From the site archives, something I said in 2008 regarding The Building Formerly Known As The Mummers Theatre:

John M. Johansen's design for Oklahoma City's Mummers Theater — now Stage Center — has had nearly forty years to grow on us, and the passage of time notwithstanding, you'd have to combine the WTF factors of the Milk Bottle, the Gold Dome and the missile gantry to come close to the uneasiness Stage Center still manages to cause some folks.

"It's noncompositional," Johansen explains. "You throw everything away that the modern movement believed in. It [modern architecture] was organized in a controlled way. This was an explosion. This was absolutely new..."

Central view of Stage Center in Oklahoma City, photo by Mary Ann Sullivan

"Explosion," in the eyes of some townsfolk, was an understatement. When the theatre opened in 1972, it was treated largely like an alien spacecraft; Stanley Draper of the Chamber of Commerce famously called for the raising of funds to landscape the structure out of sight. When I returned to the city in 1975 — I'd been busy wearing a uniform for Uncle Sam — I marveled at the sheer perversity of it all: Brutalist-school concrete rendered into Tinkertoy form. Given the thus-far-invisible results of the ongoing downtown urban-renewal project, I figured this was the tipping point, and from here on out things would be happening at a dizzying pace.

It turned out, of course, that no one was dizzy but me: by 1980 downtown had been turned into a mausoleum, and the one-two punch of the early 1980s oil bust and the 1982 collapse of Penn Square Bank, an institution so thoroughly ruined that the FDIC couldn't find a buyer for what was left of it, left the city reeling. The Oklahoma Theater Center, as the Mummers was then known, closed for several years, reopening in 1986 under the auspices of the Arts Council of Oklahoma City; Carpenter Square Theatre moved in for a while, and half a dozen arts organizations set up shop in the three pods.

In the 1990s, following the first series of MAPS Projects, downtown was roused from its torpor: by 2010, it could almost be said to be entertaining. But flooding in late June caused serious damage to the structure, and the tenants fled. The building has remained empty, albeit sealed up, for a year now, and Steve Lackmeyer reported in today's Oklahoman that time is running out:

"Stage Center is now at a crossroads," said Duncan Webb, author of [a] report delivered to the Community Foundation and the city earlier this month. "All around it, the vision for downtown is moving ahead into an exciting new phase. Although Stage Center is situated on a prime downtown location at Sheridan and Walker Avenues, it has yet to realize its potential and continues to sit vacant and in need of significant investment."

The Arts Council is no longer involved; ownership of Stage Center has passed to the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, which doesn't happen to need a new headquarters. The building is not necessarily doomed, but, as the Magic 8-Ball might say, "Outlook not so good."

The local urbanist crowd, which could be depended on to support a brothel if it were promoted as "mixed-use," has never had much use for Stage Center: it's not up to their standards of beauty — "It's not beautiful to others who are looking for something past as an expression of beauty," says Johansen — and architectural prominence has never been as important to them as Perceived Cool. They've had forty years to get used to it, and they don't like it. I suspect it's a perverse devotion to the vertical, and not in any philosophical sense; you should have heard the whines when Devon Energy announced that they'd scaled their 900-plus-foot tower back to a mere 850 feet. And let's face it, this is a theater, or more precisely two of them; turning it into funky little retail shops — the urbanists' other dream scheme — simply isn't happening.

Then again, I could be wrong about that. Another Johansen theater, the Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore, opened in 1967 and vacant after 2004, was sold to a developer who planned to add some height, some retail, and maybe some apartments:

The Greenwalds' proposed redevelopment would add a level of retail space above the existing Mechanic structure as well as a 10-story residential tower.

"It has no purpose as a theater, it's just inadequate," Greenwald says. Noting that he has already removed the stage floor and stripped the interior of "all semblances of the theater," he adds "there is no historic integrity to the building."

Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore, photo by Andrew Bossi

Baltimore preservationists disagreed with Greenwald's assessment; at the moment, nothing of note is happening on the Mechanic site.

Will anyone step up to save Stage Center? Said Duncan Webb:

"We found some possible groups, but none of them were strong enough, advanced enough or confident enough that they could take over the building now... We still think there are people who could and who might, but they're not willing to step forward."

Had I an eight-figure sum to spare, I'd do it myself. Obviously I don't. I can, however, stir the pot a little. And for the moment, at least, I am not alone.

Photo credits: Stage Center, Mary Ann Sullivan; Mechanic Theater, Andrew Bossi.

The Vent

#738
  21 August 2011

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