For more than 20 years, the decades-old Texaco at 2425 N Walker has stood as a reminder of just how far the UpTown 23rd community had declined since its heyday as one of the city's retail corridors.
The strip was home to the neon-lit Tower Theater, a TG&Y store, a Humpty Dumpty grocery, a Veazey Drug Store, Streets Department Store, jewelry, clothing and gift shops, florists and restaurants.
And in the midst of it was Elmer's Texaco — a community gathering spot that for 33 years attracted customers from historic neighborhoods stretching from Heritage Hills to the south and Crown Heights to the north.
In later years, whenever Sharon Gentry and her sister Paula Black drove past the boarded-up Texaco proudly run by their late father, Elmer Gentry, they mourned the demise of UpTown.
“Back then, in those days, that was a really nice area of town,” Sharon Gentry recalled in a recent interview with The Oklahoman.
“It only had two gas pumps,” Gentry said. “It was a working garage. … Dad did brake jobs, sold tires, had a lube rack. The little old ladies would call him, and he would help them back out their big cars from their homes, he would put chains on their cars when it snowed. There were people in the neighborhood he would take care of.”
That sense of community along NW 23 began to disappear a few years after Gentry sold the station in the late 1970s. The Humpty Dumpty across the street from the Texaco was destroyed by fire, and even now the foundation is all that remains on the lot.
The gas station itself, last used as a car wash, was boarded up not long after a man was shot there in 1992. Three years later, the station made the first of multiple appearances on the city's dilapidated list.
A revival of UpTown first attempted in the 1990s is finally taking root, however, and the old Texaco is the latest property being targeted for redevelopment.
Pump Bar project
Ian McDermid, son of prominent architect Anthony McDermid, is hoping to gain permission from the city's Historic Preservation Commission and Urban Design Committee to bring the old gas station back to life as the Pump Bar.
Working with Anthony McDermid's firm, TAP Architecture, Ian McDermid is pursuing a preservation of the old gas station that will restore much of the Texaco's original features, incorporate vintage pickups as part of the seating, and use a mid-20th century Airstream trailer for food operations.
His plan, if approved, will include ample outdoor patio seating that will be kept comfortable through the use of heaters, mister fans and shade provided by new tree plantings.
“There will be food — good food,” McDermid said.
Such plans are welcomed by Greg Seal, who opened his own bar, Grandad's, 317 NW 23, in September citing the success of nearby Cheever's Cafe, Big Truck Tacos and Tucker's.
Seal's bar prohibits smoking. It includes a living room set resembling that of a blue-collar retiree's home, and strictly old-school country music, much of it live.
“We thought it was a pretty good risk — we got a good vibe,” Seal said. “We're not pioneers; you already had places like Cheever's and Big Truck Tacos. But still, there was a perception — it's dangerous out here. So we had to change that perception.”
Seal discovered the same pent-up demand for venues along NW 23 that boosted fortunes for Big Truck Tacos and Tucker's after Cheever's pioneered the area in 1998.
“We've done well,” Seal said.” It's funny to look back at my business plan and projections. We thought we'd run 30 to 40 people a night, and we're closing in on 10 times that.”
Meeting for the first time this week at Grandad's, Seal and McDermid shared their visions for UpTown and could have fooled a casual observer into thinking they were longtime friends.
“UpTown could become our South Congress Avenue in Austin,” Seal said, with McDermid echoing his sentiments. “It can be where there is something going all day: breakfast diners in the morning, restaurants, shopping and coffee shops in the afternoon, bars in the evening. A few more bars won't be competition — it will make this a destination.”
The effort to revive NW 23 between Broadway and Classen Boulevard dates to the early 1990s. City Planning Director Russell Claus recalls how he was considered for the task of overseeing development of a plan for UpTown when he applied for his first job with the city.
He also recalls that back then, Michael Smith, owner of an interior design shop where Grandad's now is located, was a lonely voice in calling on the city to help bring back life to UpTown.
“It was certainly rougher than it was now,” Claus said. “There wasn't a whole lot viable along NW 23 at all. Michael Smith's shop was the highlight between Broadway and Classen.”
