For more than 20 years, the decades-old Texaco at 2425 N Walker has stood as a reminder of just how far the UpTown 23rd community had declined since its heyday as one of the city's retail corridors.
The strip was home to the neon-lit Tower Theater, a TG&Y store, a Humpty Dumpty grocery, a Veazey Drug Store, Streets Department Store, jewelry, clothing and gift shops, florists and restaurants.
And in the midst of it was Elmer's Texaco — a community gathering spot that for 33 years attracted customers from historic neighborhoods stretching from Heritage Hills to the south and Crown Heights to the north.
In later years, whenever Sharon Gentry and her sister Paula Black drove past the boarded-up Texaco proudly run by their late father, Elmer Gentry, they mourned the demise of UpTown.
“Back then, in those days, that was a really nice area of town,” Sharon Gentry recalled in a recent interview with The Oklahoman.
“It only had two gas pumps,” Gentry said. “It was a working garage. … Dad did brake jobs, sold tires, had a lube rack. The little old ladies would call him, and he would help them back out their big cars from their homes, he would put chains on their cars when it snowed. There were people in the neighborhood he would take care of.”
That sense of community along NW 23 began to disappear a few years after Gentry sold the station in the late 1970s. The Humpty Dumpty across the street from the Texaco was destroyed by fire, and even now the foundation is all that remains on the lot.
The gas station itself, last used as a car wash, was boarded up not long after a man was shot there in 1992. Three years later, the station made the first of multiple appearances on the city's dilapidated list.
A revival of UpTown first attempted in the 1990s is finally taking root, however, and the old Texaco is the latest property being targeted for redevelopment.
Pump Bar project
Ian McDermid, son of prominent architect Anthony McDermid, is hoping to gain permission from the city's Historic Preservation Commission and Urban Design Committee to bring the old gas station back to life as the Pump Bar.
Working with Anthony McDermid's firm, TAP Architecture, Ian McDermid is pursuing a preservation of the old gas station that will restore much of the Texaco's original features, incorporate vintage pickups as part of the seating, and use a mid-20th century Airstream trailer for food operations.
His plan, if approved, will include ample outdoor patio seating that will be kept comfortable through the use of heaters, mister fans and shade provided by new tree plantings.
“There will be food — good food,” McDermid said.
Such plans are welcomed by Greg Seal, who opened his own bar, Grandad's, 317 NW 23, in September citing the success of nearby Cheever's Cafe, Big Truck Tacos and Tucker's.
Seal's bar prohibits smoking. It includes a living room set resembling that of a blue-collar retiree's home, and strictly old-school country music, much of it live.
“We thought it was a pretty good risk — we got a good vibe,” Seal said. “We're not pioneers; you already had places like Cheever's and Big Truck Tacos. But still, there was a perception — it's dangerous out here. So we had to change that perception.”
Seal discovered the same pent-up demand for venues along NW 23 that boosted fortunes for Big Truck Tacos and Tucker's after Cheever's pioneered the area in 1998.
“We've done well,” Seal said.” It's funny to look back at my business plan and projections. We thought we'd run 30 to 40 people a night, and we're closing in on 10 times that.”
Meeting for the first time this week at Grandad's, Seal and McDermid shared their visions for UpTown and could have fooled a casual observer into thinking they were longtime friends.
“UpTown could become our South Congress Avenue in Austin,” Seal said, with McDermid echoing his sentiments. “It can be where there is something going all day: breakfast diners in the morning, restaurants, shopping and coffee shops in the afternoon, bars in the evening. A few more bars won't be competition — it will make this a destination.”
The effort to revive NW 23 between Broadway and Classen Boulevard dates to the early 1990s. City Planning Director Russell Claus recalls how he was considered for the task of overseeing development of a plan for UpTown when he applied for his first job with the city.
He also recalls that back then, Michael Smith, owner of an interior design shop where Grandad's now is located, was a lonely voice in calling on the city to help bring back life to UpTown.
“It was certainly rougher than it was now,” Claus said. “There wasn't a whole lot viable along NW 23 at all. Michael Smith's shop was the highlight between Broadway and Classen.”