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Notes on the Geography of Oklahoma: Downtown Oklahoma City

Interstates 35 and 40 cross at the southeast corner of downtown Oklahoma City.  What's to see if you're coming by?

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Just south of downtown is the North Canadian River. In a fit of boosterism, local officials recently decided to rename their bit of it the Oklahoma River. The neighboring upstream county wasn't amused: it's Canadian County, and proud of it. Whatever the name, along this stretch it's hardly a river: in the name of urban amenity, in 2004 a dam was constructed to convert the river to a pond.

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Eight miles upstream, the river looks a bit more like itself, though what you see here is actually what's released from a reservoir immediately upstream. Makes you wonder: is the natural streamcourse really so much worse than the sated python downstream?

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We've stopped one Sunday morning on one of several bridges crossing the river. Downtown is framed by the silvery First Oklahoma Tower on the left and the black BankFirst Tower on the right. Three tall buildings rise between them. The pair toward the left is the First National Tower and (partly blocked by it) City Place. Between that pair and Chase is the gray Kerr-McGee Tower [now SandRidge Energy. The white hamburger in the middle distance is the Ford Center, with 20,000 seats a favored arena for musical headliners.

[Update: this photo is already a historic artifact, because it does not show the city's tallest building, built for Devon Energy.]

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The same group of towers seen more handsomely from the southwest, just south of the tree-fringed river. To the left of the gray Kerr-McGee [SandRidge] waffle is the glassy ziggurat of Leadership Square, the city's priciest office space. To its left is the Bank of Oklahoma Building. To the right of Kerr-McGee, once again, are the First Oklahoma Tower, an edge of City Place, First National, and the pouting-by-itself BankFirst Tower. [The dark cube sidling up to is housed Devon Energy before it moved to its new building.]

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From the northeast: First National, City Place, the Oklahoma Tower, and Kerr-McGee [SandRidge].

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The southeast corner of downtown. The Ford Arena is off to the left. The Cox Convention Center, built in 1972 but expanded in 2000, is on the left, obscuring the Oklahoma Tower, First National, and City Place; the Renaissance Hotel blocks Devon Energy and a bit of the otherwise dominating BankFirst tower. Truncated at the right edge of the photo is a sign pointing to the Amtrak station, which is the former Santa Fe depot. There's one train daily, to and from Fort Worth.

About now, you're asking why anyone would stop at such a bleak corner--or ask you even to look at a picture of it. Talk about urban desert! Ah, but there's a reason. This is the corner of Reno (as you see) and Broadway, which parallels the Santa Fe track. It's historically an important intersection. Wait, wait.

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The last picture was taken from exactly the midpoint of the bottom line of this township plat, which is dated 1872. As you can see, the township is identified as Township 13 North, Range 3 West, Indian Meridian, a grid originating in the Arbuckle Mountains to the south. There's nothing much else on the map, except for a southward-flowing tributary of the North Canadian, a northward-flowing tributary of the Cimarron, a branch of the Chisholm Trail, and the surveyor's township and section lines. Keep your eye on Section 33, down at the bottom.

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A modern map, compiled in 1960 by the Oklahoma County Clerk, showing the patents or federal deeds that were issued for the same township after the federal government opened it to settlement in the famous land run of April 22, 1889. Most of the township is covered by 160-acre quarter-section homesteads, but Section 33 is different. The southeast quarter of it, plus the south half of the northeast quarter--a total of 160 acres plus 80 acres--are marked as the Oklahoma City Townsite. Reno Avenue, though not marked here, runs along the base of the township. The squiggly line is the course of the North Canadian as it was before the 1950s, when engineers learned it to behave.

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For history buffs, here's a copy of one of the homestead patents, signed by Teddy Roosevelt. It was from these tattered records that the previous map of homestead entries was compiled.

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Another map of the southeast quarter of section 13, this one showing the streets platted there. Note Reno at the bottom. The Santa Fe line runs almost parallel to the east side of the section. Within a year of the city's founding, the townsite had not only grown to include the 80-acre tract to its north but 80 flood-prone acres to the south, sloping to the river.

