Architecture: Mixture of styles, from Victorian to modern, are on display in MidTown
Urban block blends creativity, history
Renovation of a home by brothers became the fulfillment of a dying wish.
By Steve Lackmeyer
|Sunday, April 22, 2007
Edition: CITY, Section: SPECIAL SECTION, Page 16
OUTLOOK III SPECIAL SECTION
Imagine a block that features an early 1980s example of dense urban housing, a renovated 1925 two-story brick home, a couple of restored 1906 two-story wood frame duplex and to cap it off, a brand new “contemporary modern” home that is sometimes mistaken for a church or business.The mix is eclectic but very real. Welcome to the corner of Francis and NW 7, in the heart of MidTown’s cottage district. It’s a block that has captured the imagination of urban pioneers, and was one man’s final dying wish.
Architect Randy Floyd considers the two homes she owns with partner Michael Smith to be the best example of what her block looked like a century ago. The houses at 810 and 812 NW 7 were built in 1906 when the hill they went up on was considered “out in the country.”
“These homes were middle class,” Floyd said. “And in quite a few, the owners lived on the first floor, and they had rental units on the second floor. In our buildings, they had a 1,120-square-foot residence on the first floor and two rental units on the second floor.”
Saved from demolition
The two homes, which Floyd describes as “Territorial Victorian,” feature flat roofs and a soft pediment one might see in a Western movie. When Floyd and Smith first bought the properties, both the homes and the block itself were considered blighted.
Several of the homes on the block were torn down in the early 1980s to make way for decidedly modern structures that included attorneys’ offices at 719 N Shartel and the three-story Classen Glenn Condominiums at 901 NW 7 (both were designed by Beck Associates). Floyd suspects more structures like her own might have been torn down if not for the mid-1980s oil bust halting redevelopment of the block.
Floyd doesn’t mind the presence of the offices — she points out the neighborhood has always been mixed-use and she hopes to see more professionals decide to combine businesses and homes along NW 7.
The Classen Glenn Condominiums, an award-winning design by Beck Associates when it opened in 1985, looms large at the corner of NW 7 and Classen. The condos and law offices were the first projects for architect Don Beck, whose firm later went on to designing the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library and the new Oklahoma State Historical Museum.
Beck recalled the developer of the condominiums once envisioned building more housing on the block but gave up when the oil bust hit. Some construction problems, most notably the lack of water splashing, have prevented the condos from reaching their full potential, Beck said.
“I like the forms of Classen Glenn,” Floyd said. “I like the big walls with holes in them, and I think modern is just fine. But when you look at all these houses, what do you see? You see porches with steps coming down to the street, you see sidewalks. But when you look at Classen Glenn, it’s totally walled off. If it had been built with a more urban sentiment, facing the streets, maybe our streets wouldn’t have been lost to the vagrants, prostitutes and drug dealers. They gave the street away.”
Neighbor and fellow architect Bryan Fitzsimmons is more complimentary toward Classen Glenn, which he notes hasn’t achieved the sort of sales prices under way at new downtown condominium projects in Deep Deuce and Lower Bricktown.
“Classen Glenn is very interesting, and I have high hopes it will prosper again,” Fitzsimmons said. “It has ahead of its time. It was the first high-density housing built downtown, and the city just wasn’t ready for it yet.”
But is the city ready for Fitzsimmons’ own home at 719 N Francis? Fitzsimmons admits his house, built in 2005, has been mistaken as a church and office building. He makes no apologies for his modern expressionist design, much of it geared toward his wife’s Vietnamese roots.
“We tried to mix up the cultures a bit — my modern tastes with a lot of dedications to her interest in numerology,” Fitzsimmons said. “It has her favorite color of red, a sign of good health, wishing luck others, and the angle of the wall is to the number 13 — her birthday.”
The stairwell in the home is four stories tall, and the front of the house to the top of the silver rooftop is 25 feet. The distance from the alley to the top of the stairwell, meanwhile, is 37 feet.
“Nobody can identify what it is,” Fitzsimmons said.
Yet another architect, Dennis Walls, has started construction on his own modern design home at 834 NW 7. Like Fitzsimmons, Walls’ design stands out from typical residential construction. Inspired by the work of architect Paolo Soleri, Walls describes his new home as a “plaster cube.”
