How Oklahoma State U Helped Remake a Campus and a Community

By Bruce Henley and Eric Vogt

Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences (OSU CHS) has educated and trained generations of osteopathic physicians, scientists, and health care professionals, many of whom dedicate their careers to serving the state’s aging populations in underserved and rural areas in the state and beyond.

The school began relatively modestly on its Tulsa campus with a stand-alone facility, which housed one of the state’s two medical examiner’s offices. The building was a remnant of an era when architectural “brutalism” dominated the landscape. Physically unappealing, operationally outmoded, and technologically underwhelming, it neared its expiration date around the same time the National Association of Medical Examiners cut off Oklahoma’s Medical Examiners accreditation.

An Integrated Strategy

OSU CHS devised a holistic approach for strengthening its brand as an indispensable medical training hub while simultaneously helping the state win back accreditation. With its core nestled in a tight space bordered by Southwest Boulevard (the old U.S. Route 66), 17th Street, and railroad tracks, and only a stone’s throw from the Arkansas River, the campus needed to get creative within a relatively constrained footprint.

The school proceeded to build the A. R. & Marylouise Tandy Medical Academic Building (Tandy Building), an educational, simulation, and clinical skills facility. The 84,000-square-foot, $40-million project helped advance the school’s mission in service to its students and the community at large. Complementing this structure in both visual appeal and operational effectiveness, OSU CHS also added parking, green space, and a flood-risk-reducing retention pond.

The Tandy Building became the flagship facility on the burgeoning campus. Its contemporary design reflected OSU’s visual brand—for example, adorning the facility’s façade in orange, one of the school’s colors—while also maintaining a distinct look and feel. Essentially, it built on the past while developing an aesthetically purposeful pathway for future development.

This pathway became a roadmap for creating a multipurpose structure to significantly expand the school’s academic offerings while re-imagining and re-making a modernized medical examiner’s office.

A Unique Mixed-Use Building

The result was the transformative North Hall, a 120,000-square-foot facility designed to serve OSU CHS students and Tulsa residents for decades to come. Linking the campus with its surroundings, the building includes cutting-edge laboratories and classrooms for anatomy and neuroanatomy programs, delivering real-life applications to what is simulated next door at the A. R. & Marylouise Tandy Medical Academic Building.

The facility includes ample space for an information technology department, conference rooms, clinical education, and OSU CHS leadership offices, as well as offices for the Center for Rural Health, American Indians in Medicine and Science, and the Center for Health Systems Innovation.

Design goals included safety, workflow efficiency, and evidence preservation. The medical examiner designed autopsy tables for bariatric corpses, and the development team worked with the manufacturer to produce them to the desired specifications. The natural and direct lighting blend eliminated the need for typical operating room lighting.

One of this development’s biggest challenges concerned the mixing of medical school space with a medical examiner’s office. How could two loosely connected disciplines with entirely different purposes and stakeholders co-exist seamlessly? How could these two parts form a greater whole, as opposed to each function’s requirements undercutting the other?

This separate-yet-combined puzzle needed a creative, practical solution, necessitating a clear separation between medical examiner spaces from other building spaces. At the same time, the building’s pedestrian flow mandated doorways and hallways that facilitated ease of passage.

For example, medical examiner’s offices receive family members affected by recent crimes. Mission-specific entrances and exits enable the public to come and go discreetly, helping to protect their privacy during vulnerable times. North Hall delivered on that premise, generating separate egress for the north-facing medical examiner’s office on the opposite side of the south-facing, student-focused entryway.

North Hall also incorporated the Tandy Building’s use of school colors, presenting a distinctive orange façade that utilizes an assemblage of hundreds of crisscrossing lines—inspired by a magnification of skin—etched into the orange, thereby artistically merging both buildings.

Community Catalysts

Completed in 2022, North Hall prompted Oklahoma’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Eric Pfeifer, to state publicly that the facility might be one of the nicest in the world, uniting form and function to augment OSU CHS’s academic profile and community reach. It builds upon the school’s core mission, harnessing the resources of a powerful learning environment to prepare doctors, scientists, and health care specialists to meet the needs of the surrounding population. Additionally, it boosts the state’s hopes of finally reclaiming accreditation.

North Hall is part of OSU CHS’s and Tulsa’s broader community investment. A few blocks away, construction is ongoing for a $171.2-million veterans hospital to help serve more than 65,000 veterans living in Tulsa. Next door, the $70-million, 106-bed Oklahoma Psychiatric Care Center is expected to open within a year. Featuring 24-hour crisis response services, the facility will help address the needs of the roughly 140,000 Tulsa residents facing mental health challenges.

It’s another reminder that facilities are more than the culmination of materials and labor. They are community catalysts, engineering limitless possibilities for socialization, education, recreation, research, discovery, and many other human pursuits. They are symbolic fixtures of a city’s values and objects of veneration. They are also investments that frequently more than compensate for their monetary costs.

Meanwhile, at a recent meeting of the Board of Medicolegal Investigations for Oklahoma’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, members expressed hope that re-accreditation could be earned by 2025—that all of the steps the state had taken finally would yield success.

North Hall was an essential step. It is the exclamation point for a program that U.S. News and World Report just ranked as a top-10 medical school among those whose graduates work in rural areas, and even more impressively for an institution serving a mostly rural state, #1 in the percentage of graduates working in Health Professional Shortage Areas.

Only two years after opening, North Hall’s legacy already is secure as its impact continues to bloom.

Bruce Henley, AIA, LEED AP, RID, NCARB, is a Project Manager with Dewberry; Eric Vogt, AIA, LEED Green Associate, NCARB, is a Lead Designer with Dewberry.