With hundreds of supporters signed up in just one month, organizers of an effort to convert Stage Center into a children's museum say they're set to submit their proposal to the property's owner, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
The theater, 400 W California, is internationally recognized architecture and is featured in architectural textbooks.
The theater, which previously closed for several years in the late 1980s, may be facing its closest brush yet with a wrecking ball. The theater's survival may hinge on whether organizers of the proposed children's museum can attract $30 million in funding and gain additional time from the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
The building has been closed since floodwaters in June 2010 devastated the theater. Arts agencies permanently relocated, the building was stripped by copper thieves, and building ownership reverted last year from the Arts Council of Oklahoma City to the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. The foundation agreed to allow the Central Oklahoma Chapter of the American Institute of Architects to issue a request for proposals and that deadline is on Wednesday.
Farooq Karim, an architect with Rees Associates, said the presentation will include engineering studies and renderings that show how the theater can be converted into a children's museum, cafe, and how recurring flooding problems can be eliminated by removing a loading dock at the basement level.
“Right now, everything is pretty conceptual,” Karim said. “The idea is that we change as little of the building form as possible. There might be a surface that is metal that might stay metal, colored exteriors will stay colored. If something is orange and get's repainted, it would only get an updated shade of orange.”
Modifications, Karim added, will include concrete exteriors that will be used as a backdrop for large pieces of children's art. A large banner, he said, would be added.
“Nothing will be permanently changed,” Karim said.
Karim, along with co-organizer Tracey Zeeck, said they are working with John Johnansen.
Stage Center's history began more than 40 years ago as Mummers Theater, which was a popular theatrical company in the 1960s that was outgrowing the warehouse it called home. With downtown undergoing a complete makeover led by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, the theater sought out a similar talent to come up with a design that would be just as eye-catching as the Myriad Gardens.
A $1.7 million grant from the Ford Foundation in 1963 made just such a hiring possible for the theater. Johansen had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and was one of the “Harvard Five” — five Harvard-educated architects who had led the modernist movement by creating showcases for their work in New Canaan, Conn.
The children's museum proposal will move forward with support from Julie Smith, assistant director of the Oklahoma Autism Network, and Martha Ferretti, chair of physical therapy at the Lee Mitchener Tolbert Center for Developmental Disabilities at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
The pair wrote they see the museum as a chance to provide a place where children of all abilities can explore their talents and interests, build on their strengths and increase their skills and knowledge.
“Plans for re-purposing the Stage Center into a children's museum provides a much-needed resource for the Oklahoma City community,” Ferretti and Smith wrote. “It is an amazing opportunity to make a difference in the lives of families and their children of all abilities.”
Zeeck said the project has drawn support from hundreds via online campaigns, and more than 500 people showed up for a rally staged Sunday at the Myriad Gardens.
Zeeck said the proposal to be submitted Wednesday will likely not meet one key requirement of the request for proposals — evidence of financing. The request was advertised in December and Zeeck and Karim did not begin work until earlier this month. Zeeck said she has been approached by a family foundation and a second potential donor about financially supporting the project, but the group did not have a plan to present the donors until Sunday.
“If we don't find a funder with a hook by Wednesday, well, anything is possible,” Zeeck said. “But if not, we hope we can get extra time to raise funds before anything happens to the building. People are recharged; they want to know what can be done. What can make this happen?”
Nancy Anthony, director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, said she is unable to comment on the substance of any proposals until after they are submitted.
“The deadline is 4 p.m. Wednesday, and we'll look at what we get at that time,” Anthony said. “To some extent we've extended it once, from Dec. 31 to Feb. 29. The issue is the financing, more so than anything else. Everything has failed there, not because they weren't good ideas, but because they couldn't work out the issues with the building.”
Even with possible solutions to the building's challenges with flooding and energy costs, Anthony said the request for proposals requires that respondents come with financing.
“The financing is a big deal,” Anthony said. “If they don't have it, we have to look at that.”
A children's museum provides youth with opportunities to learn through open-ended play with no expected outcomes. A typical children's museum includes exhibits that range from small-scale towns that encourage pretend play and exploration, climbing towers, elaborate “mousetrap” interactive displays, giant exploratory sculptures, art rooms and whimsical forests. Children's Museums often also provide separate areas for babies, toddlers and older kids, as well as opportunities for children with developmental delay.