“We didn’t know what we would do with the building,” developer Ron Bradshaw explained to Oklahoma Gazette when standing in the newly renovated auditorium lobby in the 90,000-square-foot building, historically known as Douglass High School and last known as Page Woodson School, in northeast Oklahoma City.
With the auditorium doors open as workmen made some final touches inside, Bradshaw stood a few yards away from where OKC legends like Charlie Christian and Jimmy Rushing performed in school concerts and NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, offered a community update in the legal battle between Ada Lois Sipuel and the University of Oklahoma Law School.
The 1910 Classical Revival-style, red brick school building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places a decade ago, was sold to Bradshaw in 2013. Part of the father-son team responsible for the Maywood Apartments and Civic Center Flats, among other downtown living projects, Bradshaw held a desire to bring living accommodations to the neighborhoods surrounding University of Oklahoma (OU) Health Sciences Center and east of downtown. After the purchase, Bradshaw turned to the northeast community for aid in determining the building’s future.
There was an introduction by Ward 7 Councilman John A. Pettis Jr. for Marjorie Young and Gina Sofola, the two who fought to save the historic building a decade earlier with dreams to preserve and reestablish it as a community hub. There were community meetings where nearby residents and alumni added their ideas. There were realities that had to be faced as the 100-year-old building was falling further into disrepair and neglect.
Now, nearly four years after acquiring the property, Bradshaw and his team, which includes Sofola as project manager, are delivering 60 residential apartments, a restored 1930s auditorium and five classrooms-turned-meeting spaces to the community. Additionally, a new 68-unit apartment building rises in the east, while seven three-story walkup apartment buildings are under construction to the north. It’s just the beginning of a six-phase redevelopment, Bradshaw explained.
“We found out the school meant a great deal to the community, the African-American community and this neighborhood,” he said. “What we’ve learned is this is not a project but a neighborhood redevelopment and a catalyst for more.”
Called The Douglass, the building’s first resident is expected to move in later this week, and others will soon follow. Prospective tenants who tour the building at 600 N. High Ave. will find a blend of art deco styling and the latest in urban apartment living.
Inside the studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units are chic kitchens with sleek, white countertops and modern stainless steel appliances. Bathrooms floors were laid with hexagon tiles, a style popular in the 1920s and 1930s. In living areas as well as bedrooms, large windows flood the former classrooms with natural daylight.
Some of the rental units feature restored chalkboards or the original gym rafters. Additionally, many of the apartments offer postcard views of downtown OKC. In the hallways, the mosaic tiles from the building’s drinking fountains remain.
What makes this project unique in addition to its renovations is the developer’s use of a low-income tax credit. The Douglass provides a range of affordable living options, and tenants must qualify to access the affordable living price. Similarly, The Douglass Next Door, 601 N. Stonewall Ave., a brand-new apartment building, offers affordable living price points.
Along NE Sixth Street, seven three-story walk-up apartments are under construction. Called The Seven at Page Woodson, the market-rate rental units are slated for completion in August.
With its close proximity to downtown, the Innovation District and OU Health Science Center, the development was designed to attract young adults beginning their careers, working adults with lower incomes and small families. Additionally, The Douglass and The Douglass Next Door will draw seniors looking to downsize into a smaller place with less upkeep.
School of firsts
In the fall of 1933, the first Douglass students began to attend classes in the old Lowell school building where white grade-school students previously were taught. As OKC’s first segregated African-American high school, building plans were drafted to add an auditorium, a swimming pool, a gymnasium and classrooms. Once complete, it was an impressive institute for learning and a central gathering place for the African-American community.
“This really was the community hub,” Sofola explained. “It was not only a place of educational excellence. In Douglass’ heyday, it was known as the school of firsts.”
The memorable phrase is a catchall to honor the school’s alumni and faculty who left a mark on OKC, the state and the nation in areas of education, music, entertainment, literature, sports and more.
Now, the building with a storied history becomes a first once again as the first abandoned northeast school building to be brought back to life. Gates remain locked, and windows and doors are still boarded up at school sites like nearby Dunbar, Creston Hills and Harmony elementaries.
As he looks upon the former school building, Bradshaw says he hopes it’s the first of many.
Print headline: Community dedication, A former northeast OKCPS school site with a storied history becomes the latest address for urban living