|City/Town: • Oklahoma City
|Location Class: • Jail
|Built: • 1935 | Abandoned: • 2013
|Status: • Abandoned • Endangered
|Photojournalist: • Michael Schwarz • Gary Henry
The need for a brand new jail in Oklahoma City and Police Headquarters started being discussed in mid-1935. With a growing city in the middle of the midwest and full of outlaws and bandits, the need for an OKC Jail was strong and wasn’t going to subside anytime soon. Despite the desperate need, fears started to arise that bonds to build the new city jail wouldn’t be passed if they were voted on separately. Some city officials banded together proposing that the bond proposition for a new city hall would also include the jail.
After even more conversation City Manager Orval Mosier a new date was set to vote on the bids for the new jail, December 12th would be the day. New specifications were made to the jail which would result in about $60,000 being cut off the construction cost. The fourth floor of the jail would be left unfinished for the time being, the cost of the heating plant reduced and eliminating the pistol range on the roof were all to reduce the cost. Now that the plans were finished the task of putting out bids came next. W.S. Bellows Construction put in the lowest bid of $269,800, but this was way over the $194,000 engineer estimate. The Public Works Administration was paying 45 percent of the cost for the project that would also include the new City Hall building.
By September 1936 J.S. Waldrep, Public Workers Administration engineer, noted the jail project as being 93.4 percent finished. The finishing touches of plaster, paint, flooring, electrical and plumbing were to be added and the facility would be ready for occupancy. With the fourth floor being left unfinished the total capacity would be 103 cells for male prisoners. With five floors and a basement level it was more than impressive for a jail and police headquarters. Cells were constructed with 6-foot 10-inch tall ceilings.
On March 16, 1937 it was time to transfer all the prisoners from the old jail into the new one. Shockingly enough the move went much better than suspected as police and trustees helped escort and keep order of the inmates. The inmates were almost excited to see the new jail catcalling and hollering as carload after carload of prisoners arrived. They were shuffled into the ground floor waiting room where detectives somewhat watched them. Jailer Sam Meeks was frazzled by the fact that he had no keys to access the cells prior to the transfer, it took almost an hour before William Damon, inspector of the jail, arrived with the keys to finally put prisoners in their cells.
Immediately the jail came under scrutiny by inmates and employees alike. Inmates hated the fact that their cells had no drains and made their disappointment well known. Employees in the records department complained there was nowhere to put their filing cabinets. Jim Hall though had rather nice things to say about the facility. Hall was more than acquainted with the old facility and the new one in the short time it had been open as he had been arrested some fifty times by July 1937 when he was interviewed to give his opinions on the jail.
“It sits above the surrounding buildings and the old one was a hot hole on alley level and was surrounded on all sides. Boy, that stir was hot. The ventilation makes it cooler here, and this joint is two times as sanitary as the old one. Why, you can even take a shower whenever you want one, and that’s something. The cells on the West side are as hot as blue blazes but the boys can move in the runways and keep out of the hot spots. Over in the old jail everybody was jammed together and on Saturday night each cell was packed like sardines. Over here, the individual cells make things more private.”
As is the case with many jails featured on our website and even active ones all around the state, they typically hold some very interesting histories. While the smaller pioneer jails scattered throughout the nation were more often than not poorly documented along jails of this stature were headlining newspapers left and right. One of these stories is included below:
The Oklahoma News Mar 13, 1938 – Leon McDonald, 24 years old former cab driver, is scheduled to appear at the county jail Tuesday to serve the eight remaining days of a 90-day sentence he was given when he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. McDonald was given a 30-day temporary parole by Gov. Marland Feb 15 to allow him to make a trip to Miami FL at the expense of the federal government to testify there at an extradition hearing for Chester Stone who is charged here in federal court with illegal flight to escape justice and in state court with robbery with firearms.
McDonald returned several days later and immediately reported to the Oklahoma City jail to inquire if he had to go back to his cell at once. He was told no that the governor’s pardon had specifically said he was to return to jail on March 15. McDonald then said he was going to go to work to attempt to make $72.40 to pay court costs of the case against him. For if he is not able to pay the cost he will have to serve an additional 73 days in jail. The youth was charged as a result of an automobile accident on February 4, 1937 in which Mrs. Maude Driscoll suffered fatal injuries.
