That’s the question asked of me on my latest posts with the category added “In tribute to Mary Jo.”
So, here’s your answer:
Mary Jo fought for architectural past
By Steve Lackmeyer
|Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Edition: CITY, Section: BUSINESS, Page 4B
Mary Jo Nelson wasn’t a cheerleader for the chamber of commerce, or someone who simply took a news release and rewrote it verbatim. Her questions were tough, and she went to great lengths to get the truth out when nobody wanted to dare say the rich and powerful were heading in the wrong direction as they sought to create a new downtown. Her influence on this city was in full display Monday as friends, relatives and admirers gathered for the former Oklahoman reporter’s funeral. Mary Jo was 80.
As the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority was targeting hundreds of buildings for demolition, Mary Jo was reminding us what was being lost and what was in danger next. She authored an entire series detailing the history and importance of the few old buildings remaining. By the time I started covering downtown years later, the damage was done — with one notable exception: the Skirvin Hotel.
Between 1996, when I was first assigned to cover downtown, and 1999, when the city council agreed to actively seek a developer for the property, I wrote 23 stories detailing the hotel’s history, its plight, ties to the community, and examples of successful hotel restorations in other cities.
I now confess to all the editors who grew exasperated with my coverage: yes, I was trying to steer the public’s attention to the Skirvin hotel. But blame Mary Jo. She unknowingly taught me how to bring readers’ attention to at-risk historic buildings. She wouldn’t let readers forget the city’s architectural past.
Blame her as well for my reminders every now and then of the architectural relics that continue even now to suffer from neglect in the courtyard of the Santa Fe Parking Garage. The items, placed when the surrounding offices were occupied by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, include a lion’s head ornament from the Terminal Building, an exterior light fixture from the Patterson Building, the grinding wheel from the area’s first grist mill, a spire and cupola from the Baum Building, marble from the Biltmore Hotel and a finial from the Criterion Theater.
Chamber folks, prompted by inquiries from Mary Jo, promised in 1994 they were going to move the collection to a safer spot, but never did. Mary Jo cared about these items because they are the last vestiges of a past she believed were carelessly discarded. They continue to suffer the abuse of fun-seeking skateboarders and vandals.
I spoke for what became the final time with Mary Jo last summer after writing about how an architectural gem like the Baum Building was replaced during the Urban Renewal era with the much-derided and now empty Century Center Plaza.
She loved that column. She hated Urban Renewal.
Times have changed. Urban Renewal’s latest work involving historic buildings was the restoration of the Skirvin Hotel and the preservation of the Centre Theater facade as part of development of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
For those in the architectural and preservation community who are mourning her death, just know she probably wouldn’t be too interested in flowers or tributes. If I had to guess, she’d probably much rather see that passion go into saving those forgotten downtown relics.