The art museum and other Art Deco-style projects in Wichita were delayed and or pared down by the Great Depression. Bradley noted that North High, pictured above, snuck in under the wire, opening in 1929.
“It was described as a history of Kansas built in steel and stone,” he said.
It showcases the talent of local architect Glen H. Thomas and internationally known sculptor Bruce Moore, a Wichita native who was responsible for the buffalo head and Native American carvings.
“It’s got the geometry and the towers,” Bradley said. “That was a common vertical emphasis. And all the banding at the top that was then repeated.”
Just west of North High, the Minisa bridge over the Little Arkansas River was another collaboration of Thomas and Moore.
Nearby Marshall Intermediate School, built a decade later, is North High on a smaller scale, with a tower and terra cotta panels depicting oil derricks, grain mills and airplanes. Other schools showing Art Deco touches include Stanley on South Martinson; Longfellow on South Main; Lincoln on South Topeka; Robinson on North Oliver; Franklin on South Elizabeth; and Kellogg on Kellogg.
The influences were often concentrated where they’d be noticed most, for instance with Robinson’s portal type entryway with flanking benches.
Art Deco is a style that’s never gone out of style in Wichita — even if some of it seems hidden in plain sight. In architecture, its influence can be seen from our splendid downtown federal courthouse and other office, retail, apartment and school buildings still used for their original purposes to many others that have been converted to other uses.
Margarita’s Cantina, better known for frozen drinks and dancing? Art Deco.
That humble thrift shop at Central and Grove? Ditto.
Art Deco is often described as an exuberant approach to design that arose after World War I, celebrating geometry rather than nature. Its influence on architecture here was the subject of a presentation at the Wichita Art Museum by architect Dean Bradley and photographer Larry Schwarm to help launch an exhibit called “American Art Deco: Designing for the People, 1918-39.” The exhibit runs through May 29.
While the art museum exhibit focuses on artwork from around the United States, WAM director Patricia McDonnell persuaded Bradley and Schwarm to make a travelogue around Wichita documenting Art Deco in what Bradley called the “built environment” — that is, architecture.
Interestingly, the museum itself, when initially completed in 1935, was a prominent enough example of the Art Deco style to be featured in a national architecture magazine. But modifications and additions to it have obscured virtually all of those features.
At the conclusion of his talk, Bradley said in response to a question that Art Deco in Wichita seemed to have some characteristics of its own. He described it as combining geometric forms with “allegiance to some nature, whether it was wheat, corn. And then the respect of the American Indian, especially seen at North High (School). I think it was a pretty good local phenomenon. I’m sure you had influences in other places, like in New York. But in New York, it just seemed like the Chrysler building” — perhaps the most iconic Art Deco building of all — “is mostly just geometry, and I don’t know about any real local influences to the style, where it was freely done here in Wichita.”
On these pages you’ll see examples, well known and not, of what Bradley and Schwarm found in Wichita. Other buildings covered in their talk include the Ellis-Singleton building (better known as the Petroleum building), KG&E maintenance building on Central, U.S courthouse, original Wichita airport (now the Kansas Aviation Museum), Commodore Hotel, J. Arch Butts Packard building (now home of GLMV Architecture), Frank and Harvey Ablah duplex in College Hill and Valentine diners that were manufactured here. For their full presentation, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr84VDpUmHE.
A related exhibit at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, called “Art Deco on the Plains,” features Art Deco artifacts from local collectors and will run through the end of the year.