Renovations are bringing Oklahoma City's Page Woodson school back to life
Beneath the broken windows and layers of graffiti at Oklahoma City's former Page Woodson School, a gem is slowly starting to emerge.
There are limestone gargoyles and carved wood art deco door frames. The 1930s-era auditorium features soaring ceilings and a balcony, as well as the original wooden seats. There are also great views of downtown Oklahoma City's skyline to the west.
After years of decay, work began this spring to redevelop the former school building as affordable housing.
A development group led by father and son Ron and Jason Bradshaw purchased the former school building from Oklahoma City Public Schools in 2013 with the goal of renovating it into apartment units and building an additional apartment building on the grounds.
The project is estimated to cost about $25 million.
The Bradshaws saw the school as a way to address a demand for affordable housing in Oklahoma City's urban core. While the area has seen an influx of high-end apartments, there is lack of multifamily housing for people with lower income levels, Jason Bradshaw said.
“We saw an opportunity to provide a development solution to an income segment that is not being addressed,” Bradshaw said.
For the past 20 years, the Page Woodson school, 600 N High, has sat vacant on a hill overlooking Oklahoma City's JFK neighborhood. The building was a magnet for the homeless, as well as ghost hunters.
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A series of fires damaged parts of the empty school. The Oklahoma City Fire Department believes the most recent fire, in July 2015, was intentionally set.
From 1934 to 1954, the former school building was the site of Douglass High School, serving black students until it had to be moved to a new site because of
The Bradshaws did extensive outreach work in the JFK Neighborhood to listen to the concerns of residents about the project.
“We did not know exactly what we were getting into when we bought the school,” Jason Bradshaw said. “We knew it was something that was very dear to the neighborhood and the black community in Oklahoma City, but it really didn't kind of come into the picture until we worked on community outreach for close to two years.”
The developers recently held a picnic on the Page Woodson grounds and led tours of the old school for people in the neighborhood.
The Bradshaws are doing a full restoration of Page Woodson's art deco auditorium, which will then be leased back to the community development corporation Progress OKC for $1 a year and used for neighborhood meetings and other events.
The old school's history means a lot to people in the neighborhood, but the vacant property also caused problems with vandalism, said Denyvetta Davis, president of the JFK Neighborhood Association.
With the building now securely fenced and under construction, the vandalism and fires have stopped, she said.
“For the most part, people are excited about having the building saved and doing something that is going to benefit others with some multifamily housing,” Davis said. “I think a lot of people thought it was never going to happen and people are still surprised that we are where we are and the building is going to go back into use.”
Resident Guy Rhone grew up in JFK Neighborhood and has lived in the area for much of his life. His daughter attended Page Woodson as a kindergartner and is now a master's degree-level nurse.
Rhone said the area has seen an influx of new growth over the past several years with the development of new homes and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center just north of the JFK neighborhood.
“I like to see improvement and change in the area,” he said.
Asbestos and lead paint have been removed from the building and now work is being done to transform the old classrooms into apartment units. New windows designed to mimic the original pane windows are already being installed.
The Bradshaws hope to have the renovations complete sometime in the first half of 2017.
Cathy O'Connor, director of the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, said she is hopeful the redevelopment of Page Woodson will help spark additional new development in the area. Although the Bradshaws purchased the property from Oklahoma City Public Schools, it is subject to a redevelopment agreement with the Urban Renewal Authority.
“It's a large-scale development project that we hope can be catalytic toward kind of redensifying the area,” O'Connor said.
The Urban Renewal Authority owns several hundred residential lots in the JFK area and has been encouraging single-family home development in the area.
The former school was built as Lowell School in 1910 and was initially an all-white school. A gymnasium, indoor swimming pool and an auditorium with a stage were eventually added onto the building.
In 1934, Lowell School became Douglass High School and served black students. Douglass moved in 1954 as overcrowding became a problem. The school then became F.D. Moon Middle School and later Page Woodson School. The Oklahoma City School Board voted to close Page Woodson in 1993.
When construction began on the former school this spring, construction workers found old tardy slips in the school office and sports equipment in some of the gym lockers, even old food rations from World War II in a shelter area of the old school, said Jeremy Jackson senior project manager for contractor Lingo Construction Services.
As construction has progressed, many residents from the JFK Neighborhood have stopped by to say how glad they are to see the building being restored, Jackson said.
“It's been a place that has been important to the neighborhood and it's exciting to see it come back to life,” Jackson said.