I totally, completely and fully relate to this. Abigael for President, 2040. (thanks to old friend Ryan McNeill for bringing this to my attention)
Oklahoma authors Steve Lackmeyer and Jack Money will celebrate the release of “Operation Scissortail” during a book signing 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Full Circle Bookstore. The book details the monthslong development of Devon Energy Center and Project 180 — the $141 million makeover of downtown streets, sidewalks and parks. The retail price for “Operation Scissortail” is $45. It will be available for purchase at Full Circle Bookstore. The book is distributed through Oklahoma-based Full Circle Press. For more information, contact Full Circle Bookstore at 842-2900.
The following is an admittedly rambling, chaotic tribute to John Johansen and Stage Center. I know of no other way to put my thoughts into writing when it comes to an architect and his work that I admit I may never fully understand. Note: you’ve been warned….
John Johansen is dead. And it’s likely that soon – very soon – the Oklahoma City theater that he considered his best work, will soon be history.
Johansen died Friday, and regardless of how one views his life’s work, there’s no doubt the man will remain a legendary name among the country’s pantheon of classic architects.
It’s no surprise that Oklahoma City’s Stage Center was featured on the cover of a book that highlighted Johansen’s career (a book I proudly have on my shelf). In a city where daring architecture was generally kept “under control,” Stage Center broke all the rules and defied community sensibilities.
When I met Johansen in 2008, it was clear he knew very well that civic leaders and the majority of locals didn’t like Stage Center when it opened as Mummer’s Theater four decades ago.
They still weren’t very happy with it when he visited the theater in what would turn out to be it’s last year of operation before it was closed, for good, by flooding.
To be blunt, Johansen designed a theater Oklahoma City didn’t want. But the Ford Foundation, which funded the project, called the shots. “You want a theater?” they basically asked. “We’ll pay for it – but you’re going to accept Johansen’s designs.”
Johansen was never considered an ordinary architect. And his designs for Stage Center still stand out in what he admitted to me knowing was and is a “conservative city.” Though not unanimously embraced by locals, Stage Center stands today as Oklahoma City’s only building to win the coveted national “Honor” award from the American Institute of Architects.
When he visited in 2008, his first return since the theater was remodeled in the late 1980s, Johansen enjoyed the sights and sounds of arts festival visitors enjoying musical performances out on the theater’s back patio. He reflected on his career — which he admitted was filled with rebellion against conventional architecture, and even the modernist movement. Stage Center embodied that rebellion. And he was damn proud of it.
“I think it’s the best I’ve been able to do,” Johansen said.
So how did this theater become the pinnacle of this legendary architect’s life work, and yet so despised by locals? Mummers Theater was a popular theatrical company that was outgrowing the warehouse it called home. With downtown undergoing a complete makeover led by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, the theater sought out a similar talent to come up with a design that would be just as eye-catching as the Myriad Gardens planned for across the street.
A $1.7 million grant from the Ford Foundation in 1963 made just such a hiring possible for the theater. Johansen had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and was one of the “Harvard Five” — five Harvard-educated architects who had led the modernist movement by creating showcases for their work in New Canaan, Conn.
Johansen had just won accolades for his design of Baltimore’s Mechanical Theater. But if Mummers Theater patrons thought they were getting another Mechanical Theater — a big concrete monument of a building — they were mistaken.
“I had been through many buildings of modern design,” Johansen told me. “I had different phases — new brutalism, all concrete, thicker than necessary. I was looking for something more light, more volatile, less monumental. I tore it apart, part concrete, and attached to that were the light sheet metal, highly colored elements that resulted in a conversation between the heavy and the light.”
Johansen’s designs for Mummers Theater were like nothing ever seen before — a Tinker Toy approach to architecture where “pods” were linked by enclosed walkways — a building with no facade that could forever be expanded if one wished.
“It’s noncompositional,” Johansen explained. “You throw everything away that the modern movement believed in. It (modern architecture) was organized in a controlled way. This was an explosion. This was absolutely new.”
