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Is it the last curtain call for Stage Center in Oklahoma City?

The Downtown Design Review Committee is set 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.
by Brianna Bailey Modified: December 29, 2013 at 12:00 pm •  Published: December 29, 2013
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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.”

Notorious design

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.

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by Brianna Bailey
Business Writer
Brianna Bailey has lived in Idaho, Germany and Southern California, but Oklahoma is her adopted home. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Univerisity of Oklahoma and has worked at several newspapers in Oklahoma and Southern...
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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.”

Rainey Williams,
President of Kestrel Investments

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