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Saying Goodbye to the Film Exchange Building - and the Story You've Not Been Told

by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: July 25, 2013 at 11:00 am •  Published: July 24, 2013

This is the film exchange building now, as photographed by frequent OKC Central contributor Will Hider:

The Film Exchange building in its glory days:

(courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society)

So much is going on right now that it might be easy for the city to slip in the demolition of a building that if submitted to a design review committee the destruction would not get approved.

ONE CORRECTION: I am told this area is under the purview of the Downtown Design Review Committee. That means the fate of the original Film Exchange Building at SW 5 and Robinson Avenue is far from settled.

At today’s MAPS 3 park subcommittee, members were told by city staff that the building needs to come down for the future Core to Shore Park. They were told the building can’t be rehabilitated for office or residential use. MAPS 3 program manager David Todd explained the building also would have difficulty with parking.

Anthony McDermid, an architect on the committee, then commented he didn’t think the buildings were structurally sound. McDermid was the architect on the current City Rescue Mission, which was located in the original Film Exchange Building.

I’ve been led to believe this was a key moment for the subcommittee, which voted to recommend razing the building.

They were not fully informed.

The committee was not told how Asset Group, a disaster recovery firm, had bought the property a few years ago and planned to renovate the Film Exchange building into its offices.  I know this because executives with the firm approached me at that time and told me that their effort to obtain a building permit had been refused by the city. They offered to adapt their plan to the park in a way that would be complimentary (this is what I was told). They were again refused. The city wanted the property, and all plans showed it was to be razed.

Have no doubt, Mary Margaret Jones, project architect with Hargreaves Associates, wants the building razed as well. And when the Core to Shore plan was drawn up (a plan that Anthony McDermid was employed on), it too called for the Film Exchange building to be razed.

At no point have I observed an honest effort or discussion on whether the Film Exchange building merited preservation.

So here are some questions to ponder in what will likely be the final weeks left before the building is razed:

Did the city do an HONEST study on whether the building is salvageable? Did the city give the committee a chance to consider how the building might be incorporated into the park? Did consultants consider the downtown of clearing so much property around the park that there will be a feeling the area is desolate and unwelcoming? Is that a risk?

Did Mary Margaret Jones do what so many consultants do, which is to come in with their vision, their idea, and refuse to consider other possibilities?

The fight on this building may very well be left to just one guy, Bradley Wynn, who knows a lot about the history of the city’s Film Exchange community and industry. He’s not a wealthy guy, he isn’t a powerhouse influence peddler, he’s just a regular guy who is passionate about this part of the city’s history.

What follows is Wynn’s pitch for why this building should be saved.

Bradley Wynn at a signing for his book on the history of Film Row.
Bradley Wynn at a signing for his book on the history of Film Row.

Structural issues with the Film Exchange? HARDLY. It may look like crap but will take a force to demolish. The floors are VERY thick, along with its walls. That building could easily be re-purposed, as the original owners intended but were denied by the city way back when for Core to Shore. Ridiculous. Here is a repost of what I entioned earlier. You can also see more about it on our FBook page under Oklahoma City Film Exchange.

RE The Film Exchange Building at 5th/Robinson – first the history, quoted from my book Oklahoma City Film Row:

As the popularity of filmmaking across the nation grew, so too did the need for venues and distribution of movies being made. By 1910, over one hundred Film Exchange distributors were operating in the United States. Exchanges were usually located near a rail head and would negotiate with film studios for the rights to a completed film production, and then distribute the product to nickelodeon venues. By 1928, nearly thirty exchanges were operating throughout Oklahoma City, starting with the Oklahoma Film Exchange Company in 1907, at 221 W. California Avenue, the year of statehood.

In 1920, the Vitagraph Film Company constructed a Film Exchange building at the corner of Reno and Hudson, which housed the fledgling Fox Film Corporation and American distributor of silent British films, Robertson-Cole. This was followed by another Film Exchange building, constructed at SW 5th and Robinson for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount Laskey, Universal, R.K.O. Pictures, Pathe, Vitagraph, Warner Brothers, and Fox Films.

The building on the corner of SW 5th and Robinson Avenue was the second of three known dedicated film exchange buildings erected in Oklahoma City from 1920 to 1926. The exchanges hosted here included Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Radio Keith Orpheum Distributing (R.K.O Pictures), Pathe Films, Producers Distributing, Fox Films, First National Pictures, Vitagraph Incorporated, and Warner Brothers. Film exchanges vacated the building by 1932 due to larger space needs, amenities, and consolidation of exchange offices along Film Row. The former exchange hosted other businesses that included Western Tire and Equipment Co. In July 1943, the upper floors were converted into housing units for thirteen families as a federal housing project, which included nine four room and four three room apartments. From 1968 to around 1984, the Oklahoma City Rescue Mission provided services from this location with the motto “soup, soap, and salvation.” It remained vacant for many years until acquired by the Asset Group in Oklahoma City in 2009. A citywide revitalization of downtown called Project 180 and Maps 3, at the time of this writing, threatens to demolish the building. (Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.)

That said – when the Asset Group acquired the property, they approached the city for permits to do some serious ($$$) renovation to use the property as their corporate headquarters, where said offices would have brought in millions annually and along with that buku sales tax revenue. The city denied them the permits and told them they would never have them as they wanted the bldg razed for a future core to shore program. What a blow to the agency who wanted to use it and spent a great deal acquiring it.

Now fast forward – I have been in this building and it is a SOLID structure with THICK walls and even THICKER floors. It is already open for rehab and build out and would make awesome upper residential spaces and lower retail/food spaces. EVERY core to shore plan has Robinson still acting as a through street and this building NEVER interferes with any major aspect to a future park. At the most it could always serve a an asset to the area and provide immediate space for what I already mentioned.

Can it be saved – that will be up to how big a fight the people will give it. Should it? Absolutely. It is also one of the last structures from a bygone era when that portion of Robinson was a bustle of activity. If this bldg were destroyed it would break my heart. If it can’t be saved perhaps the lentil could be saved for a place on Film Row today.
Why can’t they keep something old with something new? Why always push to demolish – that portion of Robinson was once a BUSTLING portion of the city that has disappeared piece by piece over the decades. That Film Exchange could represent something lost – it needs to stay.







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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