Meet me at the wrecking ball.
Wear something pretty and white.
Look at the glorious architectural rendering of the Oklahoma City Children’s Museum, a proposal that if funded would ensure the preservation of architect’s John Johansen’s downtown masterpiece. The building, known as Stage Center, flooded in 2010 and is at risk for the wrecking ball. I talked about this dream this morning on KOSU Radio, an NPR station in Oklahoma.
This marked my 15th essay for local, public radio, and it is the story about which I am most passionate. If Johansen’s masterpiece is bulldozed, I guess the least I can do is show up wearing a white dress.
But, honestly, I can hardly allow room in my brain for the possibility of that demolition. If a benefactor does not come forward soon, maybe we attempt crowd-source funding on this project. I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t do my part. If 100,000 people gave $200, we’d raise the $20 million. But, I was never very good at math…
Stage Center Commentary
There is a saying, the greater the trials, the greater the faith.
In the 1960s and 70s more than 500 buildings in a 220-acre area of downtown Oklahoma City disappeared. The demolitions were part of an urban redevelopment plan master-minded by architect I.M. Pei. Some of the buildings that were torn down were crushing losses including the Criterion Theater, which was replaced by a joyless shopping center. It failed as a retail space, by the way.
The Criterion was a French-style stage theatre that had a built-in organ, art glass panels, velvet walls and a tea room. It met the wrecking ball in 1973, ensuring that the structure, which once amazed moviegoers would not be around to dazzle future generations.
Suffice to say, urban renewal was disastrously ambitious. It imploded a piece of our story and leveled an historic sense of place. It was a teenager trouncing on history including a dusty playhouse. Today, the Criterion is the venerable sage my generation never knew.
But, we have known Stage Center. A group of volunteers has worked tirelessly all year to save famed architect John Johansen’s downtown Oklahoma City masterpiece from the wrecking ball. They want to repurpose it as a children’s museum. But, they need a savior; A benefactor who can write a check for about $20 million.
The irony does not escape us. Oklahoma City once torn down its past to make room for the future and now it is the future we seek to save. This is called integrity, both historical and personal.
Stage Center, originally known as Mummers Theater was built in 1971. This brutalism-style structure comprises two theater spaces and sits in the shadow of the new 50-story Devon Energy building, across from the city’s newly-renovated Myriad Gardens. The space reminds me of ribbon gymnastics. It lends itself to a children’s museum naturally, creating a kinetic experience, with colorful ramps and walkways leading the visitor from one space to the next.
This innovative design was awarded top honors nationally by American Institute of Architects in 1972. It is influential internationally, as well. Johansen, one of the original Harvard Five, turns 96 next week, and has even submitted a written nod of approval to assist the group’s effort. After a flood in 2010, the building was returned to the Oklahoma City Community Foundation to decide its fate. They selected the local chapter of American Institute of Architects to issue an RFP that could save the building at the end of 2011. The $20 million now needed will not only restore and upgrade OKC’s most iconic building of the 70s, but will cover the cost to turn it into a children’s museum.
If a benefactor — we know he or she is out there – does not step forward soon, the building will probably be bulldozed. Naming rights, concepts for exhibits and many other opportunities exist.
I’ve heard it said that the crosses we bear are good for many things. They bridge the gaps giving disappointment, even demolition, purpose. Tracey and Andy Zeeck, two of the main volunteers spearheading this project know something about this. They’ve carried a torch for a children’s museum for as long as they’ve been parents. Their road to parenthood was not an easy glide path, but eventually the most gorgeous baby boy was born and received into their arms. These human struggles inspired their vision of a children’s museum and created the grit that carries them now through the fight to save Stage Center.
For more information visit, childrensmuseumokc.org.