Forgive me for my absence this past week. One week ago today, my father, Robert Lackmeyer, died very unexpectedly. His story is pretty much one that will stay private and didn’t have a happy ending. But there is one detail I’ll share now – and it’s his involvement with the now long dormant Century Center Mall.
As I’ve shared previously, my family is from New York. I was born in New York, and my parents were both born and raised in New York. Their parents were born and raised in New York. And their parents? Well, that part of the family tree involves some pretty typical Ellis Island stories – the kind of immigrant tales that made America what it is today.
There are holes in this story. I do not know why my dad and the company he represented, New York’s J.D. Posillico Co., saw Oklahoma City as an attractive target for development and investment.
I also do not have a complete list of the properties my dad developed on behalf of his employers. He was a certified public accountant, but his career was never limited to completing tax returns. He was a far more complex man, brilliant in many ways, yet far from perfect.
I remember our family first visiting Oklahoma City as construction wrapped up on the Willow Cliff Apartments at NW 50 and Meridian. The grand opening included, as I recall, a big picnic for new tenants and a fireworks show over the adjoining lake. I was mesmerized, and I thought about how cool it would be to live at Willow Cliff.
He also oversaw the company’s investment in the Broadhollow and LeMarquis Apartments. This was in the mid-1970s, and the economy was very shaky. But energy was beginning to boost fortunes in sleepy Oklahoma City. Maybe this alone attracted such investment.
I also don’t know how my father and his employers became interested in developing the first hotel and retail mall under the Urban Renewal program underway in downtown Oklahoma City. I do know they were not the first team signed up for the project. I also know that steel shortages and local “politics” led to a three-year-long delay in construction getting underway. And as the hotel neared completion I began to repeatedly hear my father complaining about an Oklahoma City developer forced upon the New York interests. I won’t name names, but I will say this: the same man did not enjoy a good reputation later in life and was involved in efforts that were widely despised among preservationists and urban core activists.
The hotel had a successful opening under my father’s role as developer, while Century Center floundered under the other individual. I still remember attending the hotel’s grand opening and marveling at the changes underway downtown. I did not know, nor appreciate, that incredible landmarks like the Baum Building and Criterion Theater were torn down to make way for the mall, which remained an empty shell. The “local partner” changed design plans that originally called for storefronts facing the street, and instead created blank, brick and tilt-up concrete walls facing the outside with huge grassy setbacks from the street.
Believe me, I’d love to name names on this.
According to what my father told me in later years, his company paid $1 million to the “local partner” to remove him from the project. My family moved to Oklahoma City in 1977 and soon my father was in The Oklahoman giving updates on efforts to redevelop the mall.
So what made my father significant enough that I announced his passing on Twitter? Was it truly newsworthy, or was this just my way of paying tribute?
To those who say this is purely personal, well, yeah, maybe it is. The years spent on this project in the 1970s and early 1980s were a huge influence on my becoming interested in urban redevelopment and the history of downtown Oklahoma City. I witnessed the last dying gasp of the old downtown and the painful, delayed birth of the new downtown.
But also consider this: Robert Edward Lackmeyer was the last person, to date, who created a genuine downtown retail hub in Oklahoma City that drew a variety of restaurants, clothing stores, salons, gift shops, a game arcade, a florist, antique store, art gallery, fitness center and newsstand. He even successfully landed an FAO Schwartz toy store.
It wasn’t easy. For a while he toyed with the idea of setting up a flexible retail space – a concept I can best compare to what is now known as “pop up shops.” This rendering is what I remember him playing with at the time:
But against all odds, he really did pull off an impressive variety of retail tenants for a mall that was in a downtown that was hardly functional at the time.
He almost pulled off a re-invention of downtown retail where others would fail from the 1970s to present. My father was riding high. News accounts followed him as he visited with then Mayor Patience Latting and photos show my parents at various banquets hosted by the newly opened Sheraton.
There’s no one setback that killed Century Center. A fire intentionally set by owners of the fitness center (an insurance scheme gone bad) in 1981 didn’t help. The blaze did quite a bit of damage, but could have been far worse if the two masked men who set the fire hadn’t been confronted by a security guard. They attempted to overcome him, but fled when he was able to trigger the fire alarm. Investigators found the club’s interior had been doused with some 50 gallons of flammable liquid, and 24 unused railroad flares, walkie-talkies, gas masks and gloves were left behind by the fleeing arsonists.
The oil bust, however, did even more damage to both Century Center and my father’s business. Like many businessmen of the time, he invested heavily in oil ventures even though he did not have the experience or know-how to be successful in such efforts. He attempted to keep his CPA firm alive, eventually moving to smaller digs in the suburbs. Century Center Mall limped on through the late 1980s, and as recently as 1990 it was still home to some scattered offices, restaurants including House Szechwan, Schlotzky’s, Taco Casa, Whirla Whip and Fudge A Little, and five small retail stores; Alta Marie, Elegante Accessories, Em Lou’s, Le Parfums and Taylor’s News Stand, along with the Sheraton Century Center Tag Agency.
The mall had already sold at least once, maybe more, when the city council toyed with the idea of buying it and turning it into additional conference space in the early 1990s. By the late 1990s, it was pretty much the empty shell we see today. Interests affiliated with Mark Moore bought the property earlier this year, and they’ve released renderings showing a potential renovation they may pursue in the near future.
So that’s it. That’s the story. Robert Edward Lackmeyer, the one man who came closest to re-establishing a downtown retail mall during the height of Oklahoma City’s urban renewal era, died last week. He was 72. He was also my father.