Keep this quote in mind when pondering Johansen’s legacy: “Some architects in the United States are searching for beauty … but I am not one of them.”
Johansen’s initial designs didn’t go over well with Mummers Theater patrons or civic leaders. But in the mid-1960s the Ford Foundation gave strong support for breaking the boundaries of conventional architecture, and they liked the direction Johansen was taking with Mummers Theater.
“They didn’t accept it,” Johansen said of the initial Oklahoma City reaction. “There’s a conservative aspect of any city. So they withdrew their money. But the Ford Foundation said they would hit them with a big stick and they wouldn’t have any money. So (Oklahoma City) came around.”
Even Johansen couldn’t fully visualize the final product as design continued through 1968. He was taking a risk — “would it work?”
“All the details had to be devised as never known before,” Johansen said. “I had a man come into my office for 10 days here to solve design problems that could not be solved on paper.
“There were no elevations possible because the facets were so many they could not be drawn. There were plans and plans and at the bottom of the paper, ‘good luck.’”
Construction began in January 1969, and the area surrounding the theater site was starting to look like Berlin at the end of World War II.
Dozens of surrounding buildings were being razed by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority for the Myriad Gardens and what civic leaders hoped would be home to a new mall.
Skid row endured just west of the theater, and Johansen listened to stories of brothels operating out of some of dilapidated brick buildings.
When the theater opened in 1972, it wowed architecture critics and stunned locals. Stanley Draper, who led the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, raising money for landscaping to conceal much of the theater’s odd design.
Johansen admitted his designs had nothing to do with beauty.
“If an artist sits down and says he’s going to do something beautiful, he’s killed any possibility of designing something beautiful,” Johansen said. “It’s a byproduct of a search for everything that has to come together. If that’s understood, beautifully related, performed well, it’s a feast and it’s an honest building. And it’s then a beautiful building.”
Johansen had been around long enough to see Mummers Theater close, to be replaced by the Oklahoma City Theater Center, and then to discover the doors locked and the lights turned off. The theater was rescued by the Oklahoma City Arts Council, renovated and reopened in 1992.
His Mechanical Theater back in Baltimore didn’t fare too well. Bought by a developer who wanted to bulldoze the building and replace it with condominiums, the Mechanical Theater was declared a landmark and a compromise was reached that retained the building but allowed the inside to be gutted.
When Johansen visited Stage Center in 2008, it was home to Carpenter Theater and winter-time productions of Shakespeare in the Park. It still looked much as it did in 1972 and still received a mixed review among locals.
A year after Johansen’s visit, Stage Center flooded. Flooding was a constant threat to the theater – what I’ll call an inherent weakness in his emphasis of form over function. As much as I came to appreciate the landmark, and will be among those who will mourn what seems to be an inevitable date with the wrecking ball, I question whether a sharper focus on function 20 years might have saved Stage Center.
The theater’s current owner, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, put it up for sale. Grubbs and Ellis lists the 125,000-square-foot building without a published asking price. Numerous sources have told me there’s no shortage of bidders, and that the site is a prime candidate for a proposed new high-rise corporate headquarters. Not one group came forward with a viable plan with financing to save the landmark when such an opportunity was provided by the foundation earlier this year.
Local architects have yet to give up the fight to save Stage Center. Their latest effort is to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted 8-1 to recommend the building for inclusion on the register, but the recommendation requires city council approval. The city council, however, punted the issue for an indefinite deferral.
Buildings on the register can be eligible for federal funding for some projects related to restoration, renovation, upkeep and other issues. Use of federal funding brings restrictions on how the property can be altered or used, but owners on properties on the register can do whatever they want with it, including demolition, if they pass up the federal money.
So without a savior in the horizon, even if the property were listed, under current conditions, it’s difficult to see how the situation would change much if at all.
