The Paseo District has come a long way since its beginnings as Spanish Village, a shopping hub for the area in the early 1900s.
Most of the buildings have been updated, transforming Paseo Street into a colorful artists' village, filled with galleries, artist lofts, shops, restaurants and music venues.
But one building remains relatively untouched compared to its neighbors; The Plunge, which was Oklahoma's first community pool. The pool, which opened in 1933 as the Spanish Village Plunge, boasted pure, filtered water, a diving board and a large deck for sunning.
It was where John Belt, an attorney and revered community developer, learned to swim. Decades later, Belt would come to own much of the property on Paseo Street, and in 2009, he was finally able to buy The Plunge. He dreamed of reinventing the large building as a multiuse artsy space.
Belt died this year March 10, but his dream of transforming The Plunge will be carried on by Joy Reed Belt, his wife of 35 years.
“He told me before he died not to extend myself trying to do that,” she said. “But that's his only unfinished thing and that's a big dream he had, so I'm going to try to do it.”
Belt died somewhat suddenly. He'd been experiencing back pain but when his wife finally convinced him to go to the emergency room, it was too late. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and pneumonia. Doctors gave him only a few months to live.
“John, what are we going to do?” Joy asked her husband that day at the hospital.
“I was sitting by the bed and he took both my hands and he said, ‘Honey, we're so lucky. We have three months to get you ready.' And he said, ‘You are going to be great at all of this.'”
Immediately, John started dictating to Joy all the details of his properties, his will and his hopes for the future of the district. He seemed in a hurry. Perhaps he knew that the doctor's prognosis of three months would turn out to be three short days.
“It's part of life, and I've done everything I've ever wanted to do,” John Belt told his wife. “I've been reasonably successful at most of it. It's time for me to go.”
“He taught me how to die,” Joy said. “He was cracking jokes till the end.”
Joy Belt plans to commence with renovations of The Plunge — the couple already decided to keep the name.
The vision for the building includes adding artist studios and a cooperative gallery for those artists to show their work. A coffee shop is in the works and the basement of the building, which was once the pool, is a large, open finished space.
After the swim
The pool where Belt learned to swim changed names several times: once to The Jamboree Surf Club and then The Paseo Plunge. But the polio epidemic of the 1950s ended the Plunge — people thought the disease was spread through public pools. The pool closed forever. It was a Spaghetti Factory after that. The basement, where the pool was, was converted into cold storage for Sussy's pizzas.
The once-bustling little shopping district known as Spanish Village dried up with the pool and, over the years, deteriorated, a sad reminder of its vibrant past.
Decades later, in the mid '70s, Belt started buying buildings on Paseo Street, hoping to transform the blighted, unsightly area of town into a thriving district filled with artists and culture once again. He began leasing the spaces to artists at below market value, his wife said. He also started the Paseo Neighborhood Association, the Paseo Arts Association and The Paseo Festival.
An artist is born
Joy Reed Belt didn't feature herself as an artist before the turn of the century. She'd earned her doctorate in business and philosophy and had taught art history and humanities but never created art, so she thought.
It was her husband who saw the artist in her. One day in 1999, John told Joy there was something he wanted to do for her and he'd pay for it.
“I thought he was going to send me to Canyon Ranch or something,” she said, referring to the luxury spa with its most prominent location in Tucson, Ariz. Rather, sensing that his beloved was stressed and without a creative outlet, Belt arranged for art lessons with one of his artist tenants.
When she argued that she wasn't an artist, he said she had the best eye of anyone he'd ever seen. He had been amazed all these years about how she garnished a dinner plate. “It's remarkable,” he said. An artist she became.
Joy Belt this month will celebrate the 10th anniversary of JRB at the Elms, the gallery just outside the Paseo District that she created after her husband's inspirational art lessons.
Street of dreams
It wasn't until 2009 that John Belt was able to buy the iconic Paseo Plunge, which was one of the only structures on Paseo Street that had yet to be updated. The huge building dwarfed the small shops dotting the street, and its shade of dull cement stuck out as an eyesore among the brightly painted galleries, restaurants and shops.
Soon, Belt had roofed the Plunge in Spanish tile and painted it in complementary colors to look like three separate shops, rather than one large building.
The community is invited to a town hall forum to sound off on the state's creative industries at 6 p.m. Sept. 16 at Paseo Plunge, 3010 Paseo. The meeting is being held by Oklahoma Artist Network and the group will offer tours of the ongoing conversion of the historic building into a multiuse space.
The meeting will take place in the basement of The Plunge, exactly where John Belt learned to swim as a boy and where the Belts discreetly announced to their close friends and colleagues John's diagnosis in March.
Before his death, with his trademark good humor, Belt told his wife, “Just think, honey, now you can paint a building any color you want with no discussion.”
Whatever the color of the buildings on Paseo, it's the artists, the camaraderie, the history and the memories made there that Joy Reed Belt cares about. And she's made arrangements that after her death, the buildings will remain an art district forever.
“When I turn every day to come down Paseo Street to my gallery, I see all those colorful buildings and it's like getting a hug every day.”