Wilson, president of Anderson & House, worked on the school's renovation in 1995 after the bombing of the nearby Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, By that time, the school had been home to Southwestern Bell Telephone operations for than a decade.
“It was used as a command center,” Wilson said. “After the rescue was over, we were contracted by Southwestern Bell to repair the damage. The windows were severely damaged; the ceiling was damaged, as were the floor tiles inside. But the building survived it very well. The exterior, built with cast stone, had minimal or no damage. It was built like a rock.”
The search for a new home for the law school dates back a decade, and OCU almost chose the former Fred Jones plant at 900 W Main in 2009 under then-President Tom McDaniel.
Fred Schmidt, director of architecture at Frankfurt Short Bruza, believes the Central High is the ideal setting to create a new brand and future for the law school
“The school of law has been working on defining their future for a long time,” Schmidt said. “And though they looked at a lot of venues, this one really clicked. It looks like a law school, and there is so much synergy that can occur with downtown.”
OCU is not releasing a cost estimate for the renovation, but trustee Ron Norick previously estimated the combined purchase from prior owner American Farmers and Ranchers Mutual Insurance, construction and furnishings would cost up to $22 million.
Wilson said the first work begins this month with demolition of the first three floors. The insurance company will relocate to its new suburban offices beginning this winter and ending next spring.
One big cost savings to the project was the discovery of dozens of industrial movable book racks on the first floor. Bill Mee, developer on the project, estimated those racks, abandoned by AT&T when it sold the building to the insurance company in 2007, saved the school at least $1 million.
“It was already a slam dunk,” Mee said. “It was always just a question of price. But the pros always outweighed the cons. It won't be cheap, but it will be very fulfilling not just for the school but also for downtown Oklahoma City.”
Looking ahead, Schmidt said he is most excited about removing an atrium that cuts short a floor where the old auditorium was located. The ornate arches and balconies are still intact, and by restoring the floor, the designers are creating a grand hall that will double as both event space and a reading room for students.
“They did a lot of things that at the time opened up the building,” Schmidt said of the Southwestern Bell renovation. “You see a lot of light wells, and it spills a lot of natural light into building, but it also takes away from the space efficiency.”
In the new configuration, high-tech classrooms will be located on the fifth floor. Other floors will house offices, a cafeteria, libraries and other school amenities.
The outside of the building, which now resembles a gated fortress, will be opened up with gates no longer blocking visitors from entering through the traditional school doorways.
When the renovation is completed in late 2014, the school is expected to be home to about 700 students and faculty. “We are excited to take this important step in achieving our vision,” said Law School Dean Valerie K. Couch. “Transforming this beloved building back into a school is the beginning of our new life downtown. And the selection of a contractor brings with it a renewed energy about the project and the move, not only for us but for our future neighbors and the community as a whole.”
At a glance
Solomon Andrew Layton was known as the “dean of Oklahoma City architecture” and oversaw design of many of the city's most notable public and commercial structures during the first half of the 20th century. In addition to the Skirvin hotel (which was also built by Anderson & House, the same contractor that is renovating Central High), Layton designed more than a dozen Oklahoma courthouses and several buildings at the University of Oklahoma.
Two rare murals created by Olinka Hrdy, considered Oklahoma's first modern artist, are being restored as part of the OCU Law School renovation of the former Central High School.
Hrdy, born to Czechoslovakian immigrants in a sod hut in Prague, painted murals for renown Oklahoma architect Bruce Goff in Tulsa and also was invited to paint for Frank Lloyd Wright.
Most of Hrdy's murals were destroyed, and the only other known remnant of her work is in California.
The murals were judged to be in need of immediate appraisal, repair, and protection. The initial estimate for the restoration is $50,000. After restoration the murals will be open for public viewing along with a rotating collection in the building's art gallery.