With demolition fencing now surrounding Stage Center, a 24-year-old expose of the theater’s controversial design further suggests the landmark was fated to fail from the moment the design was commissioned to the late John Johansen.
The article by author Barbara Koerble was written in 1990 at a delicate moment in the theater’s history. Its last tenant, the Oklahoma Theatre Center, had collapsed three years earlier leaving the building empty and boarded up.
The Arts Council of Oklahoma City, however, had purchased the building while philanthropist John Kirkpatrick kept control of the land. Up-and-coming architect Rand Elliott, then 40, had won the commission to bring the theater back to life for the arts council.
Neither the arts council nor Elliott had notified Johansen about their plans to upgrade the theater. And when the aging architect learned about the proposed improvements, he was not happy.
The relationship between Johansen and locals never was very good. Koerble’s article, however, shows just how bad things were from the very start.
It was the mid-1960s and brutalist design was still in vogue. Downtown Oklahoma City was being torn up by the Urban Renewal Authority and redesigned by I.M. Pei, himself no stranger to modernist design.
Johansen was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and a member of the legendary “Harvard Five” (which also included Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes). He was hired not by the Mummer’s Theater, which was to be the tenant of the Oklahoma City venue, but by the Ford Foundation, which agreed to provide a $2 million grant for a modern downtown home for the 22-year-old theater company.
The design was promoted to international design audiences, but by my research, and confirmed in the Koerble article, Johansen made no significant effort to win support in Oklahoma City. This was his piece of art, his monument. Little discussion went toward whether it was a good fit for a theater group or for Oklahoma City.
W. McNeil Lowry, vice president of humanities and the arts at the Ford Foundation, backed Johansen in refusing changes to the controversial design by threatening to withdraw financial support if the architectural integrity of the design was compromised by a skeptical board in Oklahoma City.
Construction costs spiked due to the discovery of the old river bed that flowed through the south fringe of downtown, and matters worsened when Kirkpatrick withdrew his pledge to match the Ford Foundation grant. Mummer’s went bankrupt, and its founder and director, Max Scism, cursed the building when he left Oklahoma City a few years later.
In 1972, Johansen received an American Institute of Architects Honor Award, stepped down from the awards platform at the national convention in Houston and was informed the one-year-old building was rumored to be in danger of demolition. Kirkpatrick, however, erased the Mummer’s debt in exchange for control of the property. Mummers was reopened as Oklahoma Theatre Center.
Kirkpatrick abandoned Ford’s goal of establishing a professional equity company for a succession of what Lowry called educational but amateur productions.
Playpen for amateurs
“It was a great disappointment for us to have this wonderfully modern and exciting, imaginative theater design turned over as a playpen for amateurs.” Lowry told Koerble in her 1990 article. The Ford Foundation considered going to court over the change, but concluded any legal action would harm long term viability of the building.
The building was renamed a third and final time when the arts council sought to make an adjoining former fire station its new home. A fundraising campaign was launched, Elliott was hired to address the theater’s design flaws, and when news of this effort reached Johansen, he solicited international arts and architecture critics to back his rebuttal.
Johansen objected to Elliott’s plans for a glass elevator tower to be added to the entrance facing Sheridan, to add skylights to the corridors linking the lobby and the auditoriums, and other improvements.
This was not going to be just a rehabilitation. Elliott pledged to make the theater better than it was before, and told Koerble that Johansen “has had his 15 minutes of fame.” Johansen responded, saying Elliott was an “aggressive young architect trying to hit a home run with the building. That’s understandable but inexcusable … it’s not the time to promote yourself.”
The dispute went public, a truce was called, and Elliott dropped the glass elevator idea. The theater reopened as a multi-tenant venue, but never really thrived. And when Johansen visited in 2008, he was hosted not by Elliott but by Hans Butzer, whose Oklahoma City National Memorial is the only other piece of architecture in Oklahoma City to win international acclaim (Elliott did, however, host Johansen for a private dinner during that visit).
Destroyed by flood
Flooding devastated the theater in 2010. The Urban Renewal covenant that required the land be used for a theater expired in 2000. The Kirkpatrick Family Foundation regained control of the building, and sold the property to Kestral Investments, which is tearing the building down to make way for a new headquarters for OGE Energy Corp.
Many of the players in this failed experiment are now dead. Lowry, Johansen, Kirkpatrick and Scism are no longer around to mourn or to celebrate the demise of a theater that will outrage the international architecture community and largely be shrugged off by locals.
“The Mummers is a great theater, but it is not a success,” Oklahoma City architect Jim Loftis told Koerble. “It has been a divisive element in the community from day one. It is architecture that has divided the public and has hurt us.”