The Downtown Design Review Committee, an all volunteer city panel that reviews downtown building projects, may face its toughest challenge when they are asked to approve or deny an application to destroy Stage Center.
Rainey Williams, the new owner of the theater, is planning to submit an application later this year to demolish Stage Center and turn the site into a new high-rise tower.
Both the demolition and the tower plans will require approval from the Downtown Design Review Committee, a panel whose members are appointed by the mayor.
“Stage Center currently sits empty, all but abandoned since it was flooded in 2010,” Williams said Friday. “In fact it flooded again on May 31st and had to be pumped. We know the Oklahoma City Community Foundation went through an exhaustive process to find a purchaser who would be interested in redeveloping the State Center. To our knowledge, only two groups were interested in pursuing, and they were unsuccessful in raising the millions of dollars needed.”
The building has outlived its use, Williams said, and removal of Stage Center is the next logical step in making the property usable again.
The Downtown Design Review Committee was created in 2008 and is one of the newest review bodies. That panel endured weeks of bitter debate three years ago when they were asked to approve an application by SandRidge Energy to tear down the 110-year-old former India Temple Building.
That battle ended with a switch in assistant city attorneys staffing the panel and providing advice, and a decision by the mayor not to reappoint a member who voted against the demolition, which was approved.
Paul Ryckbost, a former assistant city planner who oversaw three of the city's review committees, believes the Stage Center application will be the panel's toughest deliberation yet.
“Stage Center is a lot tougher on the architectural side than it was for SandRidge,” Ryckbost said. “With India Temple, it was old, it used to be pretty, but it didn't have the international acclaim like this has. It puts the committee in a sticky situation.”
Ryckbost said the ordinance for the Downtown Design Review Committee simply states that to protect the legacy of the past, buildings should be rehabilitated so that as much of the original fabric as possible can be left intact.
The key word, Ryckbost said, is “should.”
“It doesn't say don't demolish it,” Ryckbost said. “It leaves it up to the committee to decide.”
Ryckbost predicts the debate will draw national attention because Stage Center is such a renown structure, designed by the late John Johansen, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. The building is featured in architectural textbooks.
Those who fought to save Stage Center over the past couple years, meanwhile, were mixed in whether they believe a fight is set to occur over plans to raze Stage Center to make way for a new high rise.
Melissa Hunt, director of the Central Oklahoma Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, won a five-month reprieve last year from the former owner, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, to attract a developer who might rescue Stage Center. That effort did not succeed.
“AIA is deeply disappointed as this is yet another loss of our architectural heritage in Oklahoma City,” Hunt said. “This is not just a local loss but a national one.”
Catherine Montgomery, a preservation architect whose work includes the current renovations of the Osler Building in MidTown and the Calvary Baptist Church in Deep Deuce, disputes that Stage Center is too far gone to save.
“There's flooding and then there's flooding,” Montgomery said. “The city office building where the information technology department was located was flooded to the top of the basement. No one is calling to tear that building down.”
Montgomery said Stage Center, built out of concrete, isn't as big a hurdle to renovate as perceived by the community. She said by adapting the theater into a new high rise, Williams could apply for significant historic tax credits.
Montgomery hopes she can share such ideas with Williams before a demolition permit is filed.
“Most of my clients are ones who thought saving a structure was impossible,” Montgomery said. “We're possibility thinkers, this is what we do.”
Tracey Zeeck attracted the most attention and public support of all the efforts to save Stage Center with her unsuccessful campaign to convert it into a children's museum.
She said she was sad at the new it will be demolished, but not angry.
“I think our group did everything we could,” Zeeck said. “We could not raise enough money to do anything with it. It sounds like the new owner has plans to do something great with it for the community and I hope that that's true.”
Montgomery hinted that the application, however, might face protest both locally and nationally.“There will be people who are disappointed, people who will picket, people who will show up at the Downtown Design Review Committee when demolition is considered,” Montgomery said. “Who knows what kind of fight will actually materialize?”