Yesterday I posted some great photos taken by Will Hider while he and I toured “the lost city.” One building we discovered, one neither of us had ever noticed before, was the stunning Voss Building.
Thanks to Bradley Wynn, we also have some photos from the Oklahoma Historical Society to provide us with a glimpse of the building when it was home to Voss Truck Lines.
The Hotel Marion at NW 10 and Broadway is probably familiar to most OKC Central regulars. It’s a heart breaker of a building that passed through several owners before landing with the MidTown Renaissance group a few years ago. Give Bob Howard, Mickey Clagg and Chris Fleming credit, they’ve shown their dedication toward renovating and properly restoring their older buildings, but the Marion is the one building that eludes even bravest of souls in the development world.
Downtown Brainstorming is just that – using the collective experience, observations and imagination of OKC Central readers to help solve problems such as the Marion. It will be done when the key decision makers indicate they welcome such input, and in this case, we have the go-ahead from Mr. Howard himself.
Before getting into the complications surrounding the Marion, let’s revisit some stories about the hotel’s history that help show why it deserves a new shot at life.
The hotel was built in 1908, making it, I believe the oldest surviving structure downtown after the razing of India Temple last year. In 2006, after the building was bought by MidTown Renaissance, I heard from one of the descendants of the hotel’s original owners. J. Malcolm Haney’s grandmother, Bess L. Haney, operated the hotel from 1946 to 1971.
Malcolm correctly recalled the hotel’s east facade for years had a sign that boasted it was “The Nicest Small Hotel You’ll Find.”
“This place has a very special place in our family’s past,” Haney told me. “Our safe haven was staying at the Marion with Bessie in room 110, which had two single beds … Many of Bessie’s rooms were occupied by permanent residents, including three terrific small apartments in the basement. It was the last place many army recruits stayed before they shipped off to boot camp because the U.S. Army recruiting center was across the street.”
Haney’s cousin Bob Villareal recalled the hotel’s telephone booth had a ventilation fan that turned on upon entry.
“You could put your finger in the fan without injury,”
Villareal said. Villareal still remembers the hotel’s corner room, home to an old radio and his grandmother’s parakeet. Photographs from Bess Haney’s lifetime were displayed throughout the hotel.
“I’ll never forget the smells in that old place,” Villareal said. “There was a certain aura about the hotel that’s hard to put in words, but it always felt peaceful and happy. Of course, it was never the same without Bessie. She was the heart of the Marion.”
More recently, my worthy competitor Brianna Bailey at the Journal Record shared even more about the hotel’s history. She shared how the Marion was next to an Army recruiting station, and the Haneys saw countless young servicemen from across the state off to the Vietnam and Korean wars over the years.
Malcolm Haney told Brianna about how the hotel’s old-fashioned soda pop machine that would dispense soft drinks in glass bottles for 10 cents.
“Bessie had an old-fashioned telephone switchboard and would patch people through to the rooms,” Malcolm Haney said. “It was a warm family place and Bessie was the matriarch of the family.”
So what went wrong?
Haney told Bailey that time was the enemy with downtown descending into decline in the 1970s. Chain hotels drew customers away from the Marion.
“Bessie fought the battle of any small hotel operator against the large chain hotels and she fought the downfall of downtown of ’60s and ’70s,” Malcolm Haney told Bailey. Bess Haney’s five children asked their then-elderly mother to retire from the Marion in the 1970s, and she died in 1984 at the age of 95.
So we have a nice historical, architectural gem with a warm and fuzzy history to make us all go “awwwwwwwwww.” With that done, let’s get the harsh slap of reality started.
The building is a mess. The interior consists of rotting wood. The roof is barely there. As I pointed out on this blog a few months ago, the dreadful appearance of jigsaw cracks has emerged along the building’s corners.
Here’s the good news: Bob Howard KNOWS he’s going to lose money with this building. He is no fool. And as Rep. David Dank pushes to eliminate historic tax credits, understand it’s buildings like this that become impossible to save without such assistance. Tax credits saved the Skirvin hotel. Tax credits saved the Gold Dome. Tax credits saved the Sieber.
But tax credits won’t save the Marion. It’s just not enough. Howard says he’s prepared to make this his contribution to the community. He appreciates the history and architecture of the Marion. And if money were the only concern here (understand, however, Howard isn’t going to bankrupt himself on this either), then I doubt the Marion would be our first Downtown Brainstorming candidate.
Talking to Howard and his partner Fleming, it’s clear that one risks killing the Marion if one is to save it.
