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Pei’s plan, which included the demolition of more than 500 buildings, was despised by the city’s locals and outdated in the end, and met its demise in the late 1980s.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.