January 10, 2014

Ogden High School: How A Utah Community Saved Its Beloved Art Deco Gem

  • By: David Weible
  • Photography: Ogden School Foundation
Ogden High School Exterior

Ogden High School’s Art Deco design has been an icon in the community since the 1930s.

Ogden High School in Ogden, Utah, has been a community gathering place and source of civic pride since the 1930s. The first million-dollar high school in the state, it is a stunning example of Art Deco architecture.

But after graduating 115,000 students over 70 years, the high school was showing its age. The local community, city school district, and private donors rallied around the iconic building to support a $64-million, multi-year rehabilitation and restoration.

Traditional building skills were used to restore the breathtaking auditorium, and the original gym was transformed into classrooms, performance spaces, and science labs. A new entryway was added, and upgrades throughout the building made the school more sustainable and energy-efficient.

During construction, community members could come see the detailed restoration work up close, giving them a greater appreciation both for the space and the project. Today, Ogden High School meets 21st-century needs while preserving its historic character.

We spoke with Janis Vause, executive director of the Ogden School Foundation, who headed fundraising for the project, about the project’s impact on the community. [Ed. note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Ogden High School Auditorium

The auditorium, with its intricately painted ceiling, is the crown jewel of Ogden High.

How did the community decide on a historic restoration instead of a new building?

The school district, after several public forums, determined that we had to restore Ogden High School. There was no option of tearing it down or doing another school because the community spoke out loud and clear that it had to be done.

How did the community fund the project?

So in order to do it the district did a bond for the entire community, but realizing that historic preservation is much more costly than a new school, they came to the Ogden School Foundation, which is the fundraising arm of the district, and said, "We’re really not in the business of historic preservation, we’re hoping that you can help us make up some of that difference." At that point we could build a new high school for somewhere around $55 million, and to do this restoration as we wanted to do it was somewhere around $70 million. And so they said, "Can you help us come up with some of that difference?'" And we were able to reach that goal.

Just how passionate is the community about this school?

How do I say this and make it strong enough? We would have had community members chain themselves to the doors if something would have happened to their beloved school. It just has such a rich history and tradition. It was built in ‘38 and you have all of these alumni who, if they didn't realize it at the time that they were attending school, they certainly realized it after, what just a beautiful icon, what a treasure it is in our community. We knew the bond wouldn't pass if we did anything but restore that school, and restore it well.

Ogden High School Construction - Man Painting

Not only was the auditorium’s painted ceiling restored, the very same tools that were once used to create it were employed to bring it back to life.

What kind of effect did inviting the community in to see the work have?

Oh, a huge effect. In the auditorium they had to do a false floor that the workers could work on to restore the decorative painting that was up there. We decided how cool would it be to invite potential donors, and really anybody that was interested, to actually walk up on that floor. So we would have them climb the ladder from the balcony and they could get inches away from the center rosette.

Any cool stories come out of the restoration process?

When the decorative painter was working on [the auditorium ceiling], he saw five signatures that were written in pencil in the center rosette. And he looked at those names and he said, "I know these guys, I apprenticed under some of these guys." He even bought some of the tools that they had done the original painting of Ogden High with and those are what he was still using now 70 or so years later.

Ogden High School received a 2013 Preservation Honor Award in recognition of its successful restoration. Learn more about the Richard H. Driehaus National Preservation Awards.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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