By Julie Dalia and Amanda Warr
Oklahoma City’s 1910 Page Woodson School had been vacant and vandalized for almost 25 years when—through an astonishing collaboration between the community; the city, county, and federal governments; and an inspired developer who listened to a community and took heroic measures to save a historic icon—the badly deteriorated building was restored and adapted as affordable apartments. Now, at 109, The Douglass at Page Woodson (a recipient of the 2018 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards) has a future.
Page Woodson, a historically rich Classical Revival red brick school building, was designed by Layton, Smith & Hawk. The school’s elaborate exterior details represent high stone and plaster craft. In 1934 the school transitioned from an all-white elementary school to Douglass High School. Named for Frederick Douglass, it was the city’s only African American high school.
Douglass High was home to pillars of the African American community in Oklahoma City, including the first president of Langston University and unforgettable principal of Douglass High, Inman E. Page; his daughter, Zelia Breaux, supervisor of music at Douglass and the first woman president of the Oklahoma Association of Negro Teachers; “Invisible Man” author Ralph Ellison; and Civil Rights activist Clara Luper. The school’s institutional backbone was a spotlight on African American excellence during de jure segregation and the Martin Luther King Jr.–era Civil Rights Movement.
Douglass High School “was the place where you wanted to be successful,” said Oklahoma County Commissioner Willa Johnson, a Douglass High alumna and early supporter of the restoration. “We had the underpinning of those great teachers and administration. They ruled with an iron fist, but that’s how they kept us focused on success.” After Douglass High relocated to a larger building, the building housed another school and then Page Woodson, a fifth-year center—a bridge between elementary and middle school. Page Woodson closed, leaving the building abandoned in 1994.
Developers Ron Bradshaw and his son, Jason Bradshaw of Colony Partners, Inc., purchased the school in 2013 and spent a year establishing its direction. Planner and community activist Gina Sofola and long-time activist Marjorie Young helped Colony Partners gather input from the community. Additional input from the design team facilitated the decision to create 100 percent affordable residential units and a community auditorium. The preservation and repurposing of the school received overwhelming support from the African American community, the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, the Oklahoma City Redevelopment Authority, the state historic preservation office, the National Park Service—and many other organizations and individuals. It became a public-private project.
Tackling a Challenging Restoration
When architects from Smith Dalia, including lead architect Amanda Warr, first walked the site, they were shocked by the extent of the visible damage from water intrusion, rot, mold, and the many fires that vandals had set over the years. To say that the building was beyond condemned is no exaggeration. A responsible restoration would take tenacity and creative funding.
Smith Dalia’s proposed adaptation into apartments passed a rigorous National Park Service historic preservation review. Per NPS requirements, the layout of the classrooms and corridors was to be maintained, so the apartments had to be fitted into those spaces, though wide corridors and double stairwells made this less spatially less efficient. Adding a new floor inside the former gymnasium allowed for an increased unit count. A custom steel structure independent from the existing concrete and masonry frame supports the added floor. Threading steel columns and footings from the basement through one level without impacting the existing structure required close coordination between the design and construction teams.
All six existing stairwells remain in their original configuration, their distinctive plaster balustrades fully restored. The apartments are awash with daylight and most feature lofted ceilings. Along with other school themes, many of the original blackboards were refurbished and preserved in situ.
Careful restoration of the 725-seat auditorium included detailed plaster work on the proscenium, custom Art Deco mechanical grills, refurbishment of approximately half of the existing wooden seats, and replacement of the rest. Space constraints made the elevator insertion in the auditorium balcony delicate—the final elevator shaft stands less than an inch from the existing beam that supports the balcony.
The exterior details of Page Woodson are extraordinary: red brick masonry with limestone ornamentation in the form of stone window surrounds, stone coping on the parapet wall, and stone stringer courses above the ground and second floors; stone pilasters with decorative capitals (faces) between windows; and stone lintels and spandrels with decorative medallions (faces) on all facades—even faces formed into the downspouts—which illuminate the craft of the builders.
Capitalizing on the building’s rich artisanal ornamentation, all masonry and limestone was retained, cleaned, repaired and re-pointed where necessary. Extensive artisanal rebuilding of the wooden Art Deco exterior doors, performed offsite, included replacing the sunburst-pattern cut glass. The replication of the sunburst glass and other details relied in part on old photographs for authenticity.
Decay, mold, and fire damage necessitated a new flooring strategy for most of the building, and concrete floors required substantial repair. The cost of effectively replacing the entire building’s floors had not been entirely anticipated, but Ron Bradshaw’s tenacity kept the project’s funding streams flowing. The Oklahoma City Redevelopment Authority made a significant community contribution of $5,650,000 million in tax increment financing, which enabled the project to retain a high standard of authentic historic preservation.
Restoration Driving Rebirth
An experienced developer, Ron Bradshaw pulled out all the stops to successfully raise capital for this project. “Along the way, this process changed me and taught me something about community,” he said. “We thought we were the owners, but soon found out that there were many owners, and we were just fortunate enough to be stewards of this restoration.”
Marking a vibrant cultural rebirth, “The Douglass” apartments once again bear Frederick Douglass’ name. The building now offers 60 affordable residences and a 750-seat community auditorium, and its restoration has encouraged more local development. The new OKC Innovation District encompasses The Douglass and “The Douglass Next Door,” new affordable apartments added on the same site. Major new development on nearby streets also includes The Seven, modish new apartments on the next corner. The success of The Douglass at Page Woodson has also prompted the planned restorations of other historic African American schools in Oklahoma City—the former Marcus Garvey Charter School and Dunbar Elementary.
Most importantly, the preservation has established lasting bonds of goodwill among a diverse group of collaborators, and these many interwoven threads are enhancing and strengthening Oklahoma City’s cultural fabric. Gina Sofola, who now works with Ron Bradshaw as project manager, explains: “This restoration is a bridge where micro-communities, previously at odds, can come together. We are seeing this with organizations from all over the city now holding events at this venue. The Douglass is a destination where visitors and residents can experience history in a living way.”
Julie Dalia is marketing manager at Smith Dalia Architects in Atlanta, with technical assistance from Amanda Warr, associate and lead architect for the Page Woodson project.