It was built in 1970 by renowned architect John Johansen and opened as the Mummers Theatre. It served as a hub for arts and cultural events over the next decades, but a flood in 2010 forced its closure. With millions of dollars in estimated deferred maintenance and no party with the resources to save it, Williams purchased the building at 400 W. Sheridan Ave. from the Oklahoma City Community Foundation in 2013 for $4.275 million. The sale occurred after a request for proposal by the foundation to save the building was unsuccessful.
Williams, president of Kestrel Investments Inc., plans to build a 14-16-story tower to serve as the home for OGE Energy Corp. Additional space will be available for purchase by another developer to possibly construct an additional tower for hotel or residential units.
David Box, an attorney who represents Kestrel, says independent studies conducted over the last decade have shown that it is not financially feasible to keep the building as an arts venue. He says it likely would cost more than $40 million just to bring it up to date and open the doors.
Box cites a 2011 study by Webb Management Services Inc., a planning and development firm for arts and creative entities, that found a need for a facility like Stage Center existed in Oklahoma City, yet it needed adequate support. Without that support, Webb recommended an RFP to open it to the market for a new use.
“This is a group that seeks to find solutions for these types of buildings,” Box says of Webb. “They don’t seek to find reasons to demolish; they want to keep these types of buildings.”
Two responses to the community foundation’s RFP were for a children’s museum or an architectural museum, but neither plan had adequate funding.
Peter Dolese, executive director of the Arts Council of Oklahoma City, favors Williams’ plans and says his organization owned the building for a time, but when it was damaged by flood waters, it was turned back over to the foundation. He says constant maintenance issues were inconvenient and cost-prohibitive to keeping the building viable.
“It was just always very, very difficult,” he says.“It’s very unfortunate that it just doesn’t work.”
Several community leaders spoke out in opposition to the demolition, including Preservation Oklahoma President Barrett Williamson and attorney Leslie Batchelor.
“The building is so important that architectural historians and writers have been discussing it since it was built over 40 years ago,” Williamson says.
Batchelor, whose father, Dan Batchelor, served as legal counsel to the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority when many Downtown buildings were razed in the 1960s and 1970s, said the city has lost too many of its irreplaceable structures. She says historic and architecturally significant buildings are scarce and valuable. She supports Williams’ plans but says it should be somewhere else Downtown.
“Stage Center is not the right site for it,” she says.
City staff recommended denial of the demolition permit based on the historic character of the building and because it did not comply with Downtown zoning ordinances.
Williams and architecture firm ADG have presented a site plan and a rendering of a possible look for the tower, but no formal designs have been submitted. Williams estimated it will cost $2 million to $4 million to complete final design work.
Chuck Ainsworth, a member of DDRC, has a history restoring historic buildings, and while he recognizes the significance of Stage Center, he says it would be extremely difficult to repurpose the facility, unlike the long-vacant Skirvin that was renovated with public and private funds and reopened in 2007 as the Skirvin Hilton Hotel. He said he would approve demolition of Stage Center but would like to see a plan so the lot would not just sit vacant for the next few years.
Committee members Ainsworth, Dick Tanenbaum and Gigi Faulkner voted in favor of demolition. In opposition were Ike Akinwande and Connie Scothorn.Chairwoman Betsy Brunsteter, who works for ADG, recused herself from the discussion and the vote.
Williams says his timeline is 12-18 months to do studies for OGE’s needs, complete final drawings and demolish Stage Center. He said construction could begin in mid-2015 and would take 12-18 months to complete.