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Funny thing is, the streets of downtown Oklahoma City today are almost as empty as they seem on those old maps. Nights and weekends--this happens to be about noon on a Sunday in hot, hot August--the place is just about deserted, but even at noon on weekdays there aren't a lot of pedestrians, partly because most of the main buildings are linked either by bridges or tunnels.

You don't have to walk a lot this time of year to understand why. To make the place even less inviting, almost all the downtown streets became one-way in 1955. And just to drive everyone completely crazy, the street names that lasted for 70 years or more have gradually been changed to stroke local vanities. The street here, for example, is R.S. Kerr. That would be Senator Robert S. Kerr, of Kerr-McGee. The same street used to be the perfectly intelligible North 2nd. A block behind the camera, the old North 3rd is now McGee. Straight ahead, the old North 1st is now Park. There have been lots of other changes, too, so what used to be an easily navigated grid has become a bit more confusing.

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Another element in the production of a deserted downtown: this enormous parking structure, the Galleria Garage, is all there is to show for the four-block-square Galleria shopping center proposed in 1965 by I.M. Pei.

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The most important building? One contender is the former office of The Oklahoman, at one time the enormously influential newspaper built up by E.K. Gaylord. The newspaper moved here in 1909 and stayed until 1991, when it moved to a new tower ten miles north. In the aftermath of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995, the Gaylord family donated this building to the YMCA, whose own building had been destroyed in the blast.

The pilaster-crazed architect, by the way, was Solomon Layton, perhaps the most prolific architect in the city's history. As for the newspaper itself, which in 1999 was taken to task in the Columbia Journalism Review as the nation's worst big-city daily, at least it's been consistent. On the big day of Oklahoma's statehood, in 1907, the front page reported a fatal saloon duel, a firebug in nearby Enid, a house robbed in broad daylight, and a crooked Brooklyn bank.

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Another local icon, the Skirvin Hotel, closed in 1988. The city bought it in 2002 and sold it the next year to a Dallas partnership. With $18 million in city funds and $33 million in private money, the hotel reopened as the Skirvin Hilton, managed by Marcus Hotels, a Milwaukee investment group.

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The hotel was originally built by Bill Skirvin, an oilman (naturally). His daughter Pearl became Perle Mesta, the Washington, D.C., socialite who flourished in and around the Truman years. Like The Oklahoman building, the Skirvin was designed by Solomon Layton, still gaga for pilasters. In 1911, the hotel consisted of the two blocks on the left, minus the upper floors; the rest came in the late 20's. Banquet rooms and restaurants included the Persian Room, the Balinese Room, and the Venetian Room, but mindful of oilmen down to their last derrick, there was also a Blue Room.

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The city's first skyscraper was the 1910 Colcord Building, built by and named for a former Oklahoma City police chief who was also a sheriff and--fortunately for him--the co-discoverer of the prolific Glenn Pool, near Tulsa. In the 1920s this building had A-list tenants like the New York Central, the Illinois Central, and Western Union. A local developer has now spent $15 million to convert it to the boutique Colcord Hotel.

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Corner detail. The architect was William Wells, reputedly a student of Louis Sullivan. The Colcord Building has been on the National Register of Historic Sites since 1976; Colcord's house, a mansion on 13th Street, was demolished decades ago.

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An Italianate cornice.

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Another pioneering building, in this case literally so: this was the headquarters of the Pioneer Telephone Company, which merged into Southwest Bell in 1916.

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It has nice detailing--no surprise since it, too, was the work of William Wells.

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Adjoining it is a Southwest Bell building from 1920 with its own ornate detailing.

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Talk about getting architecturally blackjacked: the Pioneer Building, in the distance, is overpowered by the nearly windowless hulk of a later Southwest Bell building. The low building in the foreground is the former city library. It replaced an ornate Carnegie Library and has now been itself replaced by a new library a few blocks away.

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Another view of the short Pioneer Building, trying to stand straight between Kerr-McGee [SandRidge] on the left and the later phone building on the right.

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The middle building--the one with the handsomely arched windows--was originally the Elks Lodge. It was supposed to be 12 stories tall, but money ran out and the Elks lost the building, which was purchased in 1947 by its present occupant, Oklahoma Natural Gas. The taller building across the street is the headquarters of Oklahoma Gas and Electric, which was built to six stories in 1927 and raised to 12 in 1954. The building was severely damaged in the Murrah Federal Building bombing.

