When designs were unveiled over the fall for a Holiday Inn Express at Oklahoman and Main Street in Bricktown, the project was greeted with applause by the public. The design were especially popular when seen in light against previous incarnations of the project just a few years ago that never got off the ground. The architects at ADG might have walked away from a conceptual presentation believing their work would easily win approval, especially when compared to other hotel projects reviewed and approved by the Bricktown Urban Design Committee. As I noted after the design review in January, the feedback from the committee was, well, confusing:
Plans for the hotel, drawn up by Architectural Design Group, were applauded at Tuesday’s meeting of the Bricktown Urban Design Committee, but not without conflicting guidance given on plans for the entryway.
Panel members unanimously agreed to allow the project to proceed, but with possible changes to the hotel’s entrance to be considered at a later date. Committee member Bob Bright, also a planning commissioner, repeatedly criticized the height of an entrance archway, while another member, architect Mark Krittenbrink, argued for the height but didn’t like its angled protrusion.
“Making a prominent entrance is typical of the era,” Krittenbrink said. “But the leaning out … is not historical.”
Another member, Avis Scaramucci, indicated she had no problem with the archway. She also disagreed with Bright’s suggestion that the entrance canopies were not a good fit for the district, arguing the design does reflect other canopies found in Bricktown. Bright also questioned whether the two-story glass-encased lobby was in keeping with the historic nature of the century-old warehouse district.
“It just seems like someone decided to stick something on the front to make it look modern,” Bright said. “It doesn’t seem consistent with where we are.”
Scott Dedmon, project architect, responded the design team wished to avoid a “Disneyland replication design” that attempts to recreate historic buildings. “We’re building a building in 2013, not a building in 1915,” Dedmon said.
Not everyone liked the committee’s reaction, and over at OKC Talk, several folks questioned whether the committee had gone too far. So how is Dedmon to respond? Well, in this case, they’re returning to the committee Wednesday with five alternatives that attempt to address all the conflicting feedback received in January. This sort of effort, in my years covering Bricktown Urban Design since 1997, is unprecedented.
I wonder if anyone on the committee has really spent the time to review the ordinance that established the design review and set up the committee’s responsibilities.
Here’s a section the Oklahoma City Municipal Code I find especially noteworthy:
§ 59-7150. – Bricktown Core Development District.
K. Design Guidelines for Certificates of Approval for BC Zoned Properties. The following design guidelines are advisory and serve as a reference for all parties involved in the design review process. They do not constitute regulations. The Bricktown Urban Design Committee shall be guided by these guidelines:
(2) Brick building facades, preferably varying shades of red brick, are an established and a critical characteristic of the district’s core. New and renovated facades should enhance or complement this characteristic. Innovative design and creative use of building materials, such as glass, concrete and architectural metals are encouraged. Mirrored glass and vinyl siding are discouraged.
UPDATE: Committee members Bob Bright and Mark Krittenbrink (who were among the ones giving conflicting feedback on the first presentation of the Holiday Inn application), were absent at today’s meeting. That left the committee short of a quorum, so the question of this project’s design remains to be decided another day.
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.
William Hider has a new video of Devon Energy Center and downtown that is even more stunning than the first. I love the activity captured along the Oklahoma River.
I spent more than two hours touring Devon Energy Center with photographer Jim Beckel and sadly there wasn’t enough room in the paper to feature all of his work. Jim is a veteran at The Oklahoman, and without disparaging the other Oklahoman photographers, who are also great, but Jim is my favorite. When it comes to downtown, he gets it. We work very well together. And I was thrilled when he was assigned for this tour.
More of Jim’s photos:
I think the City Beautiful, which lasted roughly from 1900 to 1930, left an indelible imprint on American cities. The great architecture of that period includes railroad stations, libraries, civic centers, and urban universities. The period 1950-1970, the era of urban renewal, was a disaster that left nothing but mistakes, some of which we are still undoing. 1970-2010 has been the age of repair, conservation, and development. I’m not sure it will be remembered as a high point, rather it is a transition.
In case you missed it, this is a must-see video on the Paseo. Great job done by the folks at NewsOK.
