The difference between the words “shall” and “should” ultimately doomed Stage Center to the wrecking ball Thursday as the Oklahoma City Board of Adjustment denied an appeal by Preservation Oklahoma to prevent the theater from being torn down to make way for a new OGE Energy Corp. headquarters.
Only one member of the five-member board, Janis Powers, voted for the appeal while the other four members — Mike Vorhees, Jeff Austin, Mark Stonecipher and Nick Harroz III — all sided with developer Rainey Williams Jr. in concluding the building is no longer functional or economically viable.
At the end of the hearing, one member of the group who left their microphone on could be heard saying, “That was intense.”
Barrett Williamson, chairman of Preservation Oklahoma, said after the vote that his organization would not file a last appeal in district court and is dropping the fight.
Preservation Oklahoma’s attorney, Bret Davis, argued to the board that the Downtown Design Review Committee, which voted in January to allow the Stage Center demolition, ignored the ordinance guidelines concerning the destruction of significant buildings.
“The Downtown Design Review Committee guidelines were drafted and have the spirit to protect this very building,” Davis said. “If there was any structure that would fall under the guidelines, it would be this structure.”
Davis reminded the board the ordinance guidelines state that architecturally and historically significant buildings downtown should be retained, refurbished and should remain standing.
Davis also noted an assistant city planner advised the Downtown Design Review Committee to rule against demolition, saying Williams’ demolition application conflicted with the ordinance guidelines.
David Box, attorney for Williams, countered that the word “should” meant the guidance provided by the ordinance is a recommendation, not a requirement, and that it gave Downtown Design Review Committee members discretion on such decisions.
“When we look at the guidelines, they are just guidelines,” Box said. “It’s a suggestion. It’s a piece of advice. There are no standards.”
Stonecipher was the first to indicate he agreed with Box’s argument, with all but Powers later following suit.
Meanwhile, for the first time in the three-year battle over Stage Center, civic leader James Pickel revealed that Oklahoma Contemporary, formerly known as Arts Center, looked at making Stage Center its new home. Oklahoma Contemporary is a major beneficiary of Chris Keesee, whose Kirkpatrick Family Fund also owned the building and land until selling it last year to Williams. Oklahoma Contemporary bought property at NW 11 and Broadway for its future home.
Pickel said the studies looking at moving Oklahoma Contemporary to Stage Center showed the cost of the project would range between $30 million and $40 million.
“They had the best chance to make this thing work in any form or fashion,” Pickel said. “They couldn’t make this happen.”
Pickel added he was involved in previous efforts to save Stage Center and his construction company, Smith & Pickel, oversaw renovations in 1991. In the years since, he said, advocates of Stage Center were unable to get major corporate endowment for the building or convince city leaders to make it a MAPS project.
“The group of us who have spent 25 years to save this building basically have given up,” Pickel said. “We cannot save this building. This thing has no more life. It’s a dead building.”
Designed by internationally prominent architect John Johansen, Mummers Theatre — as the structure was originally known — opened in 1970. The Brutalist-style structure’s avant-garde design was said to be based on an electrical circuit system and is the only city structure to have won international acclaim.
Preservation Oklahoma Executive Director David Pettyjohn said the organization sought to stop the demolition because members felt the Downtown Design Review Committee violated city ordinances requiring that historic preservation solutions be thoroughly vetted before considering demolition.
“These zoning ordinances were approved by the city council in recognition of the vital nature of historic resources and how they contribute towards the economic vitality of downtown OKC,” Pettyjohn said. “The ordinance signaled the community’s recognition of past mistakes when historic treasures were allowed to be demolished.”