A landmark that reaches 286 feet and flaunts a gold star on Oklahoma City University's campus has remained unfinished for nearly 60 years — and it probably never will be completed.
The Gold Star Memorial Building opened in 1953. Its 200-pound star can be seen as far as 10 miles away. Administrators tout that the facility once had the country's largest arc-welded steel framework.
“When I see it, I know I'm close to home,” said student Krystal Rajkowski, a dance management major.
The facility, labeled “School of Religion,” was built to honor Methodists who died in World War II. It was created to house the university's United Methodist religion department, but never served that purpose.
Administrators aren't sure why the religion department never was established in the building, which currently houses the university's law library and law faculty offices in its first three floors and basement.
“I get quite a few questions about the tower,” said Lee Peoples, law library director. “People usually ask if they can climb it or how tall it is.
“I've climbed it before. Once was definitely enough.”
Planning for the future
Administrators talked with an architect last year about remodeling the tower, but their first priority is to reseal the entire building, said Brian Holland, chief financial officer.
The need was magnified last summer when heavy rainfall resulted in water damage. Resealing the building would cost $3.5 million, but officials haven't secured donations to carry out those improvements, he said.
Refurbishing the tower also would require installing a new elevator, Holland said.
“It would be very expensive per floor and not very much square footage,” he said. “The ceilings aren't very high and the walls are made of concrete.”
The tower's elevator stops at the third floor. The remainder of the climb only is attainable by foot.
Making the climb
Victor Zungia, university facilities worker, unlocked the secured door to access the building's dusty, concrete stairwell.
“I've been up here many times,” he said. “I love it.”
After climbing 10 floors coated with dust, broken glass and soda cans, a winding steel staircase navigates the facility's upper levels. An empty elevator shaft lends an eerie feel.
Accessing the building's upper outside balcony is another feat. It requires a climb on a ladder onto a narrow ledge and through a small opening about 270 feet above ground.
The climb is worth it though, said Zungia, who has worked at OCU for 15 years.
Looking down, people look almost microscopic, but looking out, the city's skyline is in plain view. Zungia said the spot is popular among photographers for this reason.
A mysterious history
Why the facility never housed the school of religion, which currently is housed in the Bishop W. Angie Smith Chapel building, is unknown to university
It's interesting because the religion structure wasn't completed until 15 years after the Gold Star Building was finished, said the Rev. Maggie Ball, vice president for university-church relations.
“My understanding is that Bishop Smith, who was one of the longest-tenured United Methodist Bishops of Oklahoma at the time, was retiring, and we built it in his honor,” she said.
Construction on the Gold Star building was rough from the start. Workers broke ground on the building in 1949, but came to a halt in 1950 when the $500,000 available for the facility wasn't enough.
Building resumed in 1951 when Oklahoma United Methodist Church and officials of the local chamber of commerce secured $1 million.
The first three floors of the Gold Star building were completed in 1953, but the fourth through 13th floors never were finished. The fourth floor initially was to become a chapel space and the upper floors were to become faculty offices.
In 1956, the school of law began conducting classes in the building. The school completely moved in 1979, requiring a $1.2 million renovation.
Then 15 years later, the school moved from the building to Sarkeys Law Center, requiring an additional $1 million to remodel the space to serve as the university's law library.