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The India Temple Shrine Building of 1923, another project of Solomon Layton. The Shriners lost their building, too. It later became the Home State Theater and subsequently the office of the Law Journal Record; it's now owned by the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation.

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Another early tower, the Tradesmen's Bank of 1921, which has the distinction of being Oklahoma City's first building with air conditioning. In later years it housed the First National Bank and then the City National; in 1977 it became the City Center Building.

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The Medical Arts building of 1925, stripped of its classical detailing. The place was once filled with a hundred medical offices.

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The former main post office, since 1958 a sub-office. The new main office, utterly undistinguished, is down on South Sixth in such a remote location that it no longer provides counter service.

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Central High School, opened as Oklahoma City High School in 1910, was designed by the indefatigable Solomon Layton, this time flying without pilasters. The building was all-White until 1967, it then became a trade school, a junior high, and an "innovative high." None lasted. In 1976 the building, though closed, was put on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1981 Southwest Bell bought it for conversion into its regional headquarters. The interior was gutted and entirely rebuilt in the shell of the old building; the work, designed by HTB Architects, won first place in the American Society of Interior Designers' project design competition of 1985.

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Entrance detail of what became One Bell Central. People move on, however, and in 2005 Oklahoma Farmers' Union Mutual Insurance bought the building for $7.7 million. The sign on the building's back door, now functionally the main entrance, says Oklahoma Farmers' and Ranchers' Building.

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In the early 1920s there was a craze for bi-colored Gothic-fringed office buildings. This one, built in 1925 for the Harbour-Longmire Furniture Company, reputedly housed the second largest furniture store in the country. Locally it was famous--and for old timers still is--for containing within itself an open space filled by a two-story model home, fully furnished.

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Cornice detail. The top is a later addition, guided by the precept that no building's too good to spoil with some extra rentable space.

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A similar building, opened in 1923 as the Cotton Exchange. Bad timing: Oklahoma cotton went into terminal decline a few years later. The exchange closed, though the building remains as a general office building.

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Corner detail.

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No department stores survive downtown, though once there were plenty, including Sears and John A. Brown. Few of the buildings they occupied survive either, though this one does. From 1928 to 1966 it was Montgomery Ward. Converted into condos, sales were slow, and the owner began leasing the apartments.

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The Robinson Canyon, so-called. On the left is the Dowell Building, formerly the Petroleum Building, which once had a brightly lit ornamental derrick on its roof. Next to it is City Place, built in 1928 as the Ramsay Tower. It was designed by Clair Drury and built for oilman W.R. Ramsay for $3 million. It later was the Apco (or Anderson-Prichard Company) Building and still later Liberty National. In the distance is the grand First National Tower, built in 1931 for $5 million; the architects were Weary and Alford of Chicago. The Dowell Building is owned locally, but City Place is owned by Globe Life of Dallas, and the First National was sold in 2006 for $21 million to a Los Angeles investor. It apparently wasn't a satisfactory investment, because the building sold again ten years later for $23 million.

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The entrance to the First National. The ornament, of deplated aluminum, was done by the Michaels Art Bronze Company of Covington, Kentucky. [As of summer, 2016, the building's few remaining tenants were being told to leave as new owners planned a conversion to a hotel and apartments. Parking would be a problem, but the plan was to demolish two adjoining buildings and replace them with garages].

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Facade detail. [In The Oklahoman, 3 May 2018, Steve Lackmeyer writes: "Built in 1931 at Robinson and Park avenues, the former home of First National was closed in July 2016 as it went into receivership and was purchased by Brooks and partner Charlie Nicholas the next year. The building is being redeveloped into 145 hotel rooms, 193 apartments, 700 parking spaces and several restaurants, bars and shops. To get the job done, the developers needed a mix of historic tax credits ($70 million), tax increment financing (about $45 million) and other assistance. Brooks confessed to feeling 'sheer terror' when the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a budget last fall that eliminated all federal historic tax credits. “'knew the only way to bridge the gap was through historic tax credits and assistance from the city,' Brooks said. 'Fortunately, the discussion at the nation's capital started after we bought the building. Had it started before, we might not have had the courage to close. It was that important.'"]