“It’s going to be 40 feet by 40 feet, and 25 feet tall,” said Walls, who is an architect with Glover Smith Bode. “It’s set on cost efficiency. I was thinking economy of materials, with an industrial look on the interior.”
Both Fitzsimmons and Walls say they were inspired to build along NW 7 by Floyd and Smith.
“I went on an AIA (American Institute of Architects) tour when their homes were first gutted, and they were just starting work,” Walls said. “I thought, ‘Wow, someone is putting money in here, let’s take a look.’ ”
Walls doesn’t mind that the block features so many designs — the very quirkiness of the area was what attracted him away from the suburbs.
“I’m escaping the suburbs,” Walls said. “I don’t like the rubber stamp housing development, and I want to see some diversity. The building stock here goes from the law firm built in the late ’70s style to a Habitat for Humanity home. I could build whatever style I wanted without too much opposition.”
Phil Bewley wasn’t an architect, but he, too, marveled at the efforts undertaken by Floyd and Smith and also dreamed of becoming an urban pioneer. Floyd and Smith had just started renovations when Phil Bewley and brother Rick bought a four-plex at 712 N Francis that was built in 1925.
“My brother was obsessed with finding something downtown, something old he could bring back, with a view,” Rick Bewley said. “The house ended up needing an entire gutting, all the way to the inside walls where there had been several fires over the years. You could see on the second floor trusses where they had been repaired and spliced together.”
Just as the gutting was complete, financing was in place and renovations were starting, Phil Bewley got some bad news: He had brain cancer. In his weakened condition, he could only watch as his family and friends took over renovation of his dream home.
Phil Bewley moved in by September. He died Oct. 11 at age 52. Rick Bewley thinks his brother would be excited to see the continued diversity of the block, which is about to include a couple of new, modern homes being planned by Floyd and Smith.
“In his office he had all the articles that ever came out on MidTown pinned up on his walls,” Rick Bewley said. “He was a big fan of unusual architecture. Over the past 25 years, he did plastic work for architect Rand Elliott, so he was always in tune with neat new cool stuff.”
I’m adding a new link today – one that I’m sure will spark a fun discussion about the role of Urban Design guidelines in what is referred to as the “cottage district” within MidTown. Dennis Wells, the host of http://www.freesosa.com is himself an urban pioneer in the neighboodhood, which is a split between historic homes and modern architecture. This is a split that has existed since construction of the Classen Glen Condominiums in the early 1980s and has continued with the area’s resurgence in recent years. Tomorrow I’ll post a story I wrote a couple of years ago about this area – for now, here’s an intro by Wells about his site:
You might have heard that “SoSA” is the underground name for MidTown’s Cottage District. (The OKC Planning Department doesn’t necessarily like “Cottage District,” and could officially change the name in the future.)
The City Ordinance contains the design guidelines for a variety of neighborhoods and overlay districts… SoSA’s guidelines are not very well defined, and the Planning Department is currently drafting new rules for this neighborhood. Some people favor more traditional guidelines; others would like the City to encourage diversity and innovation. Considering what’s already been done there, and that the future core-to-shore development will reduce SoSA’s draw, I come down on the
side of encouraging innovation, and encouraging it soon.
Without well defined design guidelines, the Urban Design Commission is often forced to waffle and defer on decisions, which can stall or even kill an innovative project. In an effort to glean public opinion on the subject I recently established www.freesosa.com and blog.freesosa.com
Visit freeSoSA.com to learn a bit more about the area, and then add your thoughts to the blog: blog.freeSoSA.com
Well, at least the building is. The video screen will be considered at another time. More in tomorrow’s paper.
The Board of Adjustment is hearing the appeal by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber concerning its proposed new headquarters for NW 4 and Broadway.
Board member David Wanzer is absent. But the board has a lot more present this time around than the bare minimum that heard this project at the Downtown Design Review Committee in September.
At issue: the building’s proposed setback (suburban in scale) and a large video board at the entrance.
Leave it Anthony McDermid to come up with the most unique idea I’ve heard yet on what to do with the Great Banking Hall at First National Tower.
It’s difficult to explain this idea without a photo – and fortunately Anthony has provided us with a guide. The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester England is a theater within a theater. Could the Great Banking Hall serve as a similar host?