It was a year ago that I first met “big twin” and “little twin” and learned about their vision for Big Truck Tacos at NW 23 and Dewey. They had originally looked at a small diner on Hudson across from the Sieber Hotel. Thank goodness the owner was asking for $1,500 a month (way too much according to many). The place wouldn’t have been big enough. The ladies instead chose an old hamburger stand, which had gone thorugh quite a demise and was last a donut shop (I think) before going dark for quite a while.
They did a top notch overhaul of the old place, and introduced life to NW 23 by daring to add outdoor seating. Some might have thought the ladies nuts for taking such a chance – NW 23 is a busy street and Oklahoma City isn’t exactly know for alfresco dining. The first week proved those outdoor seats were needed. Lines streamed out of the doors as a wildly successful social media campaign had Big Truck Tacos being talked about all over town.
This restaurant on NW 23 – “headquarters” – was supposed to be a secondary operation to the truck, but has ended up being just as much the superstar. Now don’t get me wrong – the truck is wildly anticipated whereever it goes. But one has to wonder whether this operation would have been as successful if it had opened up in a shopping center at Memorial and MacArthur. The food is great. The ladies and their crew are originals.
But is there a magic in the location? Is there a charm to this odd old building brought back to life? Do people like to congregate where they see a comeback story in the making? What role does classic architecture and a vintage urban frontage play in attracting people back to the urban core?
Flashback doesn’t get any better than when it features a story by the late great Mary Jo Nelson. If you like what I do, credit her. If you don’t like what I do, then blame me, because no matter what I still fall short of the standard she set over 40 some-odd years.
I was lucky to have known her, to have learned just a fraction of not just what she knew, but how she went about telling stories and also creating the sort of community discussion that made this a better place to live. She was all about urbanism when urbanism wasn’t cool. She was all about old buildings and architecture when they weren’t cool either.
I miss the anxiety I felt whenever my phone rang and it was Mary Jo saying “Steve, this is Mary Jo. About that Century Center Mall story you just wrote …” And then I’d wait. Did I screw something up? If I had, she’d nail me on it. She knew EVERYTHING. And when she was happy with my work, well, that was just great.
Bricktown Project Is Applauded, But-Noted Architect Critical of City’s Downtown Buildings
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, November 21, 1982
Oklahoma City’s latest downtown buildings are “just terrible,” in the eyes of one world-renowned architectural critic.
Hiroshi Watanabe, author of several books and critic for leading art and design journals, candidly describes much of the downtown urban renewal area as “awful.”
But he did praise its plazas, parks and restorations.Given a special tour during a visit here, Watanabe found it “quite informative,” but was not favorably impressed by most new construction. He did find Bricktown, being restored by local developer Neal Horton “very exciting” and called Myriad Gardens and Kerr Park “tremendous.”
Generally, though, he found little to praise in the building architecture.
“Not too much, I’m afraid,” was the designer/planner/critic’s description of how he liked office buildings and other replacements for scores of destroyed structures.
He saw “nothing particularly striking” in the Liberty Tower and Fidelity Bank buildings. But he praised their setbacks, plazas and use of sculpture and flagpoles.
The Kerr-McGee Tower was a building high point. “It’s all right,” he said, giving a solid positive ring to the “all right”. He said it was “very nicely done” and fit into the general scheme of good design. He especially liked its plaza and the tie to Kerr Park.
His harshest criticism was reserved for the three newest downtown structures Mid-America Building, American First and First Oklahoma Towers particularly the 32-story First Oklahoma.
“The office buildings all sort of merge. They are really awful,” he said. Why would the designers, some famous for other works, turn out such creations? Could it have been that the out-of-state architects assigned lesser importance to an Oklahoma project?
“I don’t think they were that cynical. I think they have done very good buildings elsewhere,” said the U.S.-educated native of Japan.
Then he defended the architects in part: “They don’t have a scale to work with. I suppose they weren’t responsible for tearing down what you once had.” Reminded that I.M. Pei, who fashioned the American First Tower, also authored the Pei Plan that destroyed scores of downtown buildings and replaced them with new ones, Watanabe had no answer.
