Release Date: December 7, 2010

These Walls: Oklahoma State University's architectural school

The Journal Record

Few man-made structures claim such a diverse cultural impact as Oklahoma State University's Donald W. Reynolds School of Architecture.

Opened in 1919 as Oklahoma A&M College's gymnasium and armory, its brick, steel and concrete walls gave the school a truly unique gridiron, provided the proving ground for Henry Iba's basketball revolution, and inspired the "bedlam" title for OSU's battles with the University of Oklahoma.

But the three-story, somewhat Georgian structure truly changed the landscape of Oklahoma after its 1970s transformation into the architectural school. Renovated and expanded in 2009, the Reynolds school demonstrates the fruits of sustainable construction, even as its graduates leave a growing number of landmarks across the region.

"On the whole, most people think the building was a great success in that it did bring modern architecture here, but in a way that is not an eyesore building," said University Architect Nigel Jones with OSU Long Range Facilities Planning. "It doesn't jump at you as being something different."

The Oklahoma City construction firm Reinhart and Donovan started the building's original construction in 1917, working from architectural plans by Oklahoma A&M Department of Agriculture professor F.W. Redlich. Delayed by wartime steel shortages, the gym opened two years later as the campus's 20th building, its skin of wire-cut brick setting it apart from everything else.

"They always described it as a gymnasium until they were having trouble getting the steel," said David Peters, coordinator of special collections at OSU's Edmon Low Library. "And they were going to use it as an armory, so they started referring to it as an armory and a gymnasium. And then the federal government said, 'Oh, it's an armory!' So then they got the steel."

That $107,000 construction project forced the A&M football field to adopt a novel east-west direction, countering nearly all other colleges across the nation.

"Prior to construction of the gymnasium building, our field had been north-south," said Peters. "When they built that building, that's when they moved it to an east-west configuration."

Besides providing the student army training corps a shooting range, training rooms and other armory needs, the complex offered an indoor pool, changing rooms, and a two-story gymnasium with a third- floor running track around the playing area. Spreading steel trusses held aloft the tile roof.

Their sturdiness spurred a historic Memorex moment.

"In the early 1930s there was a wrestling match between OU and Oklahoma State," said Mike Buchert, OSU's director of Long Range Facilities Planning. "And they were announcing it on the radio. And actually there were people up on the rafters. They'd climbed up in the rafters because they had gotten so full. And they started yelling so that all the lights started busting up. And so the lights were busting up and the radio announcer said, 'It is really bedlam here.' And that started the bedlam term."

When Gallagher Hall arena opened in 1938, gymnasium use adapted to practice sessions, intramural and women's sports, among other purposes. That role held for three decades until campus leaders saw in its many-windowed walls a potential home for OSU's growing architecture school. With the running track extended into a third- floor studio, the braver students launched a new tradition - signing their names across the trusses.

"I rather thought it was a shame that we got rid of it, but others said no, we need to do it because it will only encourage more people to do it," said Jones.

As the millennium dawned, growing pains again led OSU leaders to contemplate more changes to the 35,000-square-foot structure. Ironically, their 2005-06 solution mirrored the 1927 vision of legendary A&M President Henry Bennett - add identical wings to each end to reshape the former gymnasium into a giant I.

"In many ways it's a very clever building," said Jones.

Funded by a Reynolds foundation grant, Boldt Construction worked with a team of OSU professors and the Oklahoma City firm Studio Architecture to gut the original structure, aligning its interior with the three-story additions. The $23 million project incorporated thermal glass walls, open infrastructure, skylights, new lighting systems and other sustainable, modern architecture touches to make the building itself a learning tool. The wings doubled the school's size while greatly enhancing its studio space and architectural library.

"It's worked out very well," said Jones. "For everybody, it's been a major improvement."

The Journal Record profiles a significant Oklahoma City or Tulsa building in "These Walls" every Friday and Monday.