When I visit the revamped Myriad Gardens with my kids, I can’t imagine the gardens without the crazy Tinker Toy theater in the backdrop. I regret that my sons never got to run through its weird hallways and passageways. They would have loved it. They would have marveled at the now quaint 1960s-era “theater in the round.” And as they become adults, I’m sure they will look at the theater’s destruction with the same regret and disgust that many too young to have enjoyed the Criterion Theater harbor against those who tore it down.
Looking at the above photo of Criterion Theater, lonely, surrounded by the graves of the buildings that surrounded it, a wrecking ball ready to take it down for what? The Century Center mall?
Tilt-up concrete. An empty failure of 1970s retail with parking on top.
No ornate design. A building that seems to ignore the street, ignore the sidewalk, ignore everything that surrounds it.
Then we consider that the Baum Building also was torn down in that same spasm of architectural malfeasance, again, to make way for Century Center. The Baum Building and Criterion were torn down for this? That abortion of architecture? A total failure?
“How dare they!” we scream out. “What idiocy!”
Will future generations curse us over Stage Center?
Supporters of Stage Center say it must be saved for the enjoyment of future generations and to ensure that Johansen’s legacy doesn’t go away. Critics privately argue Johansen designed brilliant monuments to himself – tributes that may very well fade away not long after he’s gone.
What if Stage Center were functional? Or what if it had been designed in a way that the local population could accept in terms of traditional beauty?
“It’s not beautiful to others who are looking for something past as an expression of beauty,” Johansen told me. “But I have relieved myself of the burdens of accepted beauty. It would have killed anything left of my process.”
Somewhere there must be a middle ground in all this. Do we really want to be a city where architecture consists of Walmarts, McDonalds’ and tilt-up concrete office buildings? Will anyone look at Harkins Theater in Lower Bricktown in 30 years and cry when it’s torn down? Yet we also know, such forgettable architecture is also very friendly to occupants – cost efficient to heat and cool, easy on maintenance, not a big deal to tear down and rebuild.
Buildings like Stage Center, meanwhile, are virtually defiant against practicality. Give me a limited budget and responsibility for upkeep and maintenance, and the choice between Harkins and Stage Center is an easy one. I would look at Harkins, with its tilt-up concrete walls and fake brick imprints in disgust and dream big dreams with Stage Center. Yet I admit, given such terms, I’d quickly choose Harkins and I’d mourn (hypocritically?) the passing of Stage Center as much as old-timers lament the loss of the Criterion Theater.
Rest in peace Mr. Johansen. You were brilliant, honest, innovative and immune to the slings and arrows of those who hated your work. Unfortunately, buildings can’t forever be as stubborn.
I first noted how so few street lights existed along Hudson Avenue in MidTown, and how most of them were dark during the big H&8th outdoor food market last year. I even contacted the Action Center about the lack of lighting – yet I’ve noticed on each successive visit to Hudson Avenue it remained a dark street.
Tonight I drove along Hudson Avenue about 7:30 p.m. and noted all but one light was working. Then, an hour later on Twitter, I learned that Ryan Gikas had reported his car was broken into while he was dining at Ludevine – a restaurant that is acting as a seed of hope for redevelopment of what has been a pretty desolate yet key connection between MidTown and the Central Business District.
At a time when Oklahoma City is spending millions of dollars to revive its urban core, what’s so difficult in adding a few more street lights and keeping them lit?
We see this darkness in other key areas. The streets surrounding Farmers Market have virtually no lighting along surrounding streets (on a recent visit I saw no lights at all). Likewise, it’s surprising to see key streets in Deep Deuce, notably Walnut Avenue and NE 4, with just the most minimal lighting and very dark passageways for pedestrians.
The city, one might think, has ample surplus vintage-style lighting (and not too old either) thanks to the streetscapes done as part of Project 180.
It’s your city folks.
Those representing downtown are Meg Salyer, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Skip Kelley, who can be reached at email@example.com.
