These days, many of the brightly-painted corrugated steel walkways that jut out of the John M. Johansen-designed Stage Center theater downtown are boarded shut with plywood.
The wood-planked walkways are strewed with dead leaves and trash.
Vacant since the basement was flooded after a torrential rainstorm in 2010, the theater has fallen into disrepair.
Piles of clothing and empty liquor bottles are some of the most visible evidence that the theater, with its many concrete eaves and terraces, has become an easy place for some of downtown's homeless population to get out of the wind for a night.
“We will miss U Stage Center,” someone wrote in the grime on one of the theater's basement windows.
Developer Kestrel Investments Inc., which purchased Stage Center in July from the Oklahoma City Community Foundation for $4.2 million, has submitted an application to the city to demolish the property to make way for a $100-million construction project that will include a 14- to 16-story tower that will be a new headquarters for OGE Energy Corp., as well as second tower, with housing or a hotel that could be eight to 12 stories.
Developer Rainey Williams, president of Kestrel Investments, said he knew he might face resistance to tearing down Stage Center when Kestrel purchased the theater property, but he believes the building has outlived its purpose.
“It's reached the end of its useful life,” Williams said. “We're excited to be building something that will be an active, useful space that everyone in Oklahoma City can enjoy.”
The Downtown Design Review Committee is slated to consider whether to approve the theater demolition at its next meeting Jan. 16. As of last week, the city has received no formal protest to the demolition, according to the Oklahoma City Planning Department.
It remains to be seen whether Oklahoma City residents will put up much of a fight to keep Stage Center — but there is an online petition to save the building.
The group Preservation Oklahoma has posted the Save Stage Center petition on its website, preservationok.org, in support of preserving the building. The petition had gathered 250 signatures from supporters around the country by Friday afternoon.
The group plans to present the petition to the Downtown Design Review Committee before its vote. Outside of the petition, there are no ongoing efforts to save the theater from being razed.
An effort to put out a request for proposals to redevelop the property led by the Central Oklahoma Chapter of AIA garnered only a few responses without firm financial backing.
Preservation Oklahoma also led an effort to list Stage Center on the National Register of Historic Places, a nomination that was rejected by then-owner Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
“The building is a sculpture — it's a fabulous building to experience on the outside and inside,” said preservation architect Catharine Montgomery, a vocal supporter of preserving Stage Center. “What a shame that we as a community can't be more creative in keeping it. To just give up on it because it flooded a couple of times seems really dismissive.”
When it was completed in 1970, Stage Center, originally called the Mummers Theater, was a controversial structure.
Inspired by the design of electrical circuits, the building's system of steel walkways linking concrete theater pods has been compared to the plastic tubes of a hamster cage. However maligned locally, the building is the only one in the state to be awarded an American Institute of Architects Honor award.
Johansen, who died in 2012 at age 96, was one of “the Harvard Five'” architects who studied under Walter Gropius, founder of the influential Bauhaus School and head of the architecture program at Harvard.
Speaking with The Oklahoman in 2008, Johansen, then 92, called Stage Center “The best I've been able to do.”
Another modernist theater designed by Johansen, Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, is also in danger of being demolished to make way for a new upscale housing development. Completed in 1967, the mostly concrete Baltimore theater was ranked No. 1 on the website Virtualtourist.com's list of top 10 ugliest buildings in 2009.
When David Pettyjohn, executive director for the preservationist group Preservation Oklahoma looks at Stage Center, he sees a piece of the city's landscape with national significance that deserves to be saved for future generations.
“Once you really learn about it and realize why it was designed the way it was — it really is a beautiful piece of art,” Pettyjohn said. “The design is based on a system of circuitry, and you have all of these different blocks.”
Johansen's son, New York architect Christen Johansen, did not respond to requests to talk about the legacy of Stage Center, but he submitted a letter of support to the State Historic Preservation Office earlier this year as part of Preservation Oklahoma's effort to list Stage Center on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It has become an iconic structure that is both an expression of its purpose and functional art,” Christen Johansen said in his letter supporting preserving the Stage Center. “I am sure you are aware how many significant buildings fall out of use due to the cyclical economic and real estate trends and pressures only to be recognized or ‘rediscovered' a generation or so later as unique and fitting structures to be restored, adapted and expanded, becoming vital elements in a the ever changing urban cityscape.”
“If you go inside, the infrastructure has been stripped out, the copper wires have all been stolen — it's clear that animals have been in there frequently,” Williams said.
Are repairs worth it?
After purchasing the theater from the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, Kestrel Investments commissioned the firm Leidos Engineering to evaluate the cost of renovating the property. It would cost more than $10 million to simply rehabilitate the existing theater building, according to Leidos' report.
It would take an additional $10 million to $20 million to improve the building further, transforming the building into a “successful theater operation” or some other use, Kestrel says in its application to the city to demolish the building.
“Stage Center is not economically viable,” the developer wrote in the demolition application. “In its present condition, Stage Center is a negative influence on neighboring properties and detracts from the quality of life in downtown Oklahoma City.”
While the area around Stage Center has been undergoing a period of revitalization over the past several years, time has largely stood still at Stage Center since the June 14, 2010, flash flood that took out the building's electrical system.
Just to the west of Stage Center, construction is underway on the new $14-million John W. Rex Elementary School, which was paid for by sales tax money from the MAPS for Kids Program.
Bob Ross, CEO of the Inasmuch Foundation and member of the John W. Rex Elementary board, said that he would rather the new charter school have the headquarters of OGE as a neighbor than a vacant theater building.
“It's an unfortunate thing that the building is architecturally significant. But it's completely obsolete, and I really do think there are some safety concerns too,” Ross said. “The space is not usable, and it's not something we need for the center of our city, particularly next to a school.”
According to the engineer's report submitted with Kestrel Investments' demolition application with the city, the theater building was further damaged by another flood in May.
Copies of color photographs of the damage submitted with the report show extensive mold growing inside the building, green algae growing in ponds on the theater's flat roof, extensive water leaks inside the theater areas and box office and a backed-up toilet caked in mud in the basement.
Although there are broken windows, leaks and other problems, the building is still very much a viable property that could be brought back to life with the help of historic preservation tax credits, Montgomery said.
“What is needed is more time,” Christen Johansen said in his letter to the State Historic Preservation Office. “Even established institutions and universities need five to ten years to plan and fund their renovations and expansions to meet their changing needs. It seems prudent to give the people of Oklahoma City a bit more time to think about this ‘one of a kind' building and the open space that they have at the center of their city and its unique place in world architectural history.”
It's reached the end of its useful life. We're excited to be building something that will be an active, useful space that everyone in Oklahoma City can enjoy.”
President of Kestrel Investments