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.”
Downtown is about to undergo changes that could arguably rival the original MAPS program. Developing ….
The model and renderings for the new Devon Energy tower drew rave reviews this week. But Tulsa blogger Michael Bates wonders how it will tie into life on the street.
Sad, but true, when Devon Energy announced plans to build a skyscraper that will not just be the tallest in the state, but one of the tallest in the surrounding region (bigger than anything in Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Dallas, Fort Worth, New Orleans and Austin), I expected Tulsa’s online community to react with bitterness and resentment.It’s weird, really. You rarely see the OKC online community trashing Tulsa – there’s a lot of admiration for downtown
Tulsa’s Art Deco skyline and enthusiasm for any efforts to revive the area. And there is admiration for the design of BOK Arena, and shared celebration over the renovation of the Mayo Hotel.But in Tulsa, pretty much any good news about downtown OKC is greeted with a mix of cheap shots, cliché insults and vows of “it will never happen.”But there are exceptions. I’ve long been a fan of www.batesline.com because its author, Michael Bates (also a columnist at Urban Tulsa), isn’t afraid to ask the unpopular questions. And his latest post may cause some discomfort for Tulsans and Oklahoma Citians alike when it comes to the new Devon tower:
Over at TulsaNow’s public forum, some participants are feeling tower envy, wishing for some deep-pockets oil company to build some new skyscrapers in downtown, but we have to recall that Oklahoma City took a pass, for the most part, on the building frenzy of the late ’70s, early ’80s oil boom. While OKC’s tallest building is of that era, the next tallest is from the ’30s. From the late ’60s to the early ’80s, Tulsa built five new skyscrapers: Fourth National Bank (now Bank of America), Cities Service Building (now 110 W. 7th), 1st National Bank (now
First Plaza), the BOk Tower, and the Mid-Continent Tower — the addition that stands beside and is cantilevered over the original Cosden Building at 4th and Boston.There are rumors of even more tall towers in Oklahoma City, and some OKCers are giddy at the thought of “filling the gaps in the skyline.” The thing about filling those gaps is that the new skyscrapers have to touch the ground at some point, and how these towers meet the street is what matters most to downtown’s vitality. It may look beautiful from five miles away, it may have a great view from the top story, but how does it look to someone walking by on the street?
Bates may very well be onto something here, and it’s a thought that Jack Money and I contemplated in our 2006 book “OKC Second Time Around.” We discovered the writings of William H. Whyte in files maintained by late Bricktown developer Neal Horton. It was easy to see why Whyte’s writings attracted Horton, who was trying to reinvent the old warehouse district as an old towne district that would bring life back to downtown streets:
“As Horton and his partners raced ahead with their grand plans, they followed other downtown renovations like those on Dallas’ West End, Pitsburgh’s South Side, and New York City’s South Street Seaport with great interest. They also took notice of comments made in a 1983 Time article by William Whyte, a renowned critic of modern city planning who had visited Oklahoma City in the early 1980s. “The Blank Wall is on its way to becoming the dominant feature of many United States downtowns,” Whyte complained. “Without the windows or adornment to relieve their monotony, the walls are built of concrete, brick, granite, metal veneer, opaque glass and mirrors … designed out of fear – fear of the untidy hustle and bustle of city streets and undesirables – the walls spread fear.”
- OKC Second Time Around
In his book “City,” Whyte included this study of how the shopfront for Saks Fifth Avenue created a vibrant urban corner in New York City.
In our book Jack and I then noted the obvious – that in Oklahoma City’s rush to improve, it had also built an ample supply of “blank walls” The towers built during the Urban Renewal era fit perfectly into the very sort of design criticized by Whyte. Even older buildings like the historic Pioneer Telephone Building had their old storefronts sealed with brick and marble.
Quoting Whyte again:
“By eliminating the hospitable jumble of shop fronts, restaurant entrances and newsstands, the walls deaden the very city the buildings claim to revitalize.”
Bates’ questions might just apply as well to the proposed new headquarters for the Oklahoma City Greater Chamber. Or drive down Automobile Alley and look at how Steve Mason has brought life back to the1000 block of N Broadway.
Leadership Square – one of downtown’s most admired Urban Renewal era office buildings. But does it have the sort of street-frontage that brings life back to the street?
Pioneer Telephone Building – a marble fortress?
This morning the Bricktown Urban Design Committee meets – and again the Cotton Exchange project is on continuance. If you read my early reporting, I tried to provide all the hints I could not to get too excited about this proposed project. As a reporter, I can’t say, “don’t believe it, it’s not going to happen.” Nor would I have if I could have. That’s not for me to say. Over the years I’ve seen people who should have had all the means and ability to get a project going, and they didn’t. And I’ve been surprised to see newcomers with no experience, no apparent means to get a big project done, do just that.
But the odds were against Gary Cotton’s original plans for the Cotton Exchange. It was being unrolled just as the economy was going south. Cotton has money, but he’s not Aubrey McClendon. And he had no experience in development. He made up for it by assembling an impressive team for design, construction and marketing.
So we wait for what he has admitted will definitely be a smaller project.
On other items, it appears as if the latest downtown video posted here is rather unpopular. So, should I eliminate the post?
It certainly appears as if the American Banjo Museum is a certainty. Work has begun on the building and a banjo performance will be included at the annual “Taste of Bricktown” this fall.
One more week until we see the designs for the new Devon Energy Tower. Yes, I have every reason to believe it will be several stories higher than the 37 first mentioned by Larry Nichols.
That’s it friends. Gotta run.
That’s the question asked of me on my latest posts with the category added “In tribute to Mary Jo.”
So, here’s your answer:
Mary Jo fought for architectural past
By Steve Lackmeyer
|Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Edition: CITY, Section: BUSINESS, Page 4B
Mary Jo Nelson wasn’t a cheerleader for the chamber of commerce, or someone who simply took a news release and rewrote it verbatim. Her questions were tough, and she went to great lengths to get the truth out when nobody wanted to dare say the rich and powerful were heading in the wrong direction as they sought to create a new downtown. Her influence on this city was in full display Monday as friends, relatives and admirers gathered for the former Oklahoman reporter’s funeral. Mary Jo was 80.
As the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority was targeting hundreds of buildings for demolition, Mary Jo was reminding us what was being lost and what was in danger next. She authored an entire series detailing the history and importance of the few old buildings remaining. By the time I started covering downtown years later, the damage was done — with one notable exception: the Skirvin Hotel.
Between 1996, when I was first assigned to cover downtown, and 1999, when the city council agreed to actively seek a developer for the property, I wrote 23 stories detailing the hotel’s history, its plight, ties to the community, and examples of successful hotel restorations in other cities.
I now confess to all the editors who grew exasperated with my coverage: yes, I was trying to steer the public’s attention to the Skirvin hotel. But blame Mary Jo. She unknowingly taught me how to bring readers’ attention to at-risk historic buildings. She wouldn’t let readers forget the city’s architectural past.
Blame her as well for my reminders every now and then of the architectural relics that continue even now to suffer from neglect in the courtyard of the Santa Fe Parking Garage. The items, placed when the surrounding offices were occupied by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, include a lion’s head ornament from the Terminal Building, an exterior light fixture from the Patterson Building, the grinding wheel from the area’s first grist mill, a spire and cupola from the Baum Building, marble from the Biltmore Hotel and a finial from the Criterion Theater.
Chamber folks, prompted by inquiries from Mary Jo, promised in 1994 they were going to move the collection to a safer spot, but never did. Mary Jo cared about these items because they are the last vestiges of a past she believed were carelessly discarded. They continue to suffer the abuse of fun-seeking skateboarders and vandals.
I spoke for what became the final time with Mary Jo last summer after writing about how an architectural gem like the Baum Building was replaced during the Urban Renewal era with the much-derided and now empty Century Center Plaza.
She loved that column. She hated Urban Renewal.
Times have changed. Urban Renewal’s latest work involving historic buildings was the restoration of the Skirvin Hotel and the preservation of the Centre Theater facade as part of development of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
For those in the architectural and preservation community who are mourning her death, just know she probably wouldn’t be too interested in flowers or tributes. If I had to guess, she’d probably much rather see that passion go into saving those forgotten downtown relics.
