A coalition of architects and preservationists say they will not seek to appeal a decision by the Downtown Design Review Committee to allow the demolition of Stage Center to make way for a new OGE Energy Corp. headquarters.
A 3-2 vote by the committee on Thursday had spectators on edge as to the last unknown vote, Gigi Faulkner. She said she was troubled that the design committee did not have a firm idea as to what might be developed at the site.
But she also quoted Stage Center's architect John Johansen from an interview he gave to The Oklahoman during his last visit to the landmark in 2008 — two years before the theater was devastated by severe flooding.
“John Johansen himself said proof of a building is its use and its occupants,” Faulkner said, adding proponents of demolition had made the case that the abandoned theater was no longer feasible for nonprofit performing arts groups.
Chuck Ainsworth and Dick Tanenbaum joined Faulkner in voting for demolition, while Ike Akinwande and Connie Scothorn voted against demolition.
After the vote, Melissa Hunt, executive director of the American Institute of Architects, Central Oklahoma Chapter, said her group stood by its position that the theater is an internationally important structure that shouldn't be torn down.
“AIA Central Oklahoma is disappointed with the outcome of the vote and feels this action will result in an irreplaceable loss to the architectural community and the city at large. However, we as an organization do not intend to appeal the decision.”
Rainey Williams Jr., president of Kestral Investments, is seeking to clear the site at 400 W Sheridan Ave. to build a 14- to 16-story office building, a garage and solicit a developer to build a second building of about a dozen stories for either a hotel or housing.
Preservationists argued the building is internationally recognized and historic, while opponents argued the building has never been functional and drained financial resources of various nonprofit tenants since it opened in 1970.
Stage Center is the only building in Oklahoma City to win an international Gold Circle award from the American Institute of Architects and is the only city building featured in textbooks around the world.
Originally opened in 1970 as Mummers Theater, the landmark was designed by Johanson, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and a member of the legendary “Harvard Five” (which also included Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes).
Both sides of the demolition debate presented passionate arguments during the hourlong debate. Leslie Batchelor, an attorney whose firm frequently works with the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, argued buildings like Stage Center are critical to making the city a place that attracts outside talent.
“We live in a global economy where our city is competing with cities all over the world where people and talent can go anywhere,” Batchelor said. “Architecturally and significant buildings enhance property values and generate economic returns. The best way to generate economic growth for Oklahoma City in the long run is to preserve Stage Center.”
David Box, attorney for Williams, argued Stage Center is doomed to remain empty and blighted if it is not torn down. He cited a series of studies written over the past decade showing the theater was not functional and upgrades would cost anywhere from $10 million to $30 million.
“This building as it currently sits is arresting development downtown,” Box said. “It is arresting development on a key property.”
Peter Dolese, director of the Arts Council of Oklahoma City, said his agency was the last nonprofit owner and operator of the theater. He reminded the committee the theater had gone through a series of nonprofit performing arts groups that met their demise as tenants.
“As a user of the building, Stage Center was problematic,” Dolese said. “That is an understatement. From day one the cost of using that building almost buried every user that ever used the building.”
Dolese said both Shakespeare in the Park and Carpenter Square Theatre lost extensive sets, costumes and records during the June 2010 flooding (the Central Oklahoma AIA, which fought to save the theater, itself lost records and furnishings during flooding years earlier).
Barrett Williamson, chairman of Preservation Oklahoma, presented the committee with a petition pleading for the theater to be saved; signatures totaled almost 1,000 and included signers from 35 states and eight countries.
“This is about the future of historic preservation in Oklahoma City,” Williamson told the committee. “You will be deciding the fate of one of the most historic buildings of the 20th Century.”
Ainsworth and Tanenbaum said they sympathized with the protesters and personally wished the building could be saved.
“I agree it's recognized not just here but around the world,” Tanenbaum said. “The problem I see is if you listen to Peter (Dolese) and others is this isn't very functional. I think it would be very difficult to repurpose this facility. For years there have been various champions who have carried the flag to save this structure, and they have all fallen by the wayside.”
After the vote, Williams said demolition will start soon, and construction likely will start in 2015.
“I look forward to moving with our plans and doing what was promised, building a world class corporate headquarters,” he said. “The building had an interesting place in history. Unfortunately it's been many, many years it's been abandoned, and it will take a lot of money to bring it back. That money is not available.”