Attorney John Michael Williams still remembers drives downtown when he was a child and his mother would point out the Main Street Arcade building as a one-time source of pride.
Long before the building turned into a ramshackle outpost for the Downtown Baptist Church where a soup kitchen provided relief to the homeless, the Arcade at 629 W Main was home to Hill’s Business College.
“Mother grew up in Altus and graduated high school in 1936,” Williams said. “A sales person came and convinced her and her mother that what she needed to do was attend Hill’s Business College in Oklahoma City. And that was a big deal if you grew up in Altus. Girls who went to school at Hill’s Business College lived at the YWCA, and that’s what she did.”
Decades later, developer and designer David Wanzer is hoping to restore the building to its original glory and intent – offices upstairs and a collection of retail shops on the first floor. A nomination is being submitted to add the building, opened in 1923, to the National Register of Historic Places. With pre-leasing to start this summer and a year of renovations to begin in the winter, he hopes the building will open by late 2015.
“Getting the building added to the National Register of Historic Places is critical to making the numbers pencil out; the tax credits it allows us to use are critical,” Wanzer said. “Our intent is to restore the ground floor to what it was originally with the small shops. That was a dominant feature of this building. There were 12 storefront bays, and we want to restore that as it looked.”
The earliest mention of the Main Street Arcade appears to be a 1922 advertisement by the property’s owners soliciting investors for the development. Their initial vision included a series of retail shops on the first floor, an amusement hall and fraternal lodge space on the second floor.
“Only three points to decide,” the advertisement suggested, “if you believe in Oklahoma City, if you believe in Main Street, and if you have the money to invest.”
The next year, a full-page advertisement was placed by Hill’s Business College, announcing its relocation to the newly opened Main Street Arcade.
The Downtown Baptist Church bought the property in 1936 during the depths of the Great Depression, turned part of the first floor into a sanctuary, and began operating a soup kitchen for the homeless.
The church did “modernize” part of the front facade in the 1950s, but Wanzer notes much of the building’s other original features remain intact.
“The majority of the storefront includes 3-foot-tall transom windows, which makes the storefronts go from floor to ceiling on the ground floor,” Wanzer said. “Our plan is to restore those to bring in a lot of natural light into the space. And most of these shotgun spaces had a mezzanine in the rear. They were likely either for storage or offices, with alley access and windows up high to get as much natural light in as possible.”
In the center of the building is a terrazzo floor that extends to two staircases leading to the second floor. One of the building’s many quirks is an extension of that stairway to the rear wall of the building, where a skywalk once connected it to a building that is now owned by the City of Oklahoma City.
“So much of the character of this building is still intact,” Wanzer said. “It really is beautiful.”