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Point: ‘An Oklahoma City landmark’


Lee A. Fithian September 28th, 2011

Once again, Stage Center faces extinction. In 1972, the same year it won the Honor Award from The American Institute of Architects and the New York City Museum of Modern Art accepted the building model into its permanent collection, the Mummers Theater (as it was known then) was threatened to be demolished for lack of operating funds.

In 1989, it figured as the counterpoint to the Myriad Gardens, setting the anchor for our burgeoning Arts District, and today it still figures as part of that Arts District in Oklahoma City’s Core to Shore plan. In 1990, its colors were faded, ivy was growing on its concrete walls and it again faced demolition.

Funds were raised to convert dance spaces to multipurpose rooms, loading docks were added to ease the flow of stage set installations, elevators and ramps were added to meet ADA requirements, energy-efficient thermal storage was planned, raw sheet metal walls were softened with drywall and its 1960s color scheme was “updated” to a neutral palette with eclectic lighting. Reborn, Stage Center housed Carpenter Square Theatre, the offices of the Central Oklahoma Chapter of the AIA and served honorably as a performance space and backdrop for a generation.

Adaptive reuse of this OKC landmark can serve multiple programs.


Today, our citizens walk in an era that sees the vulnerability of monuments to modern architecture. Where modern was once iconic, it is now a part of the tableau. Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” likens a “landmark” to that which poses as a distinctive element, rather than being “merely one among an assemblage.” Kevin Lynch in “The Image of the City” reinforces this idea by saying a landmark “involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities.” As such, Stage Center certainly is an Oklahoma City landmark.

As professionals, architects must take into account the economics of the situation. Survey reports peg the rehabilitation of the space at several million dollars. But this is a small fraction of the cost to rebuild a complete performance space with a thrust theater and another rarity, a theater-in-the-round. Master plans show Stage Center’s location to be used for what we already have: a performance venue. The cost to demolish and replace one facility with another is fiscally irresponsible. Furthermore, there are no immediate plans to replace the venue. Demolition would leave a blighted field of weeds in our resurgent downtown.

Those that attended the string of hits by Carpenter Square Theatre know the value of this place. Hundreds of thousands of patrons have found intrinsic value in years of arts festivals, where Stage Center served as a backdrop to strolls along the gardens, artwork and sculptures, and sounds of eclectic musicians, and found shade among her ramps and eccentricities to taste a coveted Strawberries Newport.

John Johansen, the architect, said that he “saw the building as a palimpsest, not a permanent solution but rather one that would someday accommodate additional and changing functions.” There are newer, shinier and more efficient theater and office spaces, but the adaptive reuse of this Oklahoma City landmark can serve multiple programs and support many unwritten performances, thereby setting the stage for our continued development and enlightened experience.

Fithian lives in Norman and is an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture.

 
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