The Best Buildings Do Not Wreck Their Owners

Pano - Stage Center - 3

(All photos are by Brett Dickerson, copyright 2014 except the thrust stage photo.)

They are wrecking the Mummers Theater/Stage Center building in downtown Oklahoma City. It is likely because of some essential design flaws in the building itself. Often overlooked, those flaws caused it to be financially toxic to each of its owners. In addition, its bold design that made it so notable also made it a relic that could not be used for new purposes.

And so, the building that has wrecked its owners is being wrecked. Justice? Perhaps.

Constant Change of Owners

In the Modernist style, often called Brutalist, it has been owned by several different entities over the years, starting with the Mummers Theater, an ambitious theater company that started in Oklahoma City in the late 1950s, then the Oklahoma Theater Center, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, the Oklahoma City Arts Council, and last, an investor group.

An excellent history of the building is Adieu, Stage Center: The Long, Often Sad History of An American Icon on the Okie Mod Squad blog.

A less sympathetic story was published in alt-weekly The Oklahoma Gazette revealing the mistakes in initial costs of the building coupled with failed funding strategies that led to the demise of the Mummers Theater shortly after they moved into their new home.

In the end, after a flood caused massive water damage to the engineering and interior, its latest owners decided to develop the site in an entirely new way. And so, a place that was once prairie, then a menagerie of buildings, then the Mummers Theater/Stage Center, will now evolve once again into something else.

Emotions Run Deep

For many, this will be an emotional time because of the many memories that the building represents to people who had great experiences there.

Michelle Bui is a very good example of someone whose positive experiences in that building run very deep. In a long quote showcased in a story by The Oklahoman‘s Steve Lackmeyer, she explains how Stage Center was the place where very significant things happened in her life that had a profound effect upon how she entered adulthood.  Experiences like hers were repeated many times over and should not be discounted.

I knew several actors and actresses who were at Oklahoma City University when I was there during my college years in the late 1970s. Their first big opportunity came with productions at Oklahoma Theater Center. Certainly, they would have very deep, fond memories associated with that building.

Formative events in a particular place always fix strong emotions in us that surface each time that place is revisited or changed. But all of those wonderful memories can cloud the central issue of whether the building has outlived it usefulness.

Of course, there have been many emotional arguments for and against the creative design of the building over the years. Some believed that the building represented the new, modern-era Oklahoma City, others believed it to be an eyesore that distracted from the other architecture of downtown.

An excellent story by Ben Felder of the Oklahoma Gazette, along with his short film, are a good resource for understanding the heated discussion and attending emotions about the overall design itself and whether it should be preserved.

Fatal Flaws

There are three fatal flaws cooked into the original design that contributed to the financial weakening and , in some cases, destruction of its owners. Because of that, eventually, they resulted in the destruction of the building:

1. Energy inefficiency

Each new owner has struggled to keep up with the utility costs of an energy inefficient building.

This should come as no surprise since it was designed in the late 1960s. Buildings constructed up through even as late as the 1980s were built counting on the low costs of energy to heat and cool.

Compared to the design of buildings today, the Mummers/Stage Center has always been a difficult financial proposition for its owners due to energy inefficiency that could not be remedied due to the design of the building itself. The same exposed surfaces and duct work that gave Stage Center its creative appeal, also meant that the harsh winter winds and summer sun caused massive costs for utilities.

2. Vulnerability to flooding

The enclosed NW loading dock well below ground level that allowed 1993, 2010 flooding
The enclosed NW loading dock well below ground level that allowed 1993, 2010 flooding

The primary point of vulnerability to flooding that eventually led to the destruction of much of the interiors of Stage Center was this loading dock.

IMG_0337It was a point of weakness resulting in lesser flooding in 1993. In 2010, it filled up completely with water which caved in the doors to the dock, flooding the sub-basement and basement. A story in the Oklahoma Gazette not long after this event in 2010 reveals the massive, game-over effect of this flooding:

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.

But this isn’t the only water vulnerability that the building has. By design, the entire back 1/2 of the complex is partly below ground level, with concrete parking creating a watershed directing water toward the building.

The south side of Stage Center all below grade
The south side of Stage Center all below grade

And so, architect John Johansen, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and others in the Modernist movement, made the same mistake that many of them often made on several of their own projects — give extraordinary attention to the innovative, artistic contribution of a building and treat engineering concerns as  too mundane to be fully considered in the design phase. It’s why so many of Wright’s most interesting projects have already come down, or have had to become museums of their own design to survive.

When it came to vulnerability to the usual flash flooding of Oklahoma weather, Johansen was unconcerned — solely focused on the creativity of the design itself. And so the owner ended up financially wrecked by the flood in 2010.