UPDATE: I’m hearing via Twitter from some readers that they’ve seen some streetlights remain dark over the past couple of years (one on Broadway between NW 20 and NW 21). So let’s provide some help to the city and OG&E. If you post locations of darkened downtown street lights in comments on this post, I’ll compile it into one big report to the city and maybe we can see some progress on this issue!
The latest application to Bricktown Urban Design Committee has me pretty excited – many who have hoped to see windows restored and a complete renovation to the 110-year-old building at 27 E Sheridan Ave. may see even more improvement than most could have hoped for.
The application shows windows are to be restored on facade facing Sheridan Avenue and the restoration of red brick color to the nameplate atop the building (the last paint job inexplicably retained the yellow paint job left over from when the building was first partially renovated as the home of Windy City Pizza in 1994).
The application also shows a nice renovation planned for the even uglier north-side of the building.
If this renovation is realized, it will mark a complete transformation of the heart of Bricktown from the BNSF tracks to Central Avenue. It took a long time… but it’s finally about to become a reality. Next challenge – bring life to the upper floors of the Meidke Building, Spaghetti Warehouse, Hunzicker building and Melting Pot building.
As many of you know, I have a soft spot for Emerson High School downtown. Here’s a chance at helping them out:
Local, National and International
Artists To Help Support Art Program
At OKC’s Emerson High School.
Join us on Oct 27th at 7pm for a collaborative art
show featuring Day Of The Dead themed artwork
mixed with creative elements of various other
holidays. We are featuring artwork from local,
national and international artists.
This event marks the opening of a show that will
be open through Nov 23 (Black Friday) If you
have someone on your holiday gift list that is hard
to buy for, this is your chance to find something
DON’T MISS THIS SHOW!
Where Is Emerson High School?
A portion of the proceeds will benefit the art
department of Emerson High School, a low
income, Oklahoma City school located around the
corner from our studio. (7th & Walker)
Emerson is an alternative school that gets very
little attention. Instead of sports and social clubs, it
has an intense focus on educating pregnant
students, teen moms and kids who struggle with
Most of the students are unable to buy art
supplies and the instructors have to spend their
own money just to have enough projects for the
kids to work on in class.
We hope to raise enough money to help purchase
some basic supplies to help encourage these kids
to think creatively.
Holi-Day Of The Dead
Invitational Art Show
October 27th at 7pm
(and daily through Nov 23)
Six One Six Studios
616 NW 5th Street
Oklahoma City, OK
Because art is always fun to look at
and we will have wine, beer and
Chad Lunsford 405-306-0343
First order of business: congratulations to the Millennials – as a Gen Xer, I remember very well when my generation’s moment of shame – the Macarena – swept the country in what seemed like an instant. Millennials, enjoy Gangnam Style while you can – you will soon be sick of it.
I’m battling a bit of a head cold today, so forgive me if I’m a bit slower, or suffer more typos during live chat today. As usual, folks can begin logging in with questions and comments at 9:30 a.m. on the NewsOK business page, with live chat beginning at 10 a.m.
Have a great Gangnam style day, weekend and Halloween!
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about downtown retail – about how far we’ve come, yet how far we’ve got to go with making downtown Oklahoma City a shopping destination.
The opening of Native Roots Market is, as I’ve said, a big deal for downtown – especially Deep Deuce. But as Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. surveys folks about what can be added next, and I continue to hear suggestions of further experimentation with “pop-up shops” like the ones that were featured at Better Block OKC, I’ve been thinking – what might work downtown?
First, a sampling of what has opened, or is about to open downtown: we have a big retailer with Bass Pro Shops in Bricktown. Other Bricktown retailers include the Bricktown Marketplace/Emporium, The Painted Door, Bricktown Candy Company, Guestroom Records Put a Cork in It, The Store and the House of Bedlam.
