The folks over at Gizmodo are out with a list of buildings that many will look at and wonder “what were they thinking?” in tearing them down. And yes, Oklahoma City has quite the list of its own when it comes to “vanished splendor” (with all apologies to the legendary post card book publisher Jim Edwards).
THE 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 Oklahoman Mary Jo Nelson, who 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 one of the final, and most devastating hits suffered by Heritage Hills. Slow commercial encroachment began as early as 1929, as businesses found property cheaper and more available in residential locations. Before long, there were 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.
Nelson wrote 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. Classen and Winans homeowners organized to fight the efforts of a major insurance company. They lost a big battle when the majestic Colcord Mansion on 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 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, was originally built by Oklahoma City Banker E.H. Cooke for his State Bank. E.H. Cooke was an early investor in Oklahoma and operated in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. E.H. Cooke chartered State Bank in 1893 and built the building in 1910 It was named the Hales building when the First National Bank moved into the new First National Tower. W.T. Hales purchased 1/2 of the the building in 1915 and bought the last 1/2 in 1928. He purchased several assets from EH Cooke, including some in California. The Hales Building was north opposite the Katz Drug Store, famous for Clara Luper’s sit-in on August 19, 1958. East of the Hales Building sits the Oil & Gas Building, a dark building of red brick which still stands. Today that is where Quizno’s is across the street from Fedex.
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 oolitic 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 quarter sawn 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.
THE BILTMORE HOTEL
If you lived in Oklahoma City in the late 1970s, you saw or heard stories from family and friends who talked about seeing the demise of the Biltmore Hotel.
From Oklahoma Historical Society:
“Located on the southeast corner of Grand and Harvey, the Biltmore Hotel was conceived and built during the Great Depression by prominent civic leaders, headed by Charles F. Colcord. Designed by architects Hawk and Parr, by the time it was completed in 1932, the Biltmore was thirty-three stories high and was heralded as the state’s tallest building. Financial woes plagued the hotel throughout most of its life and the doors were closed in June 1973. Thousands of citizens turned out to watch as the massive structure was dynamited on October 16, 1977. Many cried openly, knowing that they were witnessing a singular episode of the destruction of historic Oklahoma City.” (Edwards and Ottaway, Vanished Splendor 49)
“The Oklahoma Biltmore was without a doubt one of the finest hotels in the post-oil boom days of Oklahoma City. There were 619 rooms, each offering free radio, circulating ice water, ceiling fans with up-and-down draft, and later, air conditioning. In 1936 the Biltmore was headquarters for 104 conventions, served 284,604 meals, and had 114,171 guests! H.P. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, manager, always said in the advertising, ‘On your next visit to the Oil Capital be sure to register at the Biltmore.’ ‘On October 16, 1977 the Hotel Biltmore was demolished by a team of demolition specialists. Hundreds of low-yield explosives were planted throughout the building so that it would collapse and fall inward into an acceptable area only slightly larger than the hotel’s foundation. The purpose was both to break the materials into smaller pieces that would be easily transported away, and to contain the blast and debris within the area, in order to minimize damage to surrounding structures. The razing was recorded by hundreds of camera buffs.’” (Edwards and Ottaway, Vanished Splendor II 287-288)
“After a $3 million renovation in the mid-1960s [the Biltmore] was renamed the Sheraton-Oklahoma Hotel. I.M. Pei envisioned keeping the hotel, and his sketches and models all showed the tower overlooking the surrounding ‘Tivoli Gardens.’ By 1973, the Sheraton brand was lost, and the Urban Renewal authority agreed with owners the Biltmore had outlived its useful life. The hotel was one of the largest demolitions in the country to date when it was blown up in 1977 to make way for the ‘Myriad Gardens.’” (Lackmeyer and Money 36)
THE YMCA CENTRAL BRANCH
We can’t blame the Urban Renewal Authority on this loss. The building, built and opened in 1952, was damaged by the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The property was sold by the YMCA and the new owners tore it down a couple years later to make way for a surface parking lot. Serious developers believed it could be saved and converted into housing. A few years later, I suspect the building could have been saved.
The Warner was built just at the turn of the century (1905) by one of the city’s oldest civic leaders, Henry Overholser, and was known for years as the ‘Overholser Opera House.’
