Leo C. Sanders was born in Union City, Oklahoma (south of El Reno), on April 2, 1894. He worked his way through the University of Oklahoma, earning his degree in civil engineering in 1920. A laborer at 19, a general contractor sought after by the nation’s leading builders at 35. It was said that Sanders could level entire business blocks overnight, set foundations over weekends and left eastern capitalists generally amazed at finding such a dynamo of speed and efficiency in the vast pampas of North America, where 10–story buildings were still exciting.
A January 18, 1931, Oklahoman article said, “’If it can’t be done, let Sanders do it’ has become more than expression among many of the southwest’s largest builders who have found where speed is as vital as carefulness, Leo Sanders, Oklahoma City contractor, accomplishes the seemingly impossible in combining cyclonic speed with minute accuracy.”
Leo Sanders Construction projects included the following:
– Montgomery Wards: One of Sanders’ early projects was clearing the surface for, and then creating the foundation of, the Montgomery Wards building at Main and Walker, in 1929.
– Exchange Avenue Viaduct: Construction of the Exchange Avenue Viaduct over the North Canadian, took place in 1930. This project should not be confused with a later replacement (1954-1955) bridge which contract was awarded to his son, J.C. Sanders, but over which Leo was the project director.
– The Rock Island Depot: Sanders was contracted in 1930 to raze the old Rock Island Depot on the immediate north side of the Skirvin Hotel (roughly where the Skirvin’s ballroom areas are today). Sanders’ job was to demolish the depot within the space of four days’ time. On Jan. 14. 1931, the Oklahoman reported “Last month Rock Island railroad officials were doubtful about being able to clear their station off the right of way in the four days they were allowed. They called on Sanders. In 24 hours the station was just a memory.”
– YWCA: Another job completed by Sanders in 1930 immediately south of the Oklahoma County Courthouse at Park and Hudson.
– Ramsey Tower: Perhaps the most remembered of Sanders’ projects was is doing the foundation work for the Ramsey Tower in 1931. He also had the job of clearing the buildings that Ramsey Tower would replace.
– Skirvin Tower : Sanders was hired to do the foundation for the Skirvin Tower in 1931. In 1936, he built the tunnel under Broadway connecting Skirvin Tower and the Skirvin Hotel – a tunnel that started what is now known as “The Underground” pedestrian tunnels.
– Santa Fe Depot and Railway Elevation: Leo Sanders Construction built the current Santa Fe Depot in 1930 and the adjoining railroad elevation that separates Bricktown from downtown.
– Will Rogers Courts. The federal government selected Mr. Sanders to construct a Works Projects Administration (WPA) low income housing project adjacent to and north and west of Rotary Park, near Packingtown.
During the two years that it took to complete the 37 acre project in 1937, he was besieged in controversy. He would be assailed and vilified by unions and union leaders for having an “open shop” and he was attacked by the City of Oklahoma City for his not allowing city plumbing inspectors into the project. Warrants were even issued for his arrest. This was a federal project and he perceived that the matter was none of the city’s business. Aided by his attorney, John Shirk, he succeeded in avoiding the city’s claims and charges against him by resorting to and succeeding in federal court litigation. Sanders completed the project, which provided housing for 1,420 people and still stands today.
He died in Oklahoma City on December 22, 1980. The Leo Sanders Collection photos were provided to Retro Metro OKC by founding member Norman Thompson and Sanders’ grandson, Chris Sanders.