Along Automobile Alley we have Broadway Wine Merchants, Pinpoint Monograms, Schlegal Bicycles, Shop Good, Treasures Past, Rawhide and soon, Plenty Mercantile. Deep Deuce now has Native Roots Market and soon Deep Deuce Wines.
MidTown has Floral and Hardy Florist, MidTown Optical and Meg Guess Couture.
The Central Business District has Medicine Cabinet Pharmacy, Nancy Farha Clothing, Tina Hicks Clothing, Floral and Hardy Florist, Becky’s Hallmark, A Story of Hope Gift Shop, the Tinder Box, the Thunder gift shop and B.C. Clark Jewelers.
It’s not a bad start. And Automobile Alley is showing a lot of promise. But we’re far from recovering downtown Oklahoma City’s magical retail past.
So here’s my attempt at brainstorming some retail ideas.
We know that a popcorn shop is opening in downtown Tulsa. If it can work there, why not in downtown OKC?
Downtown lost Taylor’s Newsstand a few years ago. I still miss it terribly. I know we can’t bring back a full fledged, old fashioned newsstand with the variety of newspapers, magazines and books we took for granted at Taylor’s. But good grief, surely there is demand for a hybrid of such an operation – maybe combined with a coffee shop?
First bit of brainstorming – restore the line up of retail along Park Avenue. I dream of Hallmark returning back to its spot along Park Avenue in the First National retail arcade with a newsstand opening next door. Do another switch – have the doctor’s offices in the retail arcade switch sides of the First National arcade with the Medicine Cabinet getting the storefront space now wasted by the doctor’s offices. Then have the Medicine Cabinet, accessible to the street and much more visible, expand it’s operation and hours.
Don’t mess with the Tinder Box. Leave it alone, but provide it with better signage.
Now, this leaves us with one empty space in the Medical Arts Building at the corner of Park and Broadway. We give this space to Hans Herman, a very popular tailor among downtown’s movers and shakers.
Now, see what I’ve done? In my parlor game, I have a great stretch of retail along Park Avenue that begins with B.C. Clark’s and a tailor shop at Broadway, continues with the Story of Hope Gift Shop, the Hallmark store, a newsstand, and the Medicine Cabinet pharmacy. We also have UMB Bank and Café 7 in that mix. Convince me why this is not doable. Not a bad start for a one-block stretch in the heart of downtown, right?
Now, we have another vacancy where the OKC Florist was in the Robinson Renaissance building at Park and Robinson. This is a bit tougher for me to figure out. But it’s an opportunity waiting to be picked up with the space still empty. It would be great if Tina Hicks would take the corner – but I hear there’s no moving that clothing store from its very successful spot on the second floor of Oklahoma Tower. Next door to the former OKC Florist space is MidFirst Bank, followed by Floral and Hardy and the Thunder Gift Shop across the street. The block fills out with a sub shop about to open in the Park Harvey building next to the sushi restaurant.
This is my first entry in this parlor game. Please discuss – how do we make Park Avenue between Broadway and Harvey Avenue a great continuous stretch of retail?
Want to learn more about Devon Energy Center? I’m happy to announce that the debut and signing of Operation Scissortail, my latest book about the Devon Energy Center and Project 180, will be 6:30 p.m. next Tuesday, Oct. 30, at Full Circle Bookstore at 50 Penn Place!
Native Roots Market at NE 2 and Walnut Avenue quietly opened Friday night. Yes, it’s a big deal. And indeed, those discovering the paper was off the windows and the door was open were quite excited.
But during my visit Sunday afternoon, I noticed something else. Just as owners Matt Runkle and Sara Kaplan predicted, the grocery was quickly becoming a community gathering spot. And outside, the Spokies bike share station found itself cleaned out – the last bikes left were checked out and being enjoyed along NE 2 as I left. This, folks, is a true restructuring of downtown. And though Native Roots is simply a 2,300-square-foot store compared to the $750 million Devon Energy Center, have no doubt, this little grocery will have its own big impact on downtown. Get ready – downtown is about to get exciting.