Drive around downtown Oklahoma City and the scarcity of historic old buildings is noticable. Thankfully, the largest landmark historic tower, First National Center, has managed to survive and never see a single board covering up its doors and windows.
The community showed its renewed appreciation for such old buildings when an unprecedented mix of public grants, tax credits and loans were used to fully renovate and reopen the Skirvin hotel back in 1996. And since that show of public support for architectural relics, a procession of renovations has taken place in Midtown, Bricktown, Automobile Alley and Film Row.
The debate continues over the proposed demolition of Stage Center, the oddly designed theater just west of the Myriad Gardens. Some say it is historic and every bit as valuable to our architectural heritage as the Skirvin and First National. Others argue it was a design never embraced by the community and never a functional fit with downtown.
Elsewhere downtown, the wins for preservationists are adding up. Projects long considered virtually undoable are getting done. At NW 10 and Broadway, the century-old Hotel Marion, abandoned and boarded up for more than 30 years, is being renovated into apartments by the Midtown Renaissance Group. Another wonderful historic building turned eyesore, the Main Street Arcade along Film Row, is set to be redeveloped by a group led by David Wanzer.
The last boarded-up building in Bricktown, the Rock Island Plow Building (boarded-up since the early 1980s), is set to be renovated this spring by developer Richard McKown.
Don’t be surprised, meanwhile, if the recently completed renovation of the Calvary Baptist Church in Deep Deuce, the birthplace of the city’s civil rights movement, wins national awards.
Each building I’ve cited sits on land that could have proved more valuable if the structures were torn down and less expensive new construction was pursued by the developers. These projects are tough to pull off. Some buildings simply don’t work well for adaptive reuse; such was the case with the old Steffen’s Dairy building on Main Street in Bricktown where the odd floor plates and concrete construction made it a dud for redevelopment.
When asked about the historic value of the Steffens Dairy, Bob Blackburn, the state’s most respected historian, noted that not every building can or should be saved. The dairy building was torn down, and the site is now being rebuilt as a Holiday Inn Express.
Not every old building can or should be saved. But Oklahoma City, still a relatively young community at 125 years old, has finally realized the value of its history. Preservationists may not win every battle, but the war to save the city’s past is being won.