Mostly concrete and glass, the new buildings were seen as an extension of the international/modern movement, which Watanabe acknowledged has fallen into disfavor with much of the worldwide architectural community.
“They are isolated towers, criss-crossed by service roads. They are isolated from the people they are supposed to be for. There is no place for pedestrians. They’re just islands.”
In some instances, he said, the new buildings “turn their backs” on people.
Vincent Carrozza, Dallas developer of the office towers, declined to respond. “I don’t thing I can comment. That is for architects to comment to each other about,” he said.
Response was sought but was not forthcoming immediately from I.M. Pei & Partners in New York and Morris/Aubrey Architects in Houston, designers of First Oklahoma and American First buildings.
Watanabe admired styling and siting of the county courthouse and city hall, but particularly disapproved of placing so many parking garages in the heart of the city. He suggested a better solution would have been to build them on the fringe of downtown and run shuttle buses to the core.
The critic also found the lack of shops and stores deplorable, a deficiency Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority officials recognize and have been attempting to remedy for years.
“What really excited me downtown was Bricktown,” he said. “That is going to be very impressive.” He said some other major North American cities have done restorations similar to the old brick-street warehouse district where developer Horton is restoring several blocks of early statehood buildings.
“The fact that the brickwork is part of the city’s history makes it unique,” the critic said. An apparent lack of concern for history is a flaw in the Oklahoma City urban renewal plan, he believes.
“I think more of a concern for the city’s history might have been shown. I can’t say what quality or historical value the (torn-down) buildings had, but I understand that now there is a continuing effort to save what is left. This should be strengthened and encouraged.”
Watanabe sees the future Myriad Gardens, now under construction, as a “tremendous asset” to downtown. He snapped many pictures of the Gardens and Kerr Park, to be shown to Japanese audiences.
He praised the interior of Sheraton Century Center, but made no comment on its exterior. Restorations of the Skirvin Plaza Hotel, the old Black Hotel, the Montgomery Ward and Harbour Longmire buildings on Main Street were seen as “excellent” and “outstanding.” But he said it was a “negative” to close Main Street at Robinson. That shuts out people, he said.
Although Watanabe didn’t like all of the new downtown, he found other parts of the metropolitan area “very exciting.” Among these was another urban renewal project, the Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. The capitol complex also was highly approved, and he was especially delighted with the oil wells on the capitol grounds. He called the Francis Tuttle Vo-Tech Center an outstanding design.
“This is the type of building that will be of great importance in the future,” he said.
For another, he thrilled to see several Bruce Goff-designed houses, if only from the outside and, in the case of the Ledbetter House in Norman, in the rain.
“I could only see the top of the Bavinger House (in Norman) from the road, but it was exciting anyway.” He also considered the Goff “seven gables” house near Penn Square a high point.
Some of Watanabe’s most enthusiastic praise came in Heritage Hills, a preservation neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The author of several books, Watanabe has been widely published in Asia, North America and Europe. He is a critic for the American Institute of Architects Journal, Asian Wall Street Journal, Japan Times, ARTnews, the Encyclopedia of Japan, and, until recently, Progressive Architecture, a the leading U.S. architectural design magazine.
When we last heard from the Oklahoma City Fire Department, they swore changes were on their way for a station to be built in Bricktown. Say goodbye to the design by Norman-based LWPB that resembled a station recently opened in Mustang. Fire Chief Keith Bryant promised the new Bricktown fire station would be designed to fit into the district as well as the much praised Bricktown Police Substation.
It’s always interesting to then see how designers try to carry out such a promise. Here, in case you’re interested, is the Bricktown Police Substation:
The Bricktown Urban Design Committee is being asked to approve these designs at it’s meeting Wednesday. The group meets at 9 a.m. in the Glass/Confectionary building at 116 E Sheridan in the second floor board room.
The planning department report advises approval even though it acknowledges the setback is suburban.
Nice, very nice. One can’t underestimate the role that the Oklahoma Health Sciences Center has played on downtown’s resurgence. Plans are being unveiled today for the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation’s new tower.
Read about here, and watch the following video: