Barring a completely unforeseen development, Oklahoma City’s decades-long love/hate relationship with Stage Center will come to an end later this year when it is torn down to make way for a new OGE Energy Corp. headquarters.
The late John Johansen, who designed the building for its original tenant, Mummers Theater, was a genius who along with Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes are referred to as the “Harvard Five.”
I suspect Johansen and Stage Center will be featured in architectural textbooks indefinitely. So why are so many people in Oklahoma City either ambivalent or cheering the pending destruction of what Johansen considered his finest work?
I admit I grew up in Oklahoma City not understanding Stage Center.
It took a meeting with Johansen himself, back in 2008, to fully appreciate Stage Center and understand what it represents for not just the architectural world, but also for Oklahoma City.
Brutalism invokes response
History is important in understanding the theater itself, and how the reaction between the international architecture community and locals was so divergent.
Johansen and his fellow “Harvard Five” were greatly influenced by Walter Gropius, a leader in the Bauhaus movement and head of the architecture program at Harvard. If one were to provide a simplistic term for the Bauhaus movement, it might be mid-20th century modernism. Locally, the best example of this broader architectural style might have been the 1952 downtown YMCA, which was razed in 1998 after it was extensively damaged by the bombing.
A spinoff of that modernism was brutalism, which puts a heavy emphasis on the use of concrete and repeated use of modular elements in the design. The style flourished in the 1950s through the 1970s, and also was often identified with new buildings built in the Soviet Union during that same era.
Such association does not make for long-lasting popularity.
When Johansen was first hired in 1964 to design a downtown home for the still thriving Mummers Theater, the only images shown to the public were conceptual renderings provided by I.M. Pei, another big name in architecture who assembled a master plan for the Urban Renewal rebuilding of the urban core.
Mummers Theater had started in 1949 at NE 23 and Eastern in an old circus tent with $8 in assets. Launched and led by Mack Scism, Mummers thrived throughout the 1950s and 1960s and was unique in that it was a financially successful community theater without any subsidy or volunteer organization.
It was that success that attracted the attention of the Ford Foundation, which pledged an initial $1 million for the new theater, for which Johansen was chosen through a design competition.
When a model of Mummers was unveiled in March 1968, locals were taken aback. Johansen explained his design was inspired by the mixing of modernist and electrical circuitry design. In one interview he mused that it might have struck some as chaotic, but chaos was something that gave him even more pride in the work.
Johansen was challenging conventionality. He was breaking the rules and forcing the design world to rethink the possible. It is men like Johansen who inspire later visionaries like Steve Jobs. They force the world to evolve — even when its not ready to embrace such change.
Oklahoma City, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was not into chaos and residents quickly soured on the chaos they saw as beloved old buildings fell to make way for Pei’s vision of a 21st century downtown. Oklahoma City was quickly coming to hate everything associated with chaos and change.
In researching the history of the theater, I have found no evidence that Johansen went to great effort to explain his work to Oklahoma City locals or to show how such change can transform a community. The story has been told frequently that locals tried to challenge the design, only to be told by the Ford Foundation that their support was tied to being true to Johansen’s work.
Longtime Chamber executive Stanley Draper even ordered up extensive landscaping to shield the public’s view of the new theater. In 1971, soon after the theater was opened, Scism was struggling to win over a skeptical public while also trying to reverse a massive budget shortfall.
“Once we get the scoffers inside, their opinion changes,” Scism said in a January 1971 interview. “It certainly is better than looking like a post office or funeral parlor. We wanted a theater that didn’t have to fight its environment in order to get a play on, and we didn’t worry about the patina. Like, who worries about Barbara Streisand’s nose?”
A year later, Mummer’s Theater collapsed. A move to a more expensive Equity union contract with performers likely contributed to the theater’s downfall. The Ford Foundation provided Mummers with $500,000 for operations in the new theater, but it was ultimately diverted to covering a construction funding shortfall.
The theater opened with no institutional support — a failure that would doom any community theatrical group. But locals were left believing it was Johansen’s design that ultimately killed the once thriving Mummers.
If there was ever a heyday in the history of Mummers Theater, it was in the mid- to late-1970s when it was redubbed Oklahoma Theater Center and rescued by local philanthropist John Kirkpatrick. The theater went dark again in the 1980s, was renovated and reopened yet again, but clearly was in trouble even before it was devastated by floods in June 2010.
Sculpture or theater?
My visit with Johansen changed my mind about Stage Center. But his visit was too little, too late to reverse the damage. I am only one person, but after talking to numerous leaders in the nonprofits arts community, architects and preservationists, my own conclusion is that either by design or oversight, Stage Center was created more as a sculpture, a statement on how to transform our understanding of architecture, and less about how to create a permanent, successful home for performing artists that would forever be loved by its audiences.
I suspect that future generations will be as harsh in its judgment of current leadership as we now are of those who tore down iconic landmarks like the Criterion Theater in the 1970s.
The client never fell in love with Johansen’s work in Oklahoma City. Johansen knew this, and it didn’t seem to cause him any trouble. That client, and the client’s children, are now showing similar disinterest in ensuring his work outlives the creator himself.
The client and the creator never agreed on the creation, and both are to blame for its pending loss.