The interior must be gutted. That means that support beams must be put in to prop up the facade walls much as Marva Ellard did with the old grocery building section of the Sieber. But the Marion is a very tight spot, locked in by properties with different owners.
It is surrounded by occupied buildings, and the parking is heavily used by the law firm to the west. The street, NW 10, is a major corridor that would be a nightmare to shut down, if city folks were willing to even entertain such a move. And even if the Marion had some working space around it, the engineering on this is a puzzle.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the readers make OKC Central special. The conversations are a step above what’s found elsewhere on the ‘net, including the comment sections on NewsOK. I’m proud of that, far more than anything else I’ve accomplished with this site. You’ve been around the world. You’ve followed urban design closely. You’re argumentative, but respectfully so. You bring new ideas. You love downtown Oklahoma City. You’re proud of what’s been done. You’re not satisfied that enough has been done. You’re always pushing for it to be better. And you want to solve downtown’s biggest problems.
Here’s your chance. Are there landmarks elsewhere in the world that have had similar challenges? How were they overcome? What can be done to make the Marion a feasible renovation?
God bless Mary Jo Nelson. I thought the world of the woman. I read her stories in The Oklahoman starting in the late 1970s, when I was in Jr. High, straight through high school and college.
She wrote about downtown. She wrote about architecture. She wrote about urban design. And she wrote about history. I loved every word of it.
And it wasn’t long after I got my start at The Oklahoman that Mary Jo retired. Sure, she continued to contribute over the years, and did some great analysis pieces following the 1995 Murrah bombing and the history of the buildings that had to be torn down. But her heyday was over, and really, no one stepped into her shoes. I doubt anyone ever will.
I know, you’ve read my tributes to Mary Jo before and you’re probably tiring of it.
But wait. Mary Jo Nelson was wrong.
Yep. She was wrong. No, not wrong about everything. But in her hatred of the crimes of Urban Renewal – the demolition of the Criterion, the Baum building, the Warner and other treasures – her efforts to mentor and advise me included a constant admonition. “Why,” she’d ask, “haven’t you gotten the people at Urban Renewal indicated yet?”
And yeah, she was serious.
I’d sheepishly answer I hadn’t seen or found anything that would be considered an actual crime.
But the message was clear. In Mary Jo Nelson’s eyes, Urban Renewal was a crime. The Pei Plan was a crime.
But the more I look into this history, the more I learn about I.M. Pei and the city fathers who attempted to carry out his plan, the less convinced I am that they were criminals.
I believe it’s time to reconsider all we’ve been told, all we believe when it comes to this story, and discuss possibilities that would probably make Mary Jo recoil with disgust.
Yes, there were things done badly. Bad choices were made. It’s hard to come up with any conclusion to the Criterion Theater and Baum Building being torn down to make way for the Century Center plaza that doesn’t end with “how utterly stupid.”
But in the light of day, with no bias, could the case be made that the people who relentlessly pursued the Pei Plan were heroic? Is it possible that Pei was a visionary whose worst crime was his failure to chastise locals who corrupted his ideas? Is it possible that everything we know, everything Mary Jo Nelson believed, is tainted by an effort, conscious or unconscious, to make Pei the scapegoat for our own bad choices?
This next week the final touch will be added to www.impeiokc.com – display of the complete Pei Plan. Read it for yourselves, and then prepare to see Pei’s vision of downtown OKC, 1989, with your very own eyes….
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.
All too often I end up facing the same quandry – how do I expand the discussion of issues we face downtown without getting too wonkish for readers? Over this past year we’ve delved into an exploration of urban planning from the viewpoint of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, the ideas of William Whyte including the “blank wall,” and finished with a parade of guest blogs about downtown from some of the brightest minds of this city.
We live in a society where we like issues to be simple: brand x and brand y. Good guy and bad guy. Black and white. Coke and Pepsi. One, maybe two plot lines that can be wrapped up in 60 minutes, minus commercials. Or better yet, let’s limit the whole damn conversation to 140 characters.
I’m suggesting – no – I’m challenging and daring you to declare once and for all that we’re ready to go more in-depth on a topic. And this topic demands some serious discussion – SandRidge Energy’s proposal to tear down four downtown buildings. Until now most people (and maybe me included) have looked at this as a question of “is the building historic?” But there’s an urban planning and design question at stake here as well.
So let’s start with the introduction of a new word to our vocabulary – one that we’ve not heard said much in OKC but is certainly a topic of importance elsewhere: “Streetwall.” We start by going to Chicago.