Here’s more information from Wikipedia:
This is a seven-sided steel and glass module that squats within the Great Hall of the Manchester Royal Exchange. It is a pure theatre in the round in which the stage area is surrounded on all sides, and above, by seating.The theatre can seat up to 700 people on three levels, making it the largest theatre in the round in Britain. There are 400 seats at ground level in a raked configuration, above which lie two galleries, each with 150 seats set in two rows.As the floor of the Exchange would not be able to take the great weight of the theatre and its audience, the module is suspended from four massive columns that also carry the hall’s central dome. Only the stage area and ground-level seating rest on the floor of the hall itself.
Ron Bradshaw has yet another project ready to move once he gets the ball rolling on The Leslie (see today’s story). Ladies and gentleman, the above image is for Maywood Hall which Bradshaw hopes to build at NE 2 and Walnut.
Sorry, but I’ve been swamped the past day or two so I’ve not had a chance to post. But you guys are just as informative as I am, so let’s do a little coffee talk again.
Today’s topic: What downtown streets, sidewalks and park areas should OKC look to if it should implement the plan proposed by Larry Nichols?
So says veteran blogger Charles Hill at www.dustbury.com as he reflects on the latest news about Devon CEO Larry Nichols and his ambitions for downtown.
This looks like the screaming deal of the century. None of this is graven in stone, of course. But from where I sit, it’s a lot more than a mere sketch on a dinner napkin.
Final note: Give the guys at The Lost Ogle some points for keeping things in perspective. Any magazine that creates a list of “great Oklahoma websites” and doesn’t give mention to Dustbury is dubious at best. Neither the guys (and gals) at the Lost Ogle or Hill need a magazine, me or anybody else to affirm their status as first reads each day the computer comes on.
In another era not too long ago, Charles Hill would have been one of those celebrated newspaper columnists who were literally a part of the community’s collective pscyhe. Think Mike Royko in Chicago, Dave Barry in Miami, Lewis Grizzard in Atlanta – sometimes brilliant, sometimes analytical, usually odd and humorous, sometimes confusing, but always a “must read.”
Yes, I’m stunned.
Let’s face it, the 1993 Metropolitan Area Projects, while serving as a huge boost to downtown Oklahoma City, didn’t get the job done – it just got it started. We saw about $2 billion more in private and public investment follow the creation of a ballpark, the canal, arena, library, and improved music hall and convention center.
And as older buildings were renovated into housing, retail and offices, and as new buildings (like the Oklahoma City Community Foundation) replaced ugly empty lots, we were still left with a lot of lifeless streets and parks.
Every plan I’ve listened to this past decade, every dream I’ve heard about downtown Oklahoma City involved one basic fundamental: bringing life back to the streets, sidewalks and parks of the heart of the city.
Yes, I’m stunned. Many of us were so caught up in construction of Devon tower that I still don’t think it’s quite possible for some to truly appreciate the TIF side of all this.
No, today’s story doesn’t involve creation of lightrail, though there is a growing concensus among the leadership of this city to make that part of any potential MAPS 3. But if you think about it, what Larry Nichols is proposing will make lightrail more feasible. You can’t have a lightrail that goes door to door. You have to have a streetlife that will encourage pedestrian activity and make them want to walk two, three or four blocks to the nearest stop. The improvements Nichols is proposing, that are now very doable because of the TIF revenues the tower will generate, could make that walk not just tolerable, but a joy.
Then consider this from the second story I had today: construction of the new Devon tower, which funds this $135 million TIF, will bring in thousands of construction jobs. That’s a lot of people working downtown for a couple years.
Downtown will be filled with people. Nichols’ vision is to create a new downtown where they no longer hide in their buildings.
Bring streetlife to downtown and its various districts and you then attract more housing and office users. Retail picks up. I’ve discussed the thoughts of William Whyte in previous posts. His basic premise was that too many cities were shooting up in the sky, putting all the color into the skyline and leaving a drab meaningless frontage at street-level.
Build up a truly lively downtown and it will attract more people. I’ve seen it as an observer working with The Oklahoman covering all this for a dozen years.
Observing history has never been so much fun, even in tough times like we’re going through now. I thank you the readers for helping make that opportunity possible for me.