3. Limited use due to inflexible design

When buildings that sit on prime real estate cannot evolve for new uses, then usually the site can only evolve by wrecking the old building and putting up a new one. Without a doubt, this has been the case with the Mummers/Stage Center building.

The unique, but highly specific design
The unique, but highly specific design

It’s design, while touted by Johansen as creating flexibility for theater productions, in truth has a certain rigor of design that will not allow for expanded, new uses even as a theater venue, much less being converted to new uses beyond theater.

The larger Thrust Stage
The Thrust Stage

Take for instance, the seating arrangement in the bigger of the two theaters, The Thrust Stage. Attendees of any event there were placed in sections, some of which were completely detached from any other section, seemingly hovering, with massive concrete banisters creating audience pens instead of participant seating.

Participants in events there talked about how difficult it was for performers to move close and among them in a production. Attendees and performers were only as close as Johansen allowed them to be. Never mind what the production needed.

This rigidity even as a theater venue is contrasted with the Dallas Theater Center’s current building, which allows for extreme flexibility of the design of the entire interior, including seating, according to the needs of the production as seen in this time-lapse video:

This stark contrast in flexibility shows the rigidity of the Johansen design. It’s design was very specific to the architect’s ideas and the hubris of his clients at the time and has remained frozen there.

Mummers/Stage Center is far less flexible to conversion than other much older buildings, some only a block away. Buildings like the Colcord, now the Colcord Hotel, have gone through several transformations in their history due to the convertibility of their design.

The Colcord Building, one of the oldest in downtown, is now a boutique hotel
The Colcord Building, one of the oldest in downtown, is now a boutique hotel

Due to the Mummers/Stage Center being poured cast concrete, and to its having all the heating and air equipment on the outside, any major refits to it would have been cost prohibitive due to the quite small space return gained by its continued use.

The Wrecker Becomes the Wrecked

And so the Mummers/Stage Center will now be wrecked. Perhaps that was due. It has wrecked the prospects of its several owners over the years.

If it had been a more flexible design, with the long-term needs of the owners built into the design, perhaps it would have been slightly less significant as a work of art, but it would have allowed for more significance of the Mummers, Oklahoma Theater Center, and other successive owners.

What Might Have Been?

What might have happened if the Mummers would have gone with a more flexible design where the building itself was not considered its own work of art, but rather a tool to be used for the sake of future generations in the performing arts?

Youth programs of some tenants have been very significant. But how many more young artists would have been influenced by a thriving, mature Mummers Theater company that used constantly evolving styles of theater in a flexible, efficient building that allowed for more money raised to be spent on productions and arts education instead of power bills?

What if the Mummers Theater Company building had been a warm inviting place where the creativity of the productions was the sole focus and not the building?

We will never know.

All photos are mine, except for the one of the Thrust Stage. If you know who deserves credit, please let us know in the comments.

10 thoughts on “The Best Buildings Do Not Wreck Their Owners”

  1. Brett, this is an insightful post. This building has always been about how creative the design is and not about the experience of the users, and cost to owners. The fact this has won national architectural awards speaks a lot about what is important to many In the architectural community. Kenyon Morgan, AIA

  2. Excellent article. The building has had major flaws since it was built, hindering the true usability and comfort which should always be part of a good design. While it has won awards and there are many who want it restored, they aren’t the ones paying the bills or have the liabilities. They can’t truly understand all of the deficiencies. They want someone else to pay for their wishes.

  3. Brett . . . Though I agree that there are issues with the building’s HVAC systems and susceptibility to flooding, I disagree about the theater spaces not being a good entertainment venues. I have attended many performances there and your suggestion that the audience sits in pens is simply invalid in my experience.
    More importantly, the iconic building and it’s site could be adaptively reused if there were any reverence for the history of this city. Unfortunately there is none. As a resident of over six decades, it is quite apparent to me what the values are here. Minimum appearance standards, wide streets lined with strip malls and billboards and little regard for the integrity of neighborhoods and the people that live in them.
    One needs to look nor further than our pathetic public transportation system, its hideous bus stops and streets with well worn dirt paths where sidewalks should be. Tax dollars are spent on river boats sporting corporate logos while citizens with limited transportation options stand in the rain waiting for a bus that may or may not arrive.
    Yes . . . Stage Center has problems, but the main problem is lack of vision and political will.

    1. Very good points. Like you, I did not have bad experiences there attending events. However others did. My contention is that we could have done far better. And with the presence of the kind of civic leadership you are referring to, perhaps we could have. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  4. Brett,
    John Johansen WAS a student of Walter Gropius, worked for Marcel Breuer and SOM – [Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill] . Johansen established his own practice in 1948 and joined forces with four of his colleagues, Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Landis Gores and Eliot Noyes, [known as the Harvard Five] and later, a professor at Yale School of Architecture.
    John Johansen was never a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.
    The philosophy and architectural principals of Johansen are quite different from that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s.

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