Preservationists and architects were elated last week when city planners released a report urging the Downtown Design Review Committee to reject an application by Rainey Williams Jr. to demolish Stage Center to make way for a new OGE Energy Corp. headquarters.
For those fighting to save the abandoned theater, the prospect of it being torn down is akin to some of the worst offenses of the Urban Renewal era when the city lost beloved landmarks like the Criterion Theater and Baum Building in the name of progress.
Stage Center, they note, is the only building 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 John 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).
Melissa Hunt, director of the Central Oklahoma Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, knows the rebuttal awaiting delivery of a petition signed by hundreds from around world urging the theater be saved — “it doesn't buy a can of paint.”
“Our response to that is we're entitled to our opinion, and if that same mentality was taken before, we wouldn't have the Skirvin hotel. Imagine downtown Oklahoma City without the Skirvin hotel.”
The Skirvin hotel, built in 1911, indeed was abandoned and threatened with demolition throughout the 1990s. A restoration that was led by the city, and required millions in public financing, led to a successful redevelopment in 2006.
That rescue, Hunt notes, didn't take root until the hotel had been empty for more than a decade. By comparison, Stage Center has been abandoned since it was flooded in 2010.
“Maybe a year from now, we'll have the money to save Stage Center,” Hunt said. “I don't know that tearing it down because we don't have money in our hands right now is the answer.”
Hunt acknowledges the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, which controlled the theater until it was sold last year to Williams, did entertain redevelopment offers.
“But it had to involve public use of the building — it couldn't be a private redevelopment,” Hunt said. “There were a lot of strings attached. If it could be done in a different light, maybe that could happen.”
Catherine Montgomery, considered to be the state's leading preservation architect, isn't convinced every possibility has been looked at for bringing the theater back to life.
“We have so little that honors the performance arts,” Montgomery said. “We have the Civic Center, but it's a whole other flavor; it's a big space. This offers more unique and smaller spaces. Where do we have something that is geared toward community theater? That's what this was designed for. We could enhance that, and also provide it for music and continuing education for adults.”
Montgomery also wonders if the OGE Energy Corp. headquarters couldn't be built on the south half of the same block, which is owned by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority. She wants to see the company look at whether it could incorporate the theater as corporate meeting space.
“When someone does a development, they have to spend money,” Montgomery said.
“And on this development, they will be spending millions and millions of dollars, and I think it's more likely for them to spend money on it than someone flying by the seat of their pants.”
Montgomery also argues that the time given by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation for redevelopment proposals was not long enough for ideas to be pitched and considered by regents' boards of area universities.
She also dismisses arguments that Stage Center, allowed to stand as is, would be a nuisance to the area.
“With more dense development to the south and east, that itself will help make it a safer place,” Montgomery said.
“The reason it's not safe now is there is nothing going on there — it's neglected, it is left alone.
“It's like the Skirvin. People were going in there and vandalizing that — it's like any other abandoned building that is vacant and not being used. It's not because the building is bad.”
Committee is short two votes
The Downtown Design Review Committee will be short at least two votes throughout its deliberation of the Stage Center demolition application. Member Stan Carroll recently submitted his resignation and is in Europe pursuing additional education, while chairwoman Betsy Brunsteter is recusing herself because her firm, ADG, completed master site plans for the OGE Energy Corp. headquarters project. The committee will hold a public hearing at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at City Hall, 200 N Walker Ave. The committee's decision can be appealed to the Oklahoma City Board of Adjustment and Oklahoma County District Court.