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Work beginning to convert former high school to OCU Law School

Great grandson of building's original architect overseeing construction.
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: October 13, 2013

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.

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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At a glance

The Architect

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.

Murals Restored

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.


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