Eugene S. Zemans a representative of the John Howard Association from Chicago visited the jail in 1947. He made his way to inspect a handful of other jails all over the country to take notes and get new ideas for the jails in Chicago that had deplorable conditions. But the Oklahoma City Jail was in pristine condition at the time. A few years later the jail created a bookkeeping system that would require monthly reports to the city auditor’s office reporting how many men were confined in the jail. Also included in the report would be how many trustees were hired. That same year something unheard of in today’s society, Vernon C. Raper, former detective, brought 22 prisoners to the polls that were released on April 7, 1953. He wasn’t exactly looked at like a hero amongst his peers to which he replied “What’s all the fuss about? There’s no law against transporting voters to the polls.
The 1960s brought dark times to the jail, in ’61 the jail was “filled with vagrants and drunks”. Police were conducting a sweep to “rid the sector of transients” as they took cover and tried to hide. A steady stream of persons poured in from paddy wagons and detective cruisers. By 10 pm on July 26th, more than 100 men and women had been arrested with 2/3 failing to post bail. This put the inmate total at 280 when its peak capacity was 215. Lt. G.J. Green said they were having inmates sleep on the floor and under cell bunks.
In 1964 one of the biggest manhunts of the era turned Oklahoma City into an apocalypse. During a search for the killer of 65 years old James Wikoff. Around 110 persons were arrested, jailed, and questioned in connection with the killing and other crimes. It also brought on a string of misfortune with escapes raising concerns that the jail was not secure enough.
Preservationists over the years have argued the historical significance of this building for Oklahoma City is one that connected us to the Civil Rights trail. Clara Luper, a huge advocate and activist along with her counterparts served many times in this jail. She was partially responsible for organizing many different sit-ins in the Oklahoma City area to desegregate businesses.
The jail was subsequently vacated of prisoners in 1997 when the city consolidated the Oklahoma County and Oklahoma City jails together. The city council had voted to demolish the 62-year-old building and discussed one day replacing it. But not every council members was jumping for joy about having city jail operations tied to the county. The city had intentions of razing the jail the following year getting an estimate from Midwest Wrecking of $177,000 without asbestos abatement.
But that never happened and the building continued on for decades to come. For a reason unknown at this time, the building seemed to continue to be used in some capacity until it was finally fully abandoned in 2013. After its abandonment, it went downhill with a leaking roof, broken windows and pigeons taking over some of the cells. The city not keeping the building up to the code of its own standards.
The city council was approached in June 2019 asking for approval to raze not only the 1935 OKC Police Headquarters but also the 1960s Police Headquarters building as well. The reasoning? To build a parking lot. Preservationist Catherine Montgomery and developer Marva Ellard approached the city council asking them to reconsider. Montgomery presented an application to add the jail to the National Register of Historic Places, stating the building is historically and architecturally significant given its role in the civil rights movement. Developer Marva Ellard has for the last eight years been unsuccessful in her attempts to purchase the jail from the city.
The city council voted 5-4 to demolition the structures but to also give Ellard one more year to present a viable proposal to redevelop the jail. Ellard said she has found interested parties but cannot come up with the thorough proposal the city is wanting until they can provide a purchase price for the building. While the 1960s structure demolition is already in full swing the 1930s structure continues to sit, awaiting its day to meet the wrecking ball as well.
Gallery Below of OKC Jail
Clara Luper with a Group at the Oklahoma City Police Headquarters, photograph, Date Unknown; (https://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc1082472/: accessed August 13, 2022), The Gateway to Oklahoma History, https://gateway.okhistory.org; crediting Oklahoma Historical Society.
Clara Luper with a Group at the Oklahoma City Police Headquarters, photograph, Date Unknown; (https://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc1082289/: accessed August 13, 2022), The Gateway to Oklahoma History, https://gateway.okhistory.org; crediting Oklahoma Historical Society.
[Photograph 2012.201.B0366B.0560], photograph, August 20, 1969; (https://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc453044/: accessed August 13, 2022), The Gateway to Oklahoma History, https://gateway.okhistory.org; crediting Oklahoma Historical Society.
If you wish to support our current and future work, please consider making a donation or purchasing one of our many books. Any and all donations are appreciated.
Donate to our cause Check out our books!