Let’s start with some context first before we delve into this week’s flashback. First off, every person I’ve spoken to about the history of the Skirvin hotel report Norton Locke was a disastrous pick to become manager during the landmark’s dark days in the late 1980s. He was a Meridian Avenue hotelier who, those who worked with him or witnessed his style, was totally unsuited to run a downtown hotel.
Next thing to note: with or without a boycott, the Skirvin was likely doomed to close in the late 1980s. And if it hadn’t closed, it likely never would have gotten the extensive top to bottom makeover in 2006 that made it the success story it is today.
Final note: I think it’s important not to rush to judgment against those who were dealing with issues in another time – and facing decisions that aren’t quite as easy as they appear now in hindsight. But history can be a wonderful teacher. And with all the hostile words being exchanged today, I just hope today’s lesson isn’t lost on those who might need it most.
Skirvin Scarred by Past Siphoning, Blacklisting Blamed for Decline
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, September 9, 1990
Edition: CITY, Section: BUSINESS, Page 01
Siphoning revenues from the Skirvin Plaza Hotel to another building venture shares the blame for the national landmark’s series of downfalls.
Blacklisting of the hotel in retaliation for a former manager’s anti-tax politics also may have contributed to the historic hotel’s 1988 decline.
For 30 years, these and more misfortunes have taken a toll on the historic structure that sheltered presidents, royalty, famous personalities and heads of state through seven decades.
Now standing empty and forlorn in downtown Oklahoma City, the property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was sold at a sheriff’s auction Tuesday. It was the second time since January 1988 that the Oklahoma County sheriff had auctioned off the classic property to satisfy a mortgage debt.
The Skirvin stands in the shadow of the city’s tallest building, Liberty Tower literally and figuratively Oklahoma County district court records show.
Stanton Young, appointed receiver in 1971 for the bankrupt Skirvin and its sister hotel, the Skirvin Tower, alleged in a 1972 lawsuit that Skirvin revenues were funneled into construction of Liberty Tower by Griffin Enterprises Inc. and a group of New York investors.
Griffin Enterprises had acquired the two Skirvins in 1967. The eastern businessmen were added to the owners’ list through a complicated financial arrangement with Griffin, the court petition says.
Griffin also developed the skyscraper located just across Park Avenue and a broad plaza from the hotel. The defendants never admitted they diverted Skirvin revenues to the construction, but the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
The settlement was used to pay the bankrupt hotels’ secured and unsecured claims, and the Skirvin never closed during the 18 months it was in bankruptcy proceedings, Young said last week.
Through the 1970s and ’80s, the Skirvin changed hands several times.
Owners included a group of Oklahoma City businessmen headed by managing partner Ronald Burkes; a 17-investor group based in Miami, Fla.; and, most recently, two Fort Worth partners in Savoy Hotels and Resorts.
The boycott came during the Florida group’s ownership, and has been identified as one possible cause of the October 1988 closing of the Skirvin. The blacklisting at least contributed to the Skirvin’s financial difficulties, four sources speculated at the time.
Several civic and cultural leaders acknowledged in January 1987 that they steered business away from the Skirvin in the latter part of 1986 because its manager helped defeat four of six economic development proposals intended to help pull central Oklahoma out of depression.
Three sources said the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce moved scheduled events to other hotels.
The manager, Norton Locke, had publicly opposed some of six municipal revenue proposals on a June 1986 referendum. Locke also allegedly gave $17,000 to defeat a proposed increase of the municipal hotel/motel room tax from 2 percent to 5 percent. A few months later, the Florida hotel owners were sued by the city for failure to pay $23,000 in room taxes.
“I can’t tell you the business that has been taken out of the Skirvin because of that stand (against the room-tax increase),” one civic leader said in January 1987.
Herschel Lamirand, a member of the mayor’s task force that promoted the economic development measures, and James Tolbert III, longtime civic and arts leader, were among those acknowledging in 1987 that they had personally influenced bookings and lodgings away from the Skirvin.
Andy Coats, then Oklahoma City mayor, also confirmed that several downtown groups canceled meetings and accounts with the Skirvin.
Lamirand, executive director of the OU Health Sciences Center Foundation, stressed this was his own philosophy and not that of his employer.
“Opposing the tax was one thing, but financially supporting opponents was the last straw,” he said then.
But Lamirand said last week that the Skirvin had not been boycotted.
