Temple Of Deco Awaits Fate First Interstate Considering Move From City Landmark
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, July 1, 1990
Edition: CITY, Section: REAL ESTATE, Page 01
King Tut’s tomb yielded more than a solid gold coffin and the world’s richest treasure of ancient Egyptian artifacts.
Less than a decade after its discovery in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, the Tutankhamon burial legacy inspired a rare building in downtown Oklahoma City.
First National Bank Building (FNB) is a temple of art deco architecture, its design patterns taken largely from Tut’s grave objects. Admirers say it is surpassed by few other art deco buildings in America.
Almost 60 years have passed since it was built, and the 32-story bank’s original decor remains virtually intact.
“Every city doesn’t have one of these. It’s a jewel,” declares historian and lawyer William Ross. “It’s the premier example of art deco in America with possible exception of the Chrysler Building in New York.” The King Tut grave was unearthed in 1922 after a 32-year-long search by an English archeologist. A spellbound world was obsessed with its splen- did trove. The four rooms, filled with treasures, were widely copied in all design arts, Ross said.
Weary and Alford Co., Chicago architects, designed FNB in a mo- dernized Italian Renaissance style.
But they drew inspiration for deco- ative details from Tut’s urns and art objects adorned with birds, papyrus and other foliage.
Ross, a director of First Interstate Bank of Oklahoma (successor to First National Bank & Trust Co.), has spent his entire 31-year career in the building at Robinson and Park Avenue. His law firm, Rainey Ross Rice & Binns, was the original tenant, moving in even before the bank did.
Ross knows every niche of the structure and frequently escorts friends on tours.
“It’s the town signature,” he says of the building.
His reverence for the structure is matched by Ken Townsend, First Interstate of Oklahoma chairman and chief executive officer.
Both men now find themselves torn between their loyalty to the building and their business interests. Officials of First Interstate, the building’s anchor tenant, and the building’s owners have been involved in lease negotiations that have been far from conclusive. As a result, the bank is now considering two other options both of which would involve moving from the landmark building. Some fear the loss of such a major tenant could leave a gaping hole that would be difficult to fill, endangering the majestic building.
“It was built in the early 1930s to show strength and stability as Oklahoma was just coming out of depression,” Townsend said.
Weary and Alford titled the main bank lobby “the Great Banking Room.” In a proposed $17 million restoration designed by Loftis and Downing, former Oklahoma City architects, a massive clerestory will be restored to original plans, opening it to the sky.
In a 1931 presentation to the board preserved by First Interstate, the original architects discuss the “inherent charm of marble,” including a brief history of the wondrous stone that dominates all floors of the skyscraper.
“Like the diamond, marble bespeaks prosperity in architecture,” the presentation reads. “The proportions of the Great Banking Room are of such grandeur that the building market was combed for the proper types of material to emphasize this impression, an impression which subtly conveys the power and protection of this largest bank in the great oil fields.”
The grand lobby’s 16 massive columns are 35 feet tall, the capitals embellished with Egyptian birds and foliage. It’s another 10 feet to the skylight that frames the Great Banking Room, making the lobby three stories high. Throughout the banking floors and corridors of upper floors, drinking fountains, grills, chandeliers and other fixtures repeat the Egyptian adornment.
The building displays a dazzling variety of marble in floors, columns, pilaster, teller counters, wainscoting and walls three shades of Italian Travertine (a fossilized onyx), St. Genevieve rose, pink Kasota and Belgian black, the only jet black marble known. Di Levanto marble from Italy forms lobby walls, its colors ranging from purple to red and marked with dark green veining.
The basement features a marble called black and gold, quarried on the Isle of Palmaria. Slate from Vermont and Crab Orchard stone from Missouri appear in stair treads and risers. Sandstone, limestone, bronze, ornamental iron and walnut and oak woods were also included.
Built by Manhattan Construction Co., the structure had an air conditioning system in bank floors when it opened in 1932.
Circular coin ornaments crafted from limestone in the likeness of ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek, medieval European currency, and the Mexican peso line walls above tellers’ cages.
Ceilings of the great banking hall and surrounding bank rooms are hand painted in soft shades with scrolls, birds and foliage inspired by Egyptian designs.
“Wouldn’t it be a calamity to lose all this?” Ross muses. “It’s like a European castle.”
James Tolbert III, manager for the building’s owners, First Oklahoma Corp., agrees.
“First National is the premier building in central Oklahoma. All of downtown is focused on it,” he said. “Architecturally, it is the most significant building we have left. Its scale is unique.”