This Utah school is straight out of ‘The Great Gatsby’

National News

Courtesy: Ogden School Foundation

OGDEN, Utah (KTVX) – Utah is home to many architecturally impressive, historic buildings, but it might come as a surprise that a public high school is one of them.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ogden High School was constructed in 1937 in the Art Deco style and was the “first million-dollar school in the United States,” according to the Ogden School District website.

The school was also used as the setting of the 1987 film Three O’Clock High, the site states.

“There’s no other high school like it anywhere, I think,” says Alan Hall, an alumnus of the school who helped raise around $9 million to preserve it in the mid-2000s after it had fallen into disrepair.

Besides being built in Art Deco style, an architectural design popular in the United States in the 1930s, the school has other features not found in your average high school.

“The floor is marble when you walk down the hall. It’s not linoleum. It’s beautiful marble floors. The walls are walnut wood. The paint on the stucco walls above are beautiful, the lighting is art deco, which has this beautiful feel to it. The Empire State Building was Art Deco, so it’s all the physical features from the floor, the walls, the light, the restrooms,” Hall explains.

Rob White, another alumnus of the school who worked with Hall to raise money for the renovation, remembers his mother taking him to see the Utah Symphony Orchestra perform at the school when he was growing up.

“… I started going there when I was pretty little and was always sort of mesmerized because it’s kind of odd architecture for a little kid if you grew up in 1950s Ogden,” he tells Nexstar’s ABC4.

Below: Photos of Ogden High School and its renovation, courtesy of Ogden School Foundation

But how did Ogden residents have a million dollars to spend on an extravagant high school shortly after the Great Depression in 1937?

Building Ogden High School

According to Preservation Utah, the money came from the federal government under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was created to relieve economic difficulties created by the Great Depression. The WPA employed both skilled and unskilled workers to help work on community projects.

Both Hall and White compared the government funds to stimulus packages the federal government has distributed to United States citizens in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They put artisans to work, so it wasn’t just low-paying jobs. It was craftsmen and artisans. That helps explain why a fabulously beautiful building could be built in the middle of the Great Depression,” White explains.

Hall says building the high school was a community effort.

“If you think about the tradition of people in Utah, particularly in Ogden, the desire to do things and do them well, take a leap of faith and everyone contribute to make something happen, it’s like a community effort second to none.”

However, as years passed and generations of students passed in and out of the school’s doors, it began to fall into disrepair.

Fundraising for the Ogden High School Renovation

“There was scuttlebutt of tearing it down in the district,” White tells ABC4. “People who love architecture were like, this just cannot happen.”

Courtesy: Ogden School Foundation

It would look like any high school you see today, Hall says. “They’re just sort of cinder block buildings. There’s nothing fancy about the high schools of today.”

Hall says he was approached by Janis Vause of the Ogden School Foundation to raise $9 million to renovate the school’s auditorium, which took place around 2009. With a background in fundraising, Hall got to work and also gave money to get the ball rolling.

“We formed a wonderful committee of people that could give and get money and we went ahead to contact people that have an interest in Ogden High. Obviously, there were a lot of alumni and a lot of people who loved their time in high school,” Hall shares.

“So during this very difficult economic time, during this recession that was underway where people were losing their money, we were fortunate enough to be successful in fundraising… I got to watch the process as we raised the money, but also as the building was taken apart and put back together again. How magnificent it was and the love and dedication that went into building it,” he added.

Hall says it was somewhat intimidating to try to gain enough money to renovate the auditorium, but he had faith it would work out.

“We’re just going to go get it done. There was nothing going to stop us,” he said.

Halls says alumni played a major role in donating to renovate the high school.

“It was a part of our heart and soul. That building had for us, a special meaning to every one of us, and we wanted it to be like it was when we went there.”

He says he and many of his classmates from high school — whom he still calls “boys” — get together even 60 years after graduating and meet up every few months for lunch.

“We’re still friends, and that’s sort of the spirit of Ogden High. It became part of us and it still is,” he said. “It was the people besides the building that made it what it is.”

White, who worked to fundraise with Hall, says the school has some “notable alumni” who gave very generous donations for the project.

Ogden High School Today

Hall says walking into the building today feels almost like walking into a chapel.

Courtesy: Ogden School Foundation

“It’s almost like a beautiful cathedral, let’s say in Europe. I mean, it is magnificent. The colors, the gold, and all of the look and feel of that auditorium is amazing.”

He says the school’s current student body is very respectful of the building.

“You don’t see graffiti. You don’t see dirt anywhere. It’s being maintained in this pristine, beautiful feel, which tells me that future generations will likewise honor this magnificent building. They won’t do anything to harm it. The building on its own will get old; that’s the nature of it. But what I’m hoping is not only we of the past have made it restored and beautiful, but that future generations will likewise have great respect for such a beautiful building.”

White calls the building a “really balanced and beautiful piece of architecture.”

“Something that beautiful changes a town. It just does, and it’s one of the three or four most beautiful buildings in the state, so it’s a real visible source of pride for Ogden,” he said. “I think that’s why people were so horrified when people started mentioning tearing it down. Similarly, for alumni who went there it’s sort of an act of optimism in the future to invest in a building like that, and it’s giving something back to the place you came from in a real tangible way.”

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