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‘Moldy Manor’ no more


An Art Deco fourplex gets a new owner after decades of neglect.

Kelley Chambers October 19th, 2011

A Crown Heights property that languished for years — and was referred to by neighbors as the “Moldy Manor” — stands as a reminder that even in a historic preservation district there can always be a black sheep. But it’s not as if the Art Deco fourplex on the southwest corner of Olie Avenue and N.W. 37th Street was an ugly duckling; it was quite the opposite in its day, although it sat rotting for decades.

Things changed in May when Norman builder Brent Swift purchased the property along with a garage and duplex on the site for $350,000. The story of the building’s decline dates back to at least the 1960s. In 1974, former owner Gene von Stein brought plans to the Crown Heights-Edgemere Heights Homeowners Association and the city to rezone the neighborhood from single family to a multifamily, to build what he described as luxury residences. The homeowners association vehemently opposed the plan. With ongoing opposition, the luxury residences never materialized. After that point, the 1936 fourplex continued its descent that nearly led to a date with the wrecking ball.

One of the reasons for the opposition cited in a neighborhood newsletter from 1974 was that von Stein had owned the property since 1963 and had failed to maintain an “acceptable condition.” Other reasons were that “spot zoning” for greater density “will result in the area’s deterioration,” and the proposed design with four garage doors facing the street “adds little to the neighborhood.”

Although frustrated for years with von Stein and the property, neighbors said they tried to work with him, but got nowhere.

Writing on the wall
John Joyce, who lives just down the block from the fourplex on N.W. 37th Street, is chairman of the neighborhood’s preservation review committee. Joyce said the property has been an eyesore for years, but since the lawn was maintained and it was not an obvious safety hazard, the city could not intervene.

“From the outside, the building looked OK,” he said. “It was difficult to come up with a violation.”

Charles Locke, with the city’s code enforcement office, said his office intervened when it received a complaint that the garage next to the building was about to cave in. He said the city does not begin dilapidated structures processing simply for properties being abandoned, even for long periods of time, if maintained to a minimal standard.

“For us to step in, it has to be something like a fire, or the property has deteriorated to a point we believe it cannot be saved or is monetarily not worth saving,” he said.

In 2009, the city began processing the garage. The writing was on the wall for the fourplex, which by that time had a gaping hole in the roof.

“The fourplex was going to be right behind the garage for demolition, based on the condition it was in,” said Catherine Montgomery, historic preservation architect for the city.

Thanks to Joyce, the building was included on the 2008 Most Endangered Historic Places list put together each year by Preservation Oklahoma. Joyce said von Stein attended a ceremony for the property’s inclusion on the list, and expressed an interest in finding a solution for the property.

After that initial contact, Joyce hoped to begin a dialogue with von Stein. And while he said von Stein attended some neighborhood meetings, there was little progress is getting him to state plans for the property, or name a selling price. Joyce recruited other neighbors to help turn up the heat.

“There needed to be people pushing him and saying, ‘You’ve sat on this property for so long. You say you love it and want to restore it, but it’s gone from something that needed remodeling, to something many, many people have said needs the wrecking ball,’” Joyce said.

Rebuffed
In 2009, Joyce wrote in The Chronicle, a Crown Heights-Edgemere Heights newsletter published by Tierra Media Group (Oklahoma Gazette’s parent company), that he was thrilled to see a “For Sale” sign on the property. He was discouraged, however, when he saw that the contact name and number matched his information for von Stein. Joyce said von Stein would never state an asking price and was unwilling to work with a Realtor, which led to further frustration.

One interested buyer who was quoted a selling price was Randy Atkinson, a Crown Heights resident and owner of Crown Heights Dentistry. Fifteen years ago, Atkinson tried to buy the property with no success, and then again in recent years. Atkinson said von Stein either was unavailable, or was dismissive of his interest. Atkinson, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years, and had his dental practice on N.W. 42nd Street since 1983, was certainly no Johnny-comelately. He had a plan for the fourplex.

“I wanted to live upstairs and move my dental practice into the bottom,” he said.

Atkinson met with von Stein, but said he would not come off of a $750,000 asking price.

“I would never have paid that,” Atkinson said. “I figured it would take at least $750,000 to fix it up.”

Atkinson said additional contact with von Stein proved a dead end.

“I made a couple of phone calls to him and a couple of written communications and told him I was interested, and I wanted to negotiate a price and I never heard back from him,” Atkinson said. “He didn’t seem interested in selling the property.”

For 2011, the Oklahoma County Assessor’s Office lists the market value of the fourplex at $208,890 and the duplex’s market value, 3717 N. Olie, at $183,651.

In a 2007 letter to Chesapeake Energy Corp. Senior Vice President Tom Price, with copies sent to neighborhood representatives and former Ward 2 Councilman Sam Bowman, von Stein acknowledged the deteriorating condition of the properties and said he was seeking a buyer.

Montgomery said von Stein attended HP and City Council meetings and expressed a desire to save the property.

Von Stein did not return calls for comment.

In the letter, von Stein chided those in the neighborhood for ignoring his requests for help, and in turning the matter over to the city.

“At this writing, no representative of Crown Heights-Edgemere Heights Homeowners Association has EVER contacted me at any time to determine what assistance can be afforded in my efforts to accomplish restoration in a suitable way,” he wrote. “Apparently, its officers and directors are pursuing an adversarial posture.”

Mayday save
Early this year, the city found the garage to be in violation, and it was set to be razed. The measure was headed to the City Council when Joyce sent a letter to Bowman requesting an extension so the property might be sold. He also asked for an extension for a new owner to plan necessary renovations. But Joyce wasn’t willing to let another decade pass with no attention to the property.

“If Mr. von Stein is unable to meet the agreed upon extension, we agree with Development Services that the property cannot be allowed to continue standing in its current state and demolition should occur,” he wrote.

Swift said he was contacted out of the blue by von Stein after seeing his restoration work in Norman featured in a magazine article. Swift declined to discuss the specifics of the transaction, but said von Stein was in need of a buyer, and interested in someone with historic preservation experience. Since purchasing the properties in May, Swift has set to work, demolished the garage, and received the blessing of the Historic Preservation Commission for his project.

Visit okc.biz to read about Brent Swift’s plans for the 1936 fourplex.

 
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