Will Rogers High School
Built during the Great Depression through funding from a Public Works Administration grant, Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, now stands as one of the best examples of Art Deco high school architecture in the United States. The original building plan, nearly symmetric in a triangle of stepped blocks was completed in 1939, with 200,000 square feet of space. The massing of the building complements the topography of the site, and the façade is long and horizontal with two large wings. The school has a raised Bedford limestone foundation, brick walls laid in a pattern of five rows of English bond separated by a row lock of alternating headers and stretchers, and terra cotta spandrels, panels, and trim.
The elaborate Art Deco building was designed to instill pride, not only in the school itself by its design, function and beauty, but by its reference to an important native son, Will Rogers. Rogers' images, set in backgrounds of Oklahoma countryside and Tulsa's downtown, brought together local, state and national points of pride. Will Rogers High School held its first classes in September 1939, and the school was dedicated on November 3rd to correspond closely with the sixtieth anniversary of Will Roger's birth.
In September 1936, the school board purchased the land for Will Rogers High School. To facilitate the design of Will Rogers, the school board brought in Nickolaus Louis Englehardt. A nationally recognized school planner, construction consultant, and professor at Columbia Teacher's College in New York City. Englehardt was to advise the Tulsa school board on how to integrate a progressive school program with the school plant design. Englehardt was a well-known and recognized expert and professor of education, and a symbolic figure of the progressive education movement. The design of Will Rogers High School as a progressive school program signaled the trend in educational changes across the United States, especially in secondary education curriculum.
Progressive educational values, which evolved from the rapid urbanization of the nation from the 1880s to the 1930s, were the nation's first attempt to transform common schools into ones that met the needs of a highly diverse and increasingly urban student population. These new educational objectives, which moved from traditional teacher-centered and content-driven education to progressive or learner-centered and process-driven education, created new school plant designs, including Will Rogers High School. Once completed, the school was nationally recognized for integrating progressive education's goals into a high school building, Will Rogers High School was featured as an ideal school in a major educational study, and promoted as a model school in Time and Life Magazines.
Englehardt presented his ideas for the new school plant at a meeting of the Board of Education, October 13, 1936. Within his plans, he utilized progressive education objectives, including the promotion of a democratic way of life and the dignity and worth of the individual. The core curriculum promoted experiences and activities that would develop a child's attitudes, appreciations, understandings, and skills essential to effective living in a democratic society. He estimated that it would take at least a million dollars to build Will Rogers to suit the desired educational needs.
On October 22, 1936, the Board of Education accepted the PWA grant for Will Rogers High School and bids were opened in July 1937. Manhattan Construction of Muskogee, Oklahoma had the lowest bid for Will Rogers of $1,049,930.00, and construction began October 11, 1937. Designed by Oklahoma architects, Leon B. Senter, and Joseph R. Koberling, Will Rogers High School’s architecture is also associated with well-known craftsmen and designers from Chicago, including Karl Kolstad and John Sand. Arthur M. Atkinson, a well-known Art Deco architect in Tulsa, was hired as the supervising architect.
While the exterior of Will Rogers High School is significant architecturally, the interior is also finished in the main public spaces with fine Art Deco details. The entries in the towers are elaborate constructions of Chinese mandarin red terra cotta, brass grills and highly detailed fans and floral trim at the wall/ceiling junction. The balconied auditorium is striking in its degree of detail, with curved and fluted gold insets of a fan and floral designs in terra cotta red, brass, gold leaf and tan. Every element in the library was designed, from the walnut-stained bookcases lined in Chinese Mandarin red, to the elaborate doorways and trim. Even wall colors were specifically chosen. The classrooms were painted in pastels, color-keyed to learning and to produce moods correlating to the subject. Stimulating colors were employed for mathematics and science, and quiet colors used for the library.
Will Rogers High school is notable in its integrity and condition. It has been in continuous use since its construction and has had two major alterations - a 1949 addition to the east classroom wing, and a 1964 one-story gym and extension to the west classroom wing. The additions to the building are distinguishable from the original building, and the 1949 addition has gained its own historic integrity. Will Rogers High School was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007, as an outstanding example of Art Deco school architecture and as a model of progressive education in the United States.
"It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so." - Will Rogers.
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