Here is a far better picture of the old India Temple Building, which is covered with a fake concrete tilt-up facade and may be in jeopardy of being torn down. To learn more about this building, go to www.dougdawg.blogspot.com or read about it here.
What will be Stage Center’s ultimate legacy? I’ll be the first to admit I am among those who haven’t always appreciated this downtown oddity. I understand it’s highly regarded in the modern architecture movement, having been designed by living legend John Johansen.
Like the Crystal Bridge Botanical Tube at the neighboring Myriad Gardens, the former Mummer’s Theater is a stand out from an era that brought downtown some pretty bland architecture (think Vincent Carrozza’s Galleria Towers and Mid-America Tower).
And yet the Crystal Bridge and Stage Center also are vastly different in this respect: if I were to guess what motivated the designers of the Crystal Bridge, they’d say it was to create something beautiful. But Johansen, who I interviewed in this story for Sunday’s Oklahoman, wasn’t looking for beauty.
Backing up again, look at this way: when I go to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, I really like seeing the old portraits, paintings and modern pop culture paintings that depict gas stations, etc. I really don’t like the abstract, but I appreciate it for being something special – and I like that this part of the art world is included at the museum (something that wasn’t always the case – but that’s a story for another day).
OK, so it’s not as easy to understand Stage Center. But look at it closely. Enter that elaborate Tinker Toy of a theater and glance up the colorful stairways. Take a seat in the auditorium and really get a sense of the place. Then go out to the outer corridor and look out into the plaza. Look at the tubes, the elaborate linkages between the “pods.”
This is our theater. We could have settled for a big plain box. But we didn’t. At some level, this too is Oklahoma City, though it’s not a side of the community personality that we’re always comfortable with.
And so we even create legends – I’ve heard it time and again that the theater’s design was to blame for the failure of the once brilliant theatrical troupe that was to call it home – Mummer’s. And yet we can dig deeper into this aspect as well – and you can read about that here.
So what’s the future for Stage Center? It’s home now to the popular Carpenter Square Theater, though one must always remember that live theater isn’t a money maker – it is considered by many, however, a vital sign of a community’s soul, of its spirit
Things will inevitably change, as I noted at the end of today’s column. What will all mean – that’s what I want to hear from you.
Charles Hill, by the way, has some thoughts about Stage Center and John Johansen here.
It was at one of the very first mayors roundtables, several years ago, that I first got a glimpse of what we’re now seeing as the transformation of the Flat Iron and Deep Deuce areas into a real downtown neighborhood.
And yes, again, it was at another roundtable that it became clear the city was going to aggressively seek development of the area we now know as Core to Shore.
So what’s next?
Here’s the advance for next week’s Mayors Roundtable from the city:
Developers, contractors, design professionals and government leaders interested in learning about future housing demand and the development of a Central Park-like space in downtown Oklahoma City can register now through May 12 for the seventh annual Mayor’s Development Roundtable. The Roundtable will be held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wednesday, May 14 at the Cox Business Services Convention Center. Real estate market expert Laurie Volk will kick off the event with a session called “Changing Markets and the New Housing Paradigm.”
Volk is co-director of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, a New Jersey-based market research firm specializing in urban development and redevelopment.
The second session will feature Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence for the Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C. Harnik, who is the author of Inside City Parks, a book about the park system in the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and The Excellent City Park System: What Makes it Great and How to Get There, will discuss development opportunities related to a proposed park in downtown Oklahoma City. Mayor Cornett will facilitate roundtable discussion with speakers, attendees and local experts after each session.
The Mayor will close the conference by presenting an Award for Outstanding Development in Oklahoma City. Registration is $65 and includes breakfast and lunch.
Register online by May 12 at www.okc.gov/planning/roundtable.
Yeah sure, there’s plenty to see and take photos of in Bricktown at night, but what about the rest of downtown? Here’s some intesting angles taken tonight along an increasingly vibrant Automobile Alley and in Maywood Park, which is awaiting the last element needed to make a neighborhood complete – residents.