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Final Stage?


Stage Center needs deep pockets and committed partners to ensure the building a viable future, according to a new renovation study.

C.G. Niebank August 24th, 2011

Stage Center may be regarded as a masterpiece of avant-garde modern architecture, but the building’s age, unusual configuration, dilapidated condition and the lack of a single well-financed tenant appear to have turned it into a Gordian knot for both the building’s owner and the local theater community.

A consortium — the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, the Oklahoma City Cultural Development Council, the Oklahoma Arts Council and Devon Energy — commissioned a study earlier this year to assess Stage Center’s future prospects. The Stage Center site sits in the long shadow of the under-construction Devon tower.

In the 33-page final report obtained by Oklahoma Gazette, Webb Management Services, the New York-based consultants hired to conduct the study, reported it’s unlikely the building could operate successfully with multiple tenants. In the course of Webb’s inquiries, they were also unable to locate any individual or group willing to come forward and shoulder the considerable financial burden created by the building’s dire need of repair and restoration, and ongoing costs of operation.

Webb Management made two recommendations: The Oklahoma City Community Foundation (Stage Center’s owner) could issue a formal request for proposals from the public to locate potential partners, or the OCCF could consider putting Stage Center up for sale, thus “letting the market determine the inherent value of the building and land, and its most appropriate use.”

Click here to download a PDF of the report issued by Webb Management Services.

Nancy Anthony, executive director of the OCCF, said she was satisfied with the amount of effort Webb Management put into the completed report.

“I think (Webb) did a thorough job of trying to contact as many arts organizations as there might have been that realistically could have thought about using Stage Center, or leasing it on either a part-time or full-time basis,” Anthony said. “To the extent that it was a study that looked at the potential for the site as a performing arts facility or to support artistic or cultural activities, I think they exhausted the range of possibilities.”

Anthony noted that Stage Center incurs costs, even as it sits empty.

“The building is a challenge at best,” she said. “It’s a $100,000- $125,000 a year cost if nothing else happens there. It’s not something you can just board up — we’ve had to have security down there. It’s been broken into. Look at it: There are 75 different ways to get into it.”

Architect John M. Johansen designed Stage Center in the 1960s, and it was constructed as a permanent home for Mummers Theater, a local troupe that dated back to 1949.

Johansen said restoration would be simple, since many structural elements were selected from farm equipment catalogs. Supporters have started a “Save the Stage Center” page on Facebook.

Jim Tolbert, chairman emeritus of the Myriad Gardens Foundation and an admitted “35-year fan” of Stage Center, said restoration would have to be undertaken by an individual or group of investors with very deep pockets.

“Just to reopen the building in its current circumstance without the renovations that it requires is a several-million-dollar challenge,” Tolbert said. “It probably should not be undertaken by anybody who’s not prepared to make the effort to renovate it across the board, and that’s a many-more-million-dollar challenge.”

Some members of OKC’s theater community expressed mixed feelings.

“Some people love Stage Center because it’s architecturally recognized and it is an interesting building, and you don’t want it to be about tearing down something that has great value,” said Donald Jordan, Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre’s founding artistic director. “But the flip side is (Stage Center) is not as efficient at serving the needs of our incredibly robust and growing theatrical and arts community.” Jordan steered clear of the word “demolition,” but suggested that OKC’s theater community would be better served by a new multi-theater building.

“If we were to build a three-theater complex in place of Stage Center, that would be state-of-the-art, with a wellbuilt and functioning scene shop that the various rental groups could use, it would serve to meet that really significant need,” he said. “If it was a better space, we would go there; (I think) Carpenter Square would go there; and those are just the theater groups right now that would fill it up. And that doesn’t include (groups) who would rent it as a venue when the theaters are dark.”

Paula Stover, executive director of Lyric Theatre, agreed that a new multispace facility would better serve OKC’s theater companies.

“It would take so much money to get Stage Center right that I think we would do better to spend that money on something new,” Stover said. “I think it has been a money pit since day one. It’s always flooded and because of the floods, it always smelled kind of damp and musty.”

Stover was quick to note that her remarks were her personal opinions, and were not necessarily shared by the Lyric Theatre Board of Directors.

Anthony said casual suggestions have been made to the OCCF about how the Stage Center property might be transformed into a park, a “cultural campus” or a retail development.

“There are lots of people who throw ideas around,” she said, “but there have been no formal proposals or offers.”

Tolbert said that since the Stage Center site is now an asset of the OCCF, it is up to the foundation’s board to decide the future.

“They are a community-focused organization,” he said. “I really want to emphasize that I think they’re going to be very responsible about what they choose to do with that asset.”

Photo by Shannon Cornman

 
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