It was used by many of the most famous stock and opera companies in theatrical history, by bands and symphony orchestras, and other entertainment units.
When purchased by John and Peter Sinopoulo (1916-17), it was turned into a combination vaudeville-movie house and lived again as the ‘Orpheum Theater’ on that famous vaudeville circuit. It was the only theater in Oklahoma City completely equipped with stage, dressing rooms, scenery handling machinery, and other equipment, for legitimate stock companies. Such amenities, and its location across the street from the Myriad Gardens, should have made it an ideal revived performance venue. Instead, it was torn down by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority to make way for a downtown Galleria mall that never materialized. The site remained a parking lot for 30 years before it was developed into what is now Devon Energy Center.
OKLAHOMA COUNTY COURTHOUSE
We were idiots. And yeah, this is where I can say we were idiots from here on out.
Here’s a bit of history from the Oklahoma Historical Society:
Architectural Style: Massive Romanesque (Edwards and Ottaway, Vanished Splendor, inside cover)
Architect: Willam A. Wells and George Burlinghof (Edwards and Ottaway, Vanished Splendor, inside cover)
Destroyed: 1950 (Edwards and Ottaway, Vanished Splendor, inside cover)
“Perhaps no other building symbolized Oklahoma more than the Oklahoma County Courthouse. Construction began on November 4, 1904, and was completed in 1906. It was designed by architects William A. Wells and his partner George Burlinghof in a style designated as Massive Romanesque. No sooner had plans been announced and the plot of land acquired, than a controversy developed between the business interests on Main and Grand. Each street had influential spokesmen and each side wanted the Court House to face on its street. A compromise was finally reached and the building was placed so that it faced west on Dewey between Grand and Main. In reality this meant that few people actually used the front entrance, but opted for the preferred side and back entrances instead. Exterior walls were constructed of Indiana limestone with the interior floors of granite and the walls and stairways of Vermont marble. The city literally outgrew the building and quite soon after it was completed, governing agencies were forced to rent office space in buildings outside of the Courthouse. The County moved in 1938 to a new Court House that was built in the Civic Center complex. The old Court House building was used by the federal government to house a group of wartime agencies during World War II, but a fire in 1944 caused the building to be abandoned and boarded up. Demolition began late in 1950 and was completed the following year. The land was used for a time as a parking lot and later sold to the Holiday Inn Corporation for a downtown motel.” (Edwards and Ottaway, Vanished Splendor, interior cover)
From the Oklahoma Historical Association:
“Built in 1909 and completed by 1910, [the Baum Building] was patterned after the Doges Palace in Venice, Italy. It symbolized the growing economic boom after Oklahoma became a state. However, by the late 1960s, its fate was sealed with urban renewal as it was destroyed. Two of the cupolas have been preserved, one by the State Historical Society, the other by the Oklahoma City/County Historical Society.” (Welge 16)
“The Baum Building, erected in 1910 at the northeast corner of Grand and Robinson, was a striking example of Italian-style architecture. The Doge’s Palace in Venice is said to have provided architects Layton and Smith with the inspiration for its arches, towers, a vaulted ceilings, and marble veneer, all of which combined to make this one of the most beautiful commercial structures in the country. From 1923-1957, the Fidelity National Bank occupied the building. During these years the building carried the bank’s name rather than that of the original owner. The wrecker’s ball ended of existence of the Baum Building in 1973, although some of the decorative stone work has been preserved.” (Edwards and Ottaway, Vanished Splendor 48)
“I.M. Pei wanted to clear the Venetian Style Baum Building in order to straighten Robinson Avenue.” (Lackmeyer and Money 29)
“The Baum Building, patterned after the Doges Palace in Venice, Italy, was an early victim of urban renewal…To businessmen and investors during the early years of the century, functionalism in building design was not enough; their buildings had to be distinctive and unique. The original owners of the Baum building were the most successful in achieving that objective.”
If Penn Station is the national disgrace when it comes to destroyed architectural beauty, the Criterion Theater is Oklahoma City’s Penn Station. The theater boasted a French style lobby and auditorium with an art deco mezzanine, and was operated by Paramount. Built in 1921 at 118 W Main, it originally seated 1,900 but later reduced its size to 1,650. It was destroyed in 1973 by the Urban Renewal Authority to make way for Century Center Mall.
d in 1973.