He also voiced solid support for attempts to resurrect the hotel.
“(We) weren’t really blacklisting the Skirvin. That was the misinformation last time. What people really wanted to get the attention of was a fellow named Locke who was acting pretty independently and not really representing the ownership of the Skirvin.
That hurt the development of Oklahoma City,” Lamirand said.
“There was a great number of people who felt very strongly about Norton Locke, but … I don’t think there was anybody who was actually trying to destroy the Skirvin. It was a move against what he (Locke) stood for.”
Before its troubles piled up, the Skirvin hotel enjoyed a long and distinguished reputation. It was built in 1910-1911 by the late William B. Skirvin, who made a fortune in the Spindletop oil fields in east Texas before bringing his money and search for oil to Oklahoma. The Skirvin lobby is part of the oil lore of early Oklahoma, with such names as Skelly, Champlin, Getty doing business there.
The hotel remained in the founding family until 1945, when it was sold to Oklahoma City businessman Dan James. It was acquired in 1963 by a group of midwestern investors headed by John Grande, formerly an executive with the Statler chain. Two years later, Grande’s group added the 3,000-capacity grand ballroom the largest hotel banquet hall in Oklahoma a swimming pool and other improvements.
The next owner-operator after Griffin was O’Meara-Chandler Corp. of Houston, which acquired the property from the principal mortgage holder, New York Life Insurance Co., and changed the name to Skirvin Plaza.
Then, a group of Oklahoma City businessmen, headed by managing partner Ronald Burkes, purchased the property to keep the hotel open.
The Florida group acquired the property in 1985. Among them were several executives of a Walt Disney Productions subsidiary. Skirvin GP Inc., headed by Gary Engle, took title to the property.
By late 1987, spokesman Engle acknowledged the Skirvin was near bankruptcy, and could not make its mortgage payments. The title was relinquished to Business Men’s Assurance Co. of Kansas City, the principal mortgage holder.
Fort Worth businessmen Peiter Streitt and Michael Profitt, partners in Savoy Hotels and Resorts, became owners of record after the January 1988 sheriff’s sale returned it to BMA.
Profitt and Streitt had taken over management of the hotel for BMA in 1987, almost a year before completing the purchase. They shut it down in October 1988.
Last Tuesday, New Orleans-based Empire Land Co. took title to the hotel with a $2.22 million dollar bid at the latest sheriff’s sale.
Prior to the auction, Empire, headed by New Orleans businessman Louis J.Roussel Jr., became primary mortgage holder by purchasing the foreclosure judgement from previous lender Mutual Savings Life Insurance Co. Empire is expected to entertain offers from buyers interested in restoring an reopneing the downtown lankmark, but no timetable has been established for such transactions.
Last week, Lamirand and others voiced strong support for any attempts to reopen the Skirvin.
“I think everybody in the community desperately wants that facility open. We all miss it so much. It’s incredible how much it plays a role in all of our lives,” he said.
Today’s OKC Central video may end up being one of my favorites. Starting off with a fun look at Downtown in December with Kim Searls, the Oklahoma Focus picture slideshow is an incredible walk back in time, with the story of Christmas past told by the late great Mary Jo Nelson – a woman who can either be credited or blamed for much of who I am today as a reporter. Her influence on me began long before I ever got to meet her. I was the young kid reading her stories in the paper, following every word she wrote about what downtown was, and what it might be in the future.
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.
On Tuesday I wrote about the plight of what I’ll call “lost Bricktown.” I want you to see these buildings as they were in their heyday, instead of how blighted they are today. Left alone, these buildings could someday be restored and brought back to life. But given the current momentum of development, I predict these buildings will disappear within the next few years, to be torn down not by short-visioned developers, but rather the city itself.
Forty years ago it was the mission of a woman I admired, Mary Jo Nelson, to educate the public about similar actions that were being pondered by city leaders. She documented the final days of landmarks we now mourn – the Criterion Theater, the Huckins Hotel, the Midwest Building and more.
Like Mary Jo, who passed away a couple of years ago, I can only do my best to bring these things to your attention. It’s up to you whether these properties matter in a city that has too few old buildings left. It’s up to you whether it’s a good or bad thing that these buildings are set to be torn down. And it’s up to you whether you want to contact the mayor and council, or whether you wish to stay silent.
While no other buildings have the architectural significance of Little Flower Church and Union Station, several notable older buildings, such as the Latino Community Development Agency building, contribute to the character of the area and could be incorporated into development projects if economically feasible.”