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Lost Treasures: Many Oklahoma City buildings have fallen for renewal

Have no doubt that Oklahoma City has destroyed some unquestionably beautiful buildings.
Oklahoman Published: February 22, 2014

For local preservationists, the upcoming Board of Adjustment hearing on the fate of downtown’s Stage Center rivals the moment that city leaders decided 40 years ago that the Criterion Theater had to go to make way for Century Center Mall.

If Preservation Oklahoma is successful in its appeal March 6 to stop demolition of Stage Center, then the developer. Rainey Williams Jr., likely will take the matter to district court as he continue to pursue construction of a new OGE Energy Corp. headquarters at 400 W Sheridan Ave.

If the appeal loses, sources are uncertain whether Preservation Oklahoma will appeal in court, or whether they can establish sufficient standing with a judge to make such an appeal.

The story of the Criterion Theater is a much clearer, more damning indictment against short-sighted urban planning. The theater was still a viable venue, having drawn lines for first-run movies as late as 1968. The building was torn down in 1973 to make way for a Century Center Mall that was never a viable operation.

Stage Center, meanwhile, has long been argued by even its arts patrons as a challenging venue in terms of operating and maintenance costs. The place was devastated by floods in 2010. The community always has been divided as to whether it was an architecturally stunning building (as deemed by the international architecture community) or simply an ugly building with too much of its guts (intentionally) exposed to the public.

Have no doubt that Oklahoma City has destroyed some unquestionably beautiful buildings. Here’s my list of the most stunning buildings we destroyed:

Colcord Mansion

Charles Colcord was an early day lawman in Oklahoma City, an oilman and developer. And while his beautiful former office building built in 1910 survives today as the Colcord Hotel, the grand mansion he built at 421 NW 13 didn’t fare as well.

The late Mary Jo Nelson, who at The Oklahoman pioneered the very writing and reporting I do today, provided a history of this loss back in 1990. She noted that the Colcord Mansion was the final and most devastating hit suffered by Heritage Hills before the neighborhood north of downtown organized and fought back.

Slow commercial encroachment began as early as 1929 as businesses found property cheaper and more available in residential locations. Before long, Heritage Hills was lined with several physician’s and dentist’s offices, a rest home, a flower shop, doctors’ office buildings, a pharmacy, a women’s club headquarters, a chiropractor and an insurance company. The city would not fight the intrusion, so the residents did.

Four residents, Martin Cummings, Dr. O. Alton Watson, Edgar VanCleef and Kenneth Draper, raised a war chest for legal action, filed lawsuits and won, often before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. A large factor in their success was a restriction against businesses and commerce that was decreed by the early developers.

Then, in the 1960s, the skirmishes evolved to all-out warfare that would continue for nearly two decades. Businesses and hospitals began buying up property for expansion. Residents lost a big battle when the majestic Colcord Mansion at NW 13 was destroyed to make way for a rather forgettable headquarters for Standard Life Insurance.

But Nelson noted the homeowners and preservationists won the war, helped in part by George Shirk’s appointment as mayor of Oklahoma City. A prosperous lawyer and businessman, Shirk was dedicated to progress, but he also was a devout historian committed to cherishing and learning from the past. Shirk created the city’s first historic preservation commission and directed the municipal staff toward preservation. Four of his first nine appointees were from Heritage Hills.

The neighborhood formed its own charitable corporation, Historic Preservation Inc., to carry on its effort. On Feb. 11, 1969, the city council adopted historic preservation zoning laws, giving a historic neighborhood’s residents the right to approve or disapprove changes to the exterior of a house. Those laws continue today.

The Mercantile Building

The Mercantile Building, 30 N Hudson Avenue, was designed by architect Andrew Solomon Layton. It was built as the Levy Building and later renamed the Mercantile Building. It was built by the original owners, brothers Sam and Leon Levy, who constructed the first five stories in 1910. In 1926, they added three more floors. The detailing, captured in a photo essay authored by Mary Jo Nelson in the mid-1970s, was ornate and rivaled only by First National Center.

The building was destroyed on February 29, 1976, by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority to make way for a Galleria shopping mall as called for as part of the Pei Plan authored by I.M. Pei. The shopping mall was never built, and the site remained a parking lot for 35 years until it became the site of Devon Energy Center.

The Hales Building

The Hales building, 201 W Main, originally was built by Oklahoma City Banker E.H. Cooke for his State Bank, which later morphed into First National Bank. W.T. Hales purchased half of the the building in 1915 and bought the last half in 1928. The Hales Building was directly north of the Katz Drug Store, famous for Clara Luper’s sit-in on August 19, 1958. Mauran & Russell of St. Louis were architects for the Hales building, while the Selden Breck Construction Co of St. Louis was the contractor.

The building was faced with Bedford Stone from Indiana and had imposing street facades. Bedford stone is a light colored, fine grained limestone that is very uniform and well suited to large architectural projects. It was used in the state capitols of Indiana, Georgia and Illinois as well as hundreds of other signature buildings, both public and private. The finish throughout the building was quartersawn white oak. The floors were of Tennessee marble with a wainscot of Italian marble. The building was one of the last historic structures torn down by Urban Renewal after a long legal fight was waged to save it.

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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