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Saving What's Left

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Six years have passed since I first suggested a public discussion might be needed about what I saw as a new wave of demolition set to hit downtown. Every building I mentioned in that 2008 column as being in danger has either been destroyed, or after the vote Thursday by the Downtown Design Review Committee, will likely disappear within the next several weeks.

I’m not sure the discussion I envisioned actually ever happened. Sure, there were flare-up debates as most of these buildings were targeted. The city did what it called a comprehensive historic survey, and then, after the SandRidge Commons debate, spent the next four years on a revision to the demolition section of its design review ordinance that is only now being circulated among the design committees for approval, with further approvals needed by the planning commission and city council. The Downtown Design Review Committee, meanwhile, has yet to show where it might see the existing demolition language as being enforceable.

By the time any such change in that language is approved, the number of endangered buildings left will be pretty insignificant. And even City Hall has communicated its interest in preservation by pushing hard for demolition of an almost century-old early Film Exchange Building in Core to Shore that just can not be tolerated by designers in their vision for a new Core to Shore Park. That building is quietly being set up for destruction by the city over the next several weeks.

So what’s left? The original police headquarters, part of the 1937 Civic Center plan, still stands neglected and forgotten. The city never took up Marva Ellard’s redevelopment proposal for the building a couple of years ago. If not for a shortfall in funding, the building really would have been torn down in the late 1990s and it’s purely accidental it’s still standing.

The Luster Mansion and adjoining wood frame store next door at NE 3 and Walnut in Deep Deuce still worry me – but it’s unthinkable these properties would purposely be torn down for any other reason than absolute owner neglect. The same worry exists for the Walcourt at NE 13 and Walnut – a bit outside of downtown and certainly not subject to any of the city’s design review ordinances.

I admit there were times over the past couple of years where I thought – and I shared my thoughts – that the Union Bus Station was safe in this demolition spree. Promises had been made by Nicholas Preftakes and other players that the building would not be torn down. I knew that Keith Paul was trying to lease the building for a Republic Restaurant. But other interests popped up furiously demanding immediate solution. As for the Hotel Black and the Motor Hotel – well, I called it back in 2008. At times sources told me Preftakes was toying with the idea of redeveloping the old Hotel Black as housing or even as a hotel.

Preftakes over the years put on a great show, going so far as to put up “for lease” posters on the buildings. Today I am doubtful that was as much a sincere effort any more than I believed years ago that he was buying these buildings “as an investment.”

And so the story continues. Some great preservation success stories have taken place – the Hotel Marion, the Midtown Renaissance projects throughout Midtown, every building along Automobile Alley, the Rock Island Plow Building and Skinny Slims in Bricktown, the Main Street Arcade and other great gems on Film Row, and of course, Craig Brown’s buildings in Deep Deuce and Steve Mason’s work on Automobile Alley and NW 9th.

And let’s not forget the Skirvin. We have First National Tower still awaiting a savior. I don’t in any way think it is in any danger of being torn down, and I question the reasoning of those who suggest otherwise. But do I worry about ongoing neglect, especially when it comes to the building’s incredible yet long-empty Great Banking Hall?

Absolutely.

So to all those stinging from Thursday’s events – focus your attention on moving forward and doing whatever is possible to bring life back to First National. It is, in my opinion, the most important preservation battle ahead.

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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›

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