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Center stage


Vocal proponents of the vividly colored theater vow to save Stage Center with a variety of proposals.

Tim Farley September 18th, 2013

Historic preservationists like Lisa Chronister and Catherine Montgomery don’t give up. Controversy over Stage Center, the former Mummers Theater in downtown Oklahoma City, built in 1970, is a classic example.

Although the property’s new owner, Kestrel Investments Management Corporation, has plans to seek a demolition permit in November, hope still exists to somehow save the building described last year in Architectural Record as a “love-it-or-hate-it” structure.

For decades, the now-defunct theater — complete with its concrete forms, brightly colored steel ramps and large corrugated metal boxes — has evoked opinions at all levels in connection with its unique appearance as well as its functionality. The building has been closed since it sustained extensive flood damage in 2010.

Rainey Williams is president of Kestrel. He said in July that plans for the 3.15-acre site — located between Sheridan and California avenues and Dewey and Walker avenues — call for an office tower at least 20 stories high with a parking garage and public spaces for downtown residents and visitors.

The new owner is still negotiating with prospective tenants and finalizing plans for the office and retail tower.

“As a native of Oklahoma City, I personally put a great deal of thought into the property and the Stage Center facility,” Williams said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this point, but the building has outlived its use, and removal of Stage Center is simply the next logical step in the evolution of making this property usable again.”

Even if the building is removed, must it be destroyed? That’s a question Chronister and Montogmery are fighting to get answered.

What can be saved?
Williams promised to work with city officials in the demolition permit process “to make sure we follow all the necessary steps to obtain approval and safely remove it from the property.”

If the demolition permit is approved, Chronister, an OKC architect, hopes pieces of the building will be preserved and placed throughout the city. Although it’s not a typical preservation effort, retaining parts are better than it being forgotten, she said.

“Probably the most important would be the metal panels, which are so distinctive. Maybe they could be placed on other buildings or bus stops around the city,” Chronister said.

“When you drive by, you would see it and remember Stage Center.” She said the value of preserving the building in any way possible is more than aesthetic — Stage Center was determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places “for its architectural merit at the national level and for exceptional significance,” according to the State Historic Preservation Office, a component of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

She would also like to develop a photographic record of the building, a plan first recommended last year for the building’s suggested placement on the National Register of Historic Places. However, then-owner Oklahoma City Community Foundation objected because it might have hampered the sale of the property, so the record wasn’t made and the building wasn’t placed on the register, she said.

Chronister, who also protested previous attempts to demolish the Gold Dome at NW 23rd Street and Classen Boulevard, is hopeful Stage Center’s new owners will host an open house and tour before the building is razed.

“People could come and say goodbye,” she said. “I personally have accepted the fact that it’s going to come down.”

More faith
However, Montgomery, principal architect and owner of Preservation & Design Studio, believes the building can be saved in its entirety. “We should retain it,” she said.

“It has a national level of significance. This is an important building both nationally and internationally. It gave birth to Postmodernism. It’s huge, and very sad that Oklahoma City would not recognize the gem they have. We should protect that.”

In 1971, Time magazine critic Robert Hughes praised Stage Center as “an exquisitely human building in its scale, organization and intriguing unpredictabilities.”

The building’s architect, John Johansen, died last year at 95.

But, she admitted, as downtown OKC has evolved the last 13 years with sparkling new buildings and renovated old ones, Stage Center has become an odd fixture that doesn’t appear to fit into the city’s revitalization plan.

“Matching isn’t always good,” Montgomery said. “Matching is the death knell of an urban area. To have another tall office building isn’t exciting to me.”

Montgomery, an expert in historic preservation projects, believes a commitment by the property owner could save Stage Center by using existing federal and state historical preservation tax credits.

“I’m a possibility thinker, and it’s not over until it’s over,” she said. “They could receive up to 40 percent of the costs associated with renovations.”

Montgomery suggested Stage Center could be used to host corporate and community meetings “if one had a commitment to do that.”

In the past, a children’s museum was proposed for Stage Center, but nixed for lack of community support.

Meanwhile, Preservation Oklahoma, Inc. Executive Director David Pettyjohn said his nonprofit group is working on an online petition designed to create support for keeping Stage Center. In addition, the Facebook page Save the Stage Center (Mummer’s Theater) of Oklahoma City has drawn significant public interest.

“There is a real uniqueness of the structure,” Pettyjohn said. “It is an important part of our built-in environment. It’s part of the past. It’s a piece of art that focuses on circuitry and represents that power and energy.”

 
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