Julie Clark Unearths The Art & Soul of a City
March 30, 2016
Editor’s note: This week, guest blogger Julie Clark shares her connection to Tulsa’s architectural gem, Will Rogers College High School. Clark is one of the featured artists on the 2016 Tulsa Art Studio Tour. For more information on how you can get a look inside her studio on the Tour, visit: www.TulsaArtStudioTour.org
As a visual artist and educator I think of loops, spirals, and circles – both visually and philosophically. The connection of lines on a canvas, the intersection of ideas in a conversation, the returning to a place one once was through memory or history; these thoughts rotate around the wheels of my mind as I drive east on I-244 every morning.
The sunrise is the backdrop to a beautiful city, my hometown, Tulsa. As I look south rounding the Inter-Dispersal Loop, I see a menagerie of buildings: the BOK Center, Cain’s Ballroom, and the Blue Dome Station. Beyond these, further south, the most iconic buildings of Tulsa come into view – those built in the Art Deco style. This style of architecture represented the idealization of the modern American city – industry, technology, and innovation.
Tulsa experienced a massive business boom fueled by the oil industry in the first half of the 20th Century, which led to the construction of the skyscrapers that make up the classic Tulsa skyline. Taking inspiration from New York and Chicago, architects gravitated toward the Art Deco style in many cities, including Tulsa. Signatures of this style include repeated geometric patterns, natural and floral motifs, limited color palettes, and sleek, linear elements suggestive of the aerodynamic velocity seen in new modes of transportation.
While I enjoy all of the buildings in Tulsa that display this architectural style, my morning drive always leads me to my favorite Art Deco building, Will Rogers College High School.
Now a National Historic Monument, Will Rogers College High School stands as one of the best examples of the Art Deco style in the nation. Construction began in 1937 as one of the first two PWA projects in Oklahoma (the other being Daniel Webster High School in Tulsa). The two architects assigned to Rogers were Leon B. Senter and Joseph R. Koberling. Funding for the project came partly from the school district, and partly from the PWA. School planners traveled from Kansas City to help design the floor plan, which became a 200,000 square foot space for 1,500 students. On September 11th, 1939, 1,501 students entered through the doors of Will Rogers High School, while cows milled about on the front lawn.
One really needs to see the school in person to fully understand its beauty and grandeur. Outside, ornate terra cotta adorns the facade. Over the east entrance, a visual history of Will Rogers is represented in two beautiful plaques, designed by Joseph Koberling and modeled by the artist John Sand, who came to the United States in 1920 to work for Northwestern Terra Cotta in Chicago. Plaques over the west entrance depict a girl and a boy among various symbols of knowledge and learning.
Inside, walking down the Main Hall, one can enjoy more terra cotta details and terrazzo floors – this portion of the building alone required 9,892 pieces of terra cotta. Interestingly, psychological color studies were utilized in the choosing of interior color schemes, and colors were chosen to promote various types of learning. Five different colors were identified, and were later used throughout the entire school system. In the library, a calming, light shade of sea foam green compliments the warm light of circular fixtures.
My favorite spot in the school, other than my classroom, is the most likely place for a ghostly encounter: the auditorium. A mural adorns one of the grand walls, and spirals radiate from diagonal rays on auditorium grilles, among other decorations. Recently renovated, the auditorium has been restored to its full splendor, a site worthy of the Rogers Round Up production, a yearly tradition at the school since the 1940’s. Other portions of the building have also received historical restoration during the past few years.
It is easy to understand how so many artists came out of Will Rogers High School: Leon Russell, S.E. Hinton, Paul Davis, Charles Bell, and many more. One can’t help but be inspired in such a stunning structure. The building naturally promotes the creation of beautiful stories and beautiful histories.
Now, Will Rogers College High School offers college preparatory education to students. In my sixth year of teaching, I continue to see the profound effects that educators who care can have on students. I strive each day to impact my students and my community creatively through the arts, and it is an honor to do this work in such a magical building.
This school has become my home in many ways, but more than that, it is a sanctuary for learning; hallowed ground. Will on the Hill. I imagine my grandparents, who both graduated from Rogers in 1949, walking in circles throughout the building, hand in hand. The stairs show the wear of their footsteps among decades of others, each stair slightly sunken on both sides. Driving west home on I-244 each evening, I leave behind a treasure of my hometown, Tulsa. The sunset is the backdrop to a beautiful city. The loops continue.
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