Almost a half century has passed since architect I.M. Pei arrived in Oklahoma City with plans to remake its downtown. And downtown has been a consistent construction zone ever since. Pei’s plan, which included the demolition of more than 500 buildings, was despised by the city’s locals and outdated in the end, and met its demise in the late 1980s. A major exhibit of the plan, including a model created by Pei and his firm, is being put on display at the Cox Convention Center starting Monday. Made of wood and plastic, each inch of the 10-foot-by-12-foot model equals 50 feet of land. Without the advancements of modern technology, this model likely took a sizeable team six months or more to construct by hand. Though the model cost $60,000 to create in 1964, Norman-based architectural model builder Wiley White estimates the display would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars today. The team that reassembled the model for the upcoming display included Hans Butzer, designer of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Oklahoma. "The Pei model is a window in time to better understand where we were, where we thought we were going and what we used to think,” Butzer said. "It is rare to revisit something so sweeping as the Pei Plan, and the model allows us to see the history of our downtown renovation.” If the model is a time capsule, it’s one that might have stayed crated up and underground if not for the efforts of Rachel Mosman, associate photographic archivist at the Oklahoma Historical Society and a board member with the Oklahoma City/County Historical Society. Mosman spent the past three years working with the sizable Barney Hillerman collection, scanning about 40,000 of 750,000 photos of pre-urban renewal era downtown Oklahoma City. "What I didn’t realize was that I was working with something related to Urban Renewal,” Mosman said. "It was like a puzzle was coming together with each photo I scanned. I saw photos of these beautiful buildings — the Baum, the Biltmore, the Oklahoma Club — and I wondered why they weren’t here anymore.” Mosman’s next step was to create an online map of where buildings once stood. Mosman went to her boss, research division director Bill Welge, and sought to learn more about the history of downtown Oklahoma City. Welge referred Mosman to a books about the Pei Plan and downtown — "Vanished Splendor” and "OKC Second Time Around” — and it while reading "OKC Second Time Around” that Mosmon learned saw a photo of the Pei model. Welge told Mosman the model was crated up and stored in the basement of the Main Street Parking Garage and hadn’t been on public display since it was exhibited at the Smithsonian in 1995. Mosman assembled a team to reconstruct the model. The team included Butzer and his partner Jeremy Gardner, who designed a new base and framing for the model, and architectural model builder Dub Brunsteter, who cleaned the model and did minor repairs. Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White and City Clerk Frances Kersey helped arrange a work space for the model and the display at the convention center to coincide with the upcoming National Main Streets Conference and U.S. Conference of Mayors. Logistics, displays and other support for the display was provided by the Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City/County Historical Society, the City of Oklahoma City and RetroMetro OKC. Mosman noted the project’s website was assembled by Justin Tyler Moore, who at 27 is one of the team’s younger members. The youngest project partner, however, is only 17. Bunee Tomlinson, a past winner at the DeadCENTER Film Festival, produced a film about the project that will be presented at the model’s unveiling on Monday. The multimedia efforts, Mosman said, include the presentation of vintage images, maps, materials and films that she hopes will add to the conversation about the Pei Plan and its legacy. "It’s an ongoing telling of the story,” Mosman said. "Everyone is stepping forward to tell their own experience, and it gives us another dimension to the story we’re trying to tell.” Mosman cautions against anyone assuming the exhibit is intended to celebrate or condone the Pei Plan. "It expresses a point in Oklahoma City history when there was a big transition,” Mosman said. "It promotes a community conversation and helps us tell a story of our history between generations. ... People who see it are curious. We see these images, and we want to know what happened.”
If you goA free public unveiling of the Pei model will be held at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the northeast lobby of the Cox Convention Center with introductions by Mayor Mick Cornett and Dr. Bob Blackburn, director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. For more information about the Pei project visit www.impeiokc.com.