"Born Again": 1977 Oklahoma historic preservation documentary

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A 1977 documentary on historic preservation in Oklahoma has been posted online at the I. M. Pei Project website. The half-hour film, entitled "Born Again: Historic Preservation in Oklahoma," is narrated by Norman architect Arn Henderson.

It opens with a sequence of demolitions of beautiful and historic office blocks in downtown Oklahoma City. Cynthia Emrick of the National Trust for Historic Preservation notes the conflict set up by the Federal Government in 1949, chartering the National Trust to "preserve the nation's heritage as expressed in the built environment" and at the same time green-lighting federal funding for "urban renewal."

Next up is James B. White, head of OKC's Urban Renewal Authority. White expresses the hope that by entering the program at a later date than most cities, OKC will learn some lessons avoid some of the mistakes other cities made. Oops.

White's comments embody the attitude of apathy towards preservation that ruled Oklahoma in the 1970s:

We are a new country. We are a new state. When you're talking about one generation almost from its beginning, I get my self a little lost with the terminology of being historical. I may be right, I may be wrong. I think most of what we have revolves around the terminology of nostalgia. I don't think that we can really call it historical at this particular time in our particular programs in the buildings that we have encountered....

I think our eastern states have more things that are historical. Certainly things like Mt. Vernon, the buildings in our capital that go back a couple of hundred years. But we haven't even reached the century mark in our state yet, so I just don't know what is historical and what is not. I don't put myself up as an authority.

Emrick provides the obvious rebuttal:

If you're going to create something with age and glory, then you have to give it a chance to age.

The film moves next to Oklahoma City's Heritage Hills neighborhood in the late 1960s and the effort to protect it with a historic preservation ordinance. Howard Meredith, State Director of Historic Preservation, argues that a historical survey, a preservation ordinance, and a review commission are essential to effective preservation.

Mr. and Mrs. L. G. Ashley talk about the historic landmark designation of Boley, one of Oklahoma's distinctive black-founded towns, established just before statehood by Creek freedmen.

A segment on Tulsa mentions the preservation of old City Hall at 4th and Cincinnati by private owners and has brief glimpses of three Bruce Goff masterpieces: The Page Warehouse on 13th St (now demolished), the Riverside Studio (Spotlight Theater), and Boston Avenue Methodist Church, whose members invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in restoration and in an addition that harmonizes with the original building's architecture.

The last segment of the program focuses on Guthrie, Oklahoma's, territorial and original State Capital. In 1977, city leaders were only beginning to appreciate the economic benefits of historic preservation:

We have two choices, one is just let it rot, another choice is to tear it down and start building back, and I don't think that's going to happen.... I think we're going to recognize the heritage that we're stewards of here.... We absolutely must have some sort of zoning for this district that will help us preserve the buildings.

The film is itself a type of historic preservation, capturing attitudes, fashions, and hairstyles from the mid '70s.

Here's a direct link to Part 1 of Born Again: Historic Preservation in Oklahoma on YouTube.

The I. M. Pei OKC project is an interesting exercise in preservation itself, devoted to presenting artifacts relating to the master plan that demolished hundreds of historic buildings in downtown Oklahoma City. MIT-trained architect I. M. Pei was commissioned in 1964 by the Urban Action Foundation to develop a plan to modernize downtown. You can see the results in the Myriad Convention Center (Cox Business Center), the Myriad Gardens, Stage Center (Mummers Theater), and numerous parking garages and plazas. A 10' x 12' scale model of downtown as it would look after the plan's completion in 1989 (the city's centennial) was prepared to help inspire citizens to approve the plan. That model has been restored and will be unveiled on Monday at the Cox Business Center.

The website includes maps of the Pei Plan, images of downtown before urban renewal, and video resources, including a film called "A Tale of Two Cities" which was used to promote public acceptance of urban renewal by Oklahoma Citians. There's an excellent synopsis of urban renewal in Oklahoma and how it was used not only in the big cities, but also in places like McAlester, Edmond, and Tahlequah. (It neglects to mention, however, the use of urban renewal to clear most of the Greenwood District.)

A well-written comment on the website by Scott Bryon Williams is worth repeating here:

Unfortunate that even OKC was not spared the utopian, yet disastrous hand of modern city planning of the sixties, robbing countless American cities of their hard-earned history and identity. What a true loss of visual design variety in the built environment.

Urban renewal and the Eisenhower highway program have been the most devastating events to established residential neighborhoods, commercial districts, and urban cores leading to the growth of an unsustainable suburbia and barren, depopulated city streets.

I.M. Pei's OKC urban planning concept model is truly a time capsule demonstrating the short-sighted and ill-conceived visions for America's cities' futures. In the historical photo archive, compare the richness and wealth of the former downtown with the fractured, patchwork of today.

Subsequent generations have and are recognizing the mistake of large scale demolition and investing trillions of dollars to rebuild and recreate vibrant, healthy urban environments. It is unfortunate that America lost so much of its wonderful history within such a short period to euphoric ignorance. Equally unfortunate is that this attitude still exists among most of the public with the irrevocable destruction of historic structures and neighborhoods.

Let the I.M. Pei model be a learning tool of our mistakes of the past.

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Nancy said:

WOW. The first scene was hard to watch. Had those been Tulsa buildings, I'm not sure I could have. This movie is fascinating on so many, many levels. Thanks for sharing this.


Thanks for noticing this project Michael. I'm part of the team that worked on this project, and we believe there is something for everyone in the state to learn from this exhibit. If you're able to come to OKC at any time in the next two months (or better yet, Monday evening!), please let me know and I'll give you a presentation on the various aspects of the model's history, related artifacts, etc.

Eric said:

I find it interesting that one generation (present day) is looking at a previous generation (I.M. Pei Plan) and just now noticing how destructive this approach was. While I agree it was entirely detrimental to the vitality of OKC, I'm not sure that "city planners" now have any better of a solution. You will never be able to convince me that "city planning" works. Cities grow organically, not based on what is believed to be best for everyone, but what works givin the current environment. In the 20's and 30's, neighborhoods were walkable because, let's face it, many people HAD to walk. Today, things are different. Cars rule, regardless of how much eveyone believes that they shouldn't and curses the day interstate highways came about.

Perfect examples of this are in Tulsa (I live here so sorry for no good OKC examples). Downtown has been "planned" or attempted to for quit some time now, with little or nothing to show for it. My guess is we will not see too much real growth after spending half a billion (BOK and ONEOK) for decades. However, tiny pockets of success have sprung up. The Blue Dome district and Brady districts provide downtown with a glimmer of hope, not because of "city planning", but because of creative people with government out of their way. But the best examples of organic neighborhoods are Cherry Street, Brookside and yes Riverwalk Crossing. While the latter is not a neighborhood, it is easily one of the most successful new developments in the state. Look what it has spawned, and at little cost to the citizen (aside from TIF financing, which I like, and the cost of dinner at Los Cabos.) On an aside, I don't consider TIF financing a "cost" to the citizens, since it is like an opportunity cost. If the development doesn't occur, they never get the revenue anyways. Cherry Street and Brookside have grown with little interference from "city planners" and are easily some of the most popular destinations in town. And more than likely, an automobile is utilized to go to both of these destinations with no problems.

City planning of the 21st century reminds me of the current state of the federal government. The few (enlightened ones) know what is best for the masses. When put into practice, it more than likely falls flat on its face. I'm not sure how some of these so called "conservatives" agree with this practice when a limited government has always been the first priority.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 29, 2010 12:50 PM.

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