On August 28, 1936, the Board of Education purchased land for the building site of Will Rogers High School, nearly 27 acres. Construction began on October 11, 1937, and the completed building was officially accepted from the architects on June 30, 1939. The school doors opened September 11 of that year to 1,501 students. It was the anniversary of Will Rogers’ birth, November 4, 1879.
This school was designed by Leon B. Senter and Joseph R. Koberling, Jr. Typical of Public Works Administration period Art Deco, this school was featured in a magazine article “outlining the high school pattern of the future” in which it was called “a model progressive high school” in “one of the most progressive school systems in the study.” The elaborate buff brick school features two large towers at the front corners of a large main block of classrooms. The towers are supported by stepped pilasters with ornate details in terracotta “capitals.” Panels above the double doors feature Will Rogers’ life in two phases. One depicts his cowboy days with a horse, roped steer, and the prairie, and the other his movie days with a reel camera, airplane, and polo rider.
The main hall of the school gives the impression of a fine office building with terracotta sheathed walls and terrazzo floors. Materials included 9,892 pieces of terracotta in the main corridor alone. Large arches at the doorways add to the sense of spaciousness. Ornamental plaster work borders the ceiling. Decorating the two main hallways were 50 giant sepia-toned prints depicting the seven phases of Rogers’ life from his early boyhood through his motion picture career to his role as the “ambassador of good will.”
The balconied auditorium resembles a luxury theater, seating 1,500. The elaborate stage curved and fluted with brass onsets of a fan and a floral design in terracotta red, brass, gold leaf and tan. Sumptuous brass lights and false balconies add to the theatrical atmosphere. The plaster ceiling is ornate, decorated with painted, cast plaster beams. Dominating the west wall of the auditorium is a mural. The John Greenleaf Whittier verse about westward expansion is illustrated with figures of pioneers and Indians.
An eight-room wing addition was opened for class use on September 6, 1948. The total for both the original building and the 1948 addition was $1,708,684.51. A separate building was later built to the southeast of the original, connected by an outdoor sheltered walkway.
One of its proudest moments came on October 11, 1957, when Will Rogers High School was presented with the Francis Bellamy Flag Award by Margarette S. Miller, biographer of Francis Bellamy and originator of the award program. The ceremony was attended by dignitaries including Oklahoma Governor Raymond Gary and U.S. Senator Mike Monroney. Bellamy (1855 – 1931), a Baptist minister, wrote the original Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. The controversial words “under God” were added by Congress in 1954. According to the 1958 Lariat,
The award, a large American flag, is given each year to an honored school of one of the forty-eight states. The school is selected on the basis of the outstanding achievements of the alumni, the citizenship and patriotism taught and practiced within the school, and the leadership displayed by the principal. The purpose of the award is to stimulate patriotism in the schools and to create a firm foundation for good citizenship. Will Rogers High School will represent Oklahoma for the next fifty years as holder of this grand honor.
On September 9, 2007, Will Rogers High School was added to the National Register of Historic Places, “With National Significance,” an effort initiated by Betty Brown Trinka (’55), a director of the Foundation.
This school, first lone and bare on the top of a prairie hill, was begun without traditions or symbols to guide its students. Today, “Will on the Hill” is a school with a proud past.