Story by Roger Moore
In 2007, the final piece to Oklahoma State’s “Athletic Village” plans were made possible when District Judge Donald Worthington ruled that the university had the right of eminent domain to purchase one final property in the area immediately north of Boone Pickens Stadium. That area, between Hall of Fame Avenue to McElroy and between Washington and Knoblock Streets, once included family homes, a variety of apartments, old rental houses, and years of memories for many Stillwater residents who grew up in the shadows of the college campus. Three hundred-plus properties were removed to make way for campus expansion.
The always-expanding university campus, once included just Old Central, now encompasses a much larger section of Stillwater. In the first decade of the 2000s that planned expansion included a state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind athletic village. Financial issues due in part to the stock market troubles of 2008 put a hold on OSU plans; but, slowly but surely, construction has resumed in the old neighborhood north of the football stadium.
Knoblock, from Hall of Fame to McElroy, at least on the east side, has remained somewhat unchanged. Bennett Hall, named in honor of visionary Henry Garland Bennett, still resides at the corner of Hall of Fame and Knoblock. From the outside little has changed; renovations have turned the inside into twenty-first century living quarters for many OSU student-athletes. From the second and third story windows, certain April and May afternoons can be spent watching college baseball at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium, named in honor of former Cowboy and New York Yankee hurler Allie Reynolds. Opened in 1981, the Reynolds Stadium diamond sits at the same location as University Park and its old wooden bleachers where a 1959 national championship was forged. A handful of neighborhood kids skipped a day of school or two to catch a mid-week doubleheader and laugh at the 1970s antics of those sitting on the old hill down the left field line.
A short walk north and Cowgirl Stadium, opened in 2000, remains in its original location. An OSU-Nebraska football game, originally scheduled for Stillwater, was moved to Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium with the money made from the game’s sponsor earmarked for the building of a new softball complex. As Stillwater grew houses and apartments sprouted up along the west side of Knoblock. With eminent domain, those small houses disappeared. Now, a practice complex for football takes up the majority of space between Knoblock and what was once Hester Street’s continuation north past Hall of Fame. The spacious Sherman E. Smith Training Center’s history is just developing; the neighborhood it replaced includes at least a half century’s worth of memories.
Long before there was shiny green turf in front of the Smith Center, there was simply a large field, half dirt, half grass, part weeds, full dust in the summers. There was no tail-gating, but large 1960s and 1970s model cars parked there on Saturdays. It eventually became a parking lot where more than a few neighborhood kids helped park cars on game day. Locals might remember when it was still open prairie, in 1974, when President Richard M. Nixon landed in a helicopter, made the short walk across the street to Lewis Stadium, and delivered OSU’s commencement speech. Three months later, Nixon resigned from office. A week or two after Nixon’s visit, neighborhood kids were back on the field throwing and catching footballs like Charlie Weatherbie and Terry Miller.
Just north of the old dirt/parking lot, about the north end zone of the Smith Center, plenty of college students spent hours “partying and studying” in the old orange Patio Club apartments on Scott and Hester Streets. Neighborhood kids spent plenty of hot summer days sneaking into the Patio Club swimming pool, getting asked by management if they “lived there” and then making a quick escape back into the neighborhood.
Hester Street, north of the stadium, was a mix of families and college students. The younger neighborhood kids headed north to attend Will Rogers Elementary, while the older kids went the opposite direction to attend classes at OSU. One of those college kids, Charlie Weatherbie, spent some time helping Ms. Fenimore’s P.E. classes in the smallish gymnasium. What was once a smallish elementary school now resembles a small space station on the corner of Eskridge and Washington.
One summer evening, Friday 13, 1975, families and students gathered outside – momentarily – as tornado sirens blared; many headed to the Student Union basement to avoid Mother Nature. While adults contemplated possible damage, I tried to figure out the best possible way to bowl as an 8-year-old on one of the lanes available to the public. The old neighborhood avoided any significant damage, most of it hitting southeast Stillwater and parts of campus including the OSU fire station, which had its cupola blown off.
The western edge of the area in question, between Knoblock and Washington to McElroy, once apartments and houses, now includes the Wes Watkins Center, parking lots, and the Michael and Ann Greenwood Tennis Center. Somewhere amongst the parking spaces an old house sat, prior to demolition, that nearly burned down before its time. Kids being kids, playing with fire as kids do, making kid-like decisions during the heat of summer … and then the fire department, a scolding from mom, and a deep breath as only mom’s famed rose bush burned to the ground.
A few blocks away, at 704 North Hester, there was a small house with apartments to its north and across the street on the corner of Hester and McElroy. It disappeared, like many houses and apartments in the old neighborhood, but remains in the memories of those who lived and partially grew up there. That old neighborhood is being joined by many around the fringes of campus, getting replaced with modern-style, multi-level apartments. In October some returned to Stillwater for the first time in years to see a campus, and community, that continues to change its landscape. It’s certainly not completely due to eminent domain in a literal sense, but the expanding reach of the university continues to stretch into neighborhoods in and around its campus.