A $1.9 million streetscape of the strip in 1998 was one of the city's first such street reconstruction projects where planners worked with engineers to create designs that sought to use landscaping, stylized light poles and other amenities to create a sense of place.
Claus said the streetscape was a worthy attempt but alone was not enough to reassemble the community recalled by Sharon Gentry.
“It was certainly reflective of that parallel decline we saw elsewhere of neighborhoods and commercial corridors,” Claus said. “If one went down, the other couldn't stay stable. That's why the city struggled so long to put them back together. Once they both go down, it's very hard to put them back together.”
Heritage Hills, Paseo, Edgemere and other surrounding historic neighborhoods were either re-established or well on their way to regaining stability from past struggles as the first signs of commercial activity began to emerge with Cheever's at 2409 N Hudson Ave. in 1998, followed by the opening of Big Truck Tacos, 530 NW 23, in 2009 and Tucker's, 324 NW 23, in 2011.
Claus sees two other less-heralded events as triggering the latest wave of interest in UpTown.
The 23rd Street Courts along the 700 block of NW 23 was simply a worn-out stretch of early-day bungalow-style homes that had seen a series of commercial tenants come and go over the prior quarter-century.
Mike Tharasena began buying up the homes in 2006, and armed with a master plan drawn up by architect Brian Fitzsimmons, he saw the bungalows turned into a hip commercial plaza consisting of a cupcake shop, salon, gift shop, barbecue restaurant and offices. The shops, most notably Cuppies and Joe, routinely attract a younger mix of college students and families.
That demographic helped make Big Truck Tacos and Tucker's success stories. And that led to the next part of the area's transformation.
“The surrounding neighborhoods have gotten younger, more hipster, and more interested in what the older commercial neighborhoods can offer,” Claus said. “The 16th Street Plaza District (NW 16 between Classen Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue) has led the way and has set the standard on how this can be done. It shows you can expand the model, and that's happening along NW 23.”
The revival of UpTown is picking up speed:
In 2012, an aging two-story office building just west of Big Truck Tacos was bought by Ben Sellers. Office space on the first floor was gutted, an outdoor patio was built, and the property is now home to Orange Leaf Yogurt and Pizza 23.
Chris Lower and Kathryn Mathis, co-owners of Big Truck Tacos, are set to open Back Door Barbeque this spring at 315 NW 23.
Boards have been removed from the windows and doors of a former KFC at 211 NW 23, and the building is being renovated into a Basil Mediterranean Cafe by the owners of Zorba's in northwest Oklahoma City.
The long-vacant former home of Tull Overhead Door, 3110 N Walker Ave., is being renovated to house the offices of Good Egg Dining.
Jonathan Russell, who owns the Texaco set to become home to Pump Bar, sees his upcoming redevelopment of the Hotel/Motel Furniture Liquidators building into an upscale shopping center, The Rise, as the next big step forward for UpTown.
“The Rise may be the tipping point for the whole area,” Russell said.
Russell said he hopes to begin development of The Rise next month.
“We have restaurants set to go in, and we also have some softgoods stores, which we're very excited about — that's difficult to get,” Russell said. “What we're really excited about is we have uses other than restaurants and bars. They're great — but the area is getting saturated with that and we need to add more to the mix.”
Such activity leaves the Tower Theater, 425 NW 23, and the newly dormant Gold Dome, 1112 NW 23, as the two largest properties with uncertain fates. Both are seen as landmarks along the strip, but successful redevelopment of the buildings has eluded their owners.
The Gold Dome shut down three months ago after it was purchased at a bank auction by David Box, owner of the Greens Golf and Country Club in northwest Oklahoma City. He attempted to file for a demolition permit for the former bank but has since put that effort on hold and is in talks with community leaders and real estate professionals on how to redevelop and save the building.
Marty Dillon, whose family owns Party Galaxy, came in with plans to turn the Tower Theater into an event center surrounded by shops and restaurants when he bought the building in 2006. Those plans stalled as he struggled to obtain financing, and he is in talks with real estate professionals hoping to move the project forward.
Russell believes that as his project comes on line and NW 23 continues its comeback, better times are ahead for the entire strip — including landmarks such as the Tower Theater.
“Everyone,” Russell said, “is seeing the vision.”