I’ve been a bit scarce this week – without going into details, balancing some family matters and also got hit with a bad cold on Friday. If you read Friday’s paper, you might have seen where John Belt purchased the old Spaghetti Factory in the Paseo. This is very, very good and I’ll let the late great Mary Jo Nelson explain why:
Architecture Buff Preserves The Paseo
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, September 1, 1991
OFFHAND, John L. Belt says he doesn’t know how many historic properties he owns. But he knows precisely how many he has sold: Just one.
It took a buyer a full year to persuade the Oklahoma City lawyer to part with his pie-shaped Heierding Building at NW 5 and Harrison.
“It’s true. I am a reluctant seller,” he acknowledged. It was the first time he ever disposed of a parcel and admits it was something of an emotional experience.
Belt, a patron of the arts whose law clients include a list of artists, said he acquires property for income. But he doesn’t buy a building unless it has historical or architectural significance.
Down to the houses he has occupied, his holdings are important to Oklahoma City’s past.
That’s why he bought The Paseo – all of The Paseo except three buildings. It is his philosophy that if a building is architecturally worthwhile to begin with and is properly maintained, it will inevitably turn a profit.
Belt guessed that he owned eight or 10 buildings along Paseo Drive until he counted 14. That leaves only three places along the curving three-block stretch of Spanish mission revival architecture that he doesn’t own. Unique in Oklahoma City, the street begins at NW 30 and Dewey and ends at NW 28 and Walker.
All but one of his properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I’m no great history buff,” Belt said. “I just like some of the old things we had. I’m just trying to preserve some of the interesting remnants we have left. In the past, we had some architecture that was truly significant, even along Broadway. We destroyed all of it,” he added.
He started acquiring Paseo buildings in 1976 when the operator of a small sandwich place where Belt liked to eat lunch discovered the building was about to be sold. The buyer wanted to expand a nearby warehouse. The delicatessen would have to move.
“I remember swimming in the Paseo Plunge when I was a kid and as I walked down the street, I was very disappointed to see what was happening to it,” Belt recalled.
He went back to his office from lunch, checked county records, looked up the owner and made an offer for the building.
“I offered cash and we closed the next day,” Belt said. Hirams, the sandwich shop, didn’t have to move.
“I just didn’t want to see Hirams turned into a warehouse,” Belt said.
He even offered to help the warehouse owner find more space in back rooms along the strip, and threw in an offer to buy the warehouse itself. Six months later, the owner agreed. Belt then owned two Paseo structures.
Next, he made an offer for the Blue Note Lounge, a place where he remembered hearing “some really fine soul music. ”
“All of a sudden, I owned a bunch of property on Paseo and I’ve been very involved ever since. ” One by one over the next 12 years or so, he added the rest, and his tenants became more important to him than the property itself.
- 3014 and 3016 The Paseo, leased to the Rainbow Fleet, a “wonderful” organization offering cultural and educational tools and services to early childhood centers. Without Rainbow, Belt said, “many of these children in day care centers would never have any arts exposure at all. ”
- 3018, a studio and residence for Ron Roberts, a painter and glass artist.
- 3020, rented to Ron Rose, a television artist and theatrical performer who teaches acting and video crafts.
- 3022, occupied by Salli Lamprich, an artist who paints in several media and creates artistic furniture.
- 3017, whose tenant is Colin Rosebrook, described by Belt as “a truly fine ceramicist,” operating both a pottery studio and teaching center.
- 3013, a studio for a group of rock and jazz musicians, and “heavily insulated for sound,” Belt said with a grin.
- 3009 and 3011 Paseo, occupied by Key Largo, a restaurant.
- 3007, rented for The Casino, a small “contemporary house” selling wine and spirits and offering live music and readings along with pizza.
- 3005, a resident studio for oil-on-canvas artist Gary Albright.
- 3005A, an art gallery operated by John Bell.
- 3003A, studio of Diane Coady, a fabric artist whose specialty is silk clothing.
- 3003, headquarters of the Paseo Artists, an organization that promotes activities of all Belt’s Paseo tenants. The association sponsors two art festivals a year, in spring and fall. This year’s fall event is next week.
- 3001, office and studio for Terry Taylor, commercial artist and designer.
The only buildings along the street Belt doesn’t own are 2927 The Paseo, property of architect John Robison who has a design practice there with colleague Dave Boeck; the Spaghetti Factory Restaurant at 3010 Paseo; and the former El Chico restaurant at NW 29 and Dewey. Negotiations currently are under way for locating another restaurant in the latter site, Belt said.
“What we’ve tried to do is keep the area in tune with its origins, and to provide an atmosphere where artists could stay in communication with each other. ” Belt said the street itself and the artist-tenants “nurture each other. ” The lawyer said all his buildings are rented. His latest purchase, at the intersection of NW 30, a former beauty college, is the only structure out of tune with its neighbors. The former owner altered the Spanish mission facade, and Belt intends to restore it to its original architecture.
He has improved all the buildings and the street itself. Each facade has been restored to its original condition except the newest acquisition.
Belt also added new roofs on every structure, new central heating and air conditioning systems, and brought all the properties up to city code with new electrical wiring and plumbing.
On the street, Belt persuaded the city traffic commission to remove parking meters.
“The city council and staff have been exceptionally cooperative through the whole process,” he said. He’s also grateful for support from the neighborhood association in the adjacent residential area.
Belt also added trees, some other landscaping, street lighting to enhance the mission style, and belts of brick along the sidewalks.
“I’ve tried to give it human scale,” he said. He calls his work “progressive improvements,” adding, “The street looks better today than it did brand new. ” The lawyer doesn’t consider himself any sort of preservation hero, although he has registered the strip with the national historic roster.
“I grew up here and I love this city. There is much of the past we ought to hold onto,” he said. But he doesn’t believe everything should be saved just because it’s old.
“There is much of the past that ought to be destroyed. But that which is worthwhile we should keep and enhance. ” To Belt, that includes Paseo, a street created in 1929 by the late G.A. Nichols, one of Oklahoma City’s foremost early developers and founder of Nichols Hills. It also includes such other buildings as the Heierding.
He bought the pie-shaped structure, built in early statehood, when it was threatened with urban renewal demolition, and quickly got it added to the National Register. It will be restored for an architectural studio and headquarters for Elliott + Associates.