Ravaged by flooding, Stage Center will close for at least a year as the Arts Council of Oklahoma City figures out a long-term plan

The lights are out at Stage Center, but arts organizers are optimistic that the curtain hasn't dropped permanently on the downtown community arts hub.

The multiuse arts complex at 400 W. Sheridan was decimated by flooding on June 14, a torrential "500-year rainfall event" that brought 9 inches of rain in hours and left many homes and businesses underwater.

Stage Center, built in 1970 and designed by architect John Johansen, was home to local theater groups and the office headquarters of several community arts organizations, most of which suffered substantial losses.

Carpenter Square Theatre, Artworks, Metropolitan School of Dance, Oklahoma Community Theatre Association and Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park all leased space there.

Peter Dolese, executive director of the Arts Council of Oklahoma City, which owns Stage Center, in early July estimated the structural damage to the building alone was "in the millions." Replacement costs for the electrical system alone are "creeping up" toward the half-million mark, he said.

The Arts Council is still gathering estimates, meeting with engineers and architects and going back-and-forth with insurance adjusters, Dolese said. At the end of July, the Arts Council formally severed its agreement with Oklahoma City, which handles the day-to-day management of Stage Center's lessees, and the nonprofit tenants formally vacated the complex of concrete pods and flashy, colorful steel tunnels.

If the Arts Council could afford to begin rehab work on the building tomorrow " which it can't " the most optimistic architectural estimate is a 46-week turnaround, Dolese said, but there are a lot of options and unanswered questions to sort through before Stage Center's future is certain.

"The long-term prognosis for Stage Center is undetermined as we continue discussions with the insurance company regarding damage, repair and/or replacement estimates," the Arts Council board of directors said, in a prepared statement. "In the near term, the Arts Council of Oklahoma City Board and the City of Oklahoma City have agreed to end their management contract regarding the Stage Center building. The building is dark due to the flood damage and can no longer be a source of revenue."

Stage Center will be vacant for at least a year, possibly two or three, Dolese said, as the council and its tenants figure out their next moves.

Stage Center's basement flooded in 1993, and the Arts Council went to great lengths to try to keep water out. Among the preventative measures taken: a below street-level loading dock entry was narrowed, and the garage-styled door was replaced with heavy-duty steel doors that sealed shut against a reinforced frame.

During the June rainstorm, water pooled at the loading dock, creating a "lake" that eventually caved in the doors, which were pushed in and sheared off at the hinges, Dolese said. The impromptu lake then rushed into the building, filling the sub-basement and basement. Heavy furniture and equipment were carried and tossed throughout the labyrinth of halls.

Stage Center is dry now, and any potential structural degradation has been stopped. But to reopen the arts center, Dolese said many on the board think that remodeling the building back to its previous state and finding a way to permanently prevent flooding isn't enough.

"There's a lot of interest in remodeling the whole facility and bringing it up to current-day standards," he said, "but, of course, there's no money available for something like that."

Financially, Stage Center has always needed long-term tenants to remain open, Dolese said, so the Arts Council is facing a catch-22 of timing and circumstance.

One of the council's big annual events, the Sept. 10-11 Oklahoma City Storytelling Festival, has been relocated to the Kerr Auditorium, 111 Robert S. Kerr, but Dolese said Stage Center's closing already complicates the organization's flagship event, April's Festival of the Arts, the largest single art event in Oklahoma.

Historically, the Arts Council has used Stage Center to host performances and artists at the festival. Relocating festival events and exhibits from the inhabitable venue is the easy part, Dolese said, but the council is worried because organizers and vendors tap into the arts complex's electrical system to power and light the festival. Stage Center is currently "red-tagged," meaning it's without electrical power, and they're scrambling to find a way to fuel the festival from the building's exterior electrical system.

The flooding forced Carpenter Square Theatre to relocate its "Leading Ladies" production, which opens Sept. 3, to a stage at Bricktown Hotel and Convention Center, said artistic director Rhonda M. Clark.

Organizers with Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park moved the last of their belongings out of Stage Center last week, said board president Larry Alley, who was making final preparations for the opening night performance of "Romeo and Juliet," which stages outdoors at Bicentennial Park.

Alley said OSP hasn't made any concrete decisions, but said the board is reaching out to the other displaced arts groups and Allied Arts, a nonprofit that helps fund state arts groups, which helped find temporary office space and emergency funding for the tenants.

Ideally, OSP and the other arts groups could find another office building to share, he said. "Joe Wertz

top photo Stage Center remains unoccupied since it flooded in mid-June. Photo/Shannon Cornman
bottom photo Rushing floodwater filled the sub-basement and basement, destroying several community arts groups' props, costumes and office equipment. photo/Peter Dolese

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