“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” — Dr. Seuss,” The Lorax.
Tracey Zeeck and Farooq Karim see themselves as living out the words first uttered by Dr. Seuss four decades ago. They are tackling a problem many have dismissed as unfixable. Experts say $40 million will be needed to make their dream come true. And the pair, who didn't even know each other until this month, have just two weeks to create a plan that will overcome all of these odds.
Zeeck and Karim, however, may be the last, best hope for Stage Center as they prepare to pitch a plan to convert the troubled abandoned theater into a children's museum.
Zeeck, an Oklahoma City public relations consultant, first thought of the possibility in December after her husband, Andy, read a newspaper story about the downtown theater being threatened with demolition.
The Central Oklahoma Chapter of American Institute of Architects secured an agreement with the property's owner, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, to issue a request for development proposals to determine whether any potential saviors could be found. The building shut down two years ago after extensive damage from flooding.
On a chance encounter at the Myriad Gardens last year with the theater's longtime benefactor, Jim Tolbert, Zeeck suggested the architectural landmark could be turned into a great children's museum.
“I told him it was an empty children's museum,” Zeeck said. “Science Museum is an amazing place. And this doesn't change our love for that. But I think there could be five more places for children and families and they could be full all the time.”
Zeeck, herself the mother of a 4-year-old, has spent the past few weeks talking to organizers of a children's museum in Phoenix and learning the ins and outs of funding and operating such an organization. She said she seeks nothing other than support for making her dream come true.
Farooq Karim, vice president and senior director of design at Rees Associates Architecture, came to a similar conclusion after being approached by fellow architects seeking to save Stage Center.
Karim was well familiar with Stage Center — a building designed by John Johansen, a member of the famous “Harvard Five” and a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. His firm worked on a performing arts feasibility study for the property several years ago.
As the father of two boys with developmental delays, Karim came up with the idea of a children's museum while driving to Dallas. He later learned about Zeeck's efforts.
“It just snowballed from there,” said Karim, who has made the project a pro-bono effort and has enrolled fellow professionals in creating mock-ups and animation that usually would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“Some of this is just what I do as an architect,” Karim said. “We look for possibilities with projects and buildings; we look for solutions. Maybe it's just how this building looks. I have two young sons, and it's something I would love for them to have and have access to. We have some great children's venues like the science museum, the zoo, but what if we had something to compliment those? What if we gave Oklahoma City something new we don't have? It would create a different kind of energy downtown.”
Karim's job is eased by contact already established by Zeeck with Khristen Johansen, son of John Johansen and also an architect. Zeeck told Johansen of her idea, and received the blessing of both men. Khristen Johansen told Zeeck of another one of his father's projects, one similar to the brutalist design of Stage Center, and how his firm assisted in converting it into an elementary school. Johansen also offered to serve as an artistic adviser for the project — for free — without any veto power.
“Everything I've heard to date led me to believe it would be a contentious conversation at the least,” Zeeck said. “But I've been amazed by their willingness to help.”
Zeeck said a committee made up of “solid community leaders” has been formed and they are being advised by the Children's Museum of Phoenix. Plans still being drawn up tentatively call for the building to be turned into a certified Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) property, addressing longtime concerns with energy costs, and she teased that a climbing structure could be built inside the main auditorium.
Zeeck believes the costs for converting Stage Center into a children's museum will be significantly less than previous estimates for restoring it as a performing arts venue. But she also understands that the request for proposals requires that any response be attached with a viable means of financing. She said presentations are being scheduled with potential funders who have indicated they are willing to look at the group's proposal.
“Money is the most important part of this,” Zeeck said. “If we can't make this happen, at least we'll never look back and have the feeling we should have tried to save Stage Center. I do believe this is the perfect project for this building at this time for Oklahoma City.”
A children's museum provides youth with opportunities to learn through open ended play with no expected outcomes. A typical children's museum includes exhibits that range from small scale towns that encourage pretend play and exploration, climbing towers, elaborate “mousetrap” interactive displays, giant exploratory sculptures, art rooms and whimsical forests. Children's Museums often also provide separate areas for babies, toddlers and older kids, as well as opportunities for children with developmental delays.