The advent of a public high school was heralded as a major cultural achievement for young Oklahoma City in 1892. A couple of schools began in the city as early as June, 1889, but these were private schools operating by subscription as no legal authority (and thus funding mechanism) existed for public education at the time. The creation of Oklahoma Territory made public education possible in the new city.
The first high school began in 1892 in a rented store front at 319 West California where Mary D. Couch presided over the students. Available evidence is sketchy, but it seems that Ms. Couch was teaching advanced courses, but this early version may not have been quite a fully formed high school. At the time, students across the country generally attended school up to the eighth grade and high school was reserved for those learning skilled trades or as preparation for those going on to college. The city’s school population had increased to about 1200 students and officials believed a sufficient number of students could benefit from a high school.
That following year the federal government reverted ownership of Military Hill, the land east of the Santa Fe tracks which made up the military reservation, to the city with the stipulation that the land be designated for educational use. It was determined that a high school building should be built on this land when funds became available. Socialite Mrs. Selwyn Douglas (Julia) was selected to organize the high school when it could be built. But Mrs. Douglas, known for her boundless energy (she would later found the first public library), did not wait for a building. She immediately arranged for classes to begin in the former Army post’s barracks. Ethel McMillan, in History of the Public Library of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, writes,
“There was no building, but what was that to thwart one with the ability, courage, and authority to worthily direct the opportunities for youth teeming with life at high tide? So to the four-room log house recently used as a barracks on the Military Reservation, gathered these young people from the various sections of the nation with the background of characteristics of all these areas and could any young people have been more fortunate in leadership?”
By 1896 the high school building at NE 4 and Walnut was completed in fine Richardsonian style. This building would eventually be known as Irving School but to everyone in town it was “the high school.”
During the great population and building boom of 1909-1910, prolific local architect Solomon Layton designed a grand structure at 801 N Robinson at the southern end of “Church Row.” The new school was built in the Collegiate Gothic architectural style and provided excellent facilities for a complete high school education. Among these were an auditorium, a two-tiered gymnasium, a swimming pool, and specially equipped classrooms for courses such as home economics and shop. For its first sixteen years, the facility was known as Oklahoma High School, but after the construction of Classen High School (1919) and the proposed Capitol Hill High School (1928), the name was changed to Central High School in 1926.
The school reached its peak usage in the 1950s, but declines in enrollment caused by increased suburbanization sent the school into decline in the 1960s. Central High School essentially ceased to function as school in 1968 when it was reclassified as a junior high school. The building remained school board property until 1981 when it was sold to the Southwestern Bell Corporation which remade the now decrepit building into its Oklahoma headquarters.
Throughout its history Central produced dozens of successful graduates whose names adorn buildings and streets all around the city and a few corporate boardrooms and Hollywood marquees as well. Central’s alums were possessed of much loyalty and school spirit and ultimately formed the Central High School Alumni Association which cooperated with Southwestern Bell in creating a Central High School Museum in the remodeled building. Though no longer located in that building, the Association’s collection contains a trove of artifacts from the school’s traditions including the photographs they have shared with Retro Metro OKC.