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The Great Banking Room, no longer used. Hear the adding machines whirring and clicking over the footsteps of women in high heels? In its glory days, the First National was Oklahoma's biggest bank; it failed in 1985 and was taken over by California's First Interstate Bank. Six years later another bank moved in but lasted only a year. Since then there have no machines or heels.

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Another view. Is "fine dining" next?

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Kerr-McGee's 1968 building was the city's first big post-war highrise. The sale of the company in 2006 to Houston-based Anadarko gave pause to the city's realtors and office-building owners. Even before the announcement, downtown had about a 25% vacancy rate, and nobody relished the thought of another half-million feet on the market. Rising energy prices came to the rescue, however, and in 2008 SandRidge Energy bought the building for $25 million and began renovating the building. SandRidge had 3 employees in Oklahoma City in 2006; two years later, it had 350.

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The 324 Robinson Building, adjoining Kerr-McGee. It's in Corporate Redevelopment Group's pipeline for condo conversion--potentially 70 monster condos of 3,800 square feet each, with street-level retail. If the conversion happens, it will be the first but probably not the last office-to-residential conversion in downtown Oklahoma City. The building, though unmarked, was originally the Braniff Building, from where Tom Braniff ran his many businesses, beginning with insurance and culminating in his eponymous airline. After his death in 1954, Braniff Air became the sixth largest U.S. carrier, with an extensive international network until its collapse in 1982.

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Yawn. For years the tallest building in town, the BankFirst Tower has had many names. It opened in 1971 as the Liberty Bank Tower. Liberty Real Estate sold it in 2000 to W.E. Simon of Los Angeles for $14 million. The tower then operated as the First Interstate Tower and later as the Chase Tower. In 2004, Simon sold the building for $28 million to Cotter Tower, a San Antonio partnership led by James Cotter. Devon Energy leased a large part of the building, which became a problem after Devon moved out and into its own new building. Chase moved out, too. Result: the occupancy rate declined to about 65 percent by 2017. The building sold in 2018 to become BankFirst. In any case, the views from the upper floors are spectacular, especially when enjoyed from the men's rooms, where windows provide not only a fine view but a curiously unsettling sensation of micturating from the heavens.

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The blander-than-bland First Oklahoma Tower of 1982, which was owned by TIAA of New York until sold to Dorchester Capital of Oklahoma City and, in turn, to another local group, LSQ Investors. Of such is the American urban landscape built--and you wonder why folks fly to Italy in the summer.

In the foreground is the city's new library.

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Leadership Square, built in 1984 and owned by Metropolitan Life from then until 2000, when Dorchester Capital bought the building for $45 million. A few years later, Dorchester sold it for $61 million to LSQ, owner of the First Oklahoma Tower. The county assessor then gave this building a market value of $61 million, the highest of any downtown building. The tenant mix is top-heavy with law firms, buttressed by accountants, investment advisors, and the occasional energy company.

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Corporate Tower, built in 1980 by Corroza Properties of Dallas. In 1991, Corroza lost the property in bankruptcy proceedings. After the Murrah Federal Building's destruction, this building was used by OG&E while OG&E's damaged building was refurbished. In 1998, OG&E left, and this building was almost empty. Occupancy had crept up to about 70% when the building was sold in 2001 by Mutual Life Insurance to local investors for $12 million.

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There's only one downtown residential high-rise: it's the grim Regency Tower, from 1967. Privately owned, it was sold in 1984, then sold again in 2004 to investors in Southern California. Price tag: $11.3 million.

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A view of the Regency Tower from the memorial to the victims of the bombing of the Murrah Building.

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The new federal building, opened in 2004 at a cost of $40 million.

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Another view, with windscreens that (coincidentally?) resemble the preeminent symbol of Christianity.

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A view of one of the city's pedestrian bridges and of a monument to the U.S. Air Force, whose Tinker Field has been a key employer in Oklahoma City since World War II.

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Another monument, this one to the pioneers who staked their claims in 1889.

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Text of same.

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