Remembering Bricktown visionary at district's 40th anniversary
The 20th anniversary of the Bricktown Canal on Saturday was a worthy moment to celebrate, and thousands came out for the festivities and to see improvements completed along the waterway, including new colorful lighting at the Walnut Avenue bridge.
Let the celebration be extended to the founder of Bricktown, Neal Horton, who took the risks that got it all started in 1979.
Horton, the son of banker Myron Horton, pretty much grew up downtown, and as a banker himself, he saw the early efforts at “old town” style development in San Francisco and Denver. He caught the development bug, got his start preserving the Oil & Gas Building and the Colcord Building (now hotel) and then from his offices at the Colcord he began eyeing the old warehouse district east of the tracks.
Horton’s timing was critical to saving what was the only intact collection of old properties to have survived the demolition spree of the Urban Renewal era.
He initially was joined by attorney Bill Peterson, who had attempted to buy the old Iten Biscuit Co. warehouse south of Reno Avenue with dreams of redeveloping it into festival market place. U-Haul got the building instead, covered it with aluminum siding and topped it with a spinning rental truck.
Together, Horton and Peterson bought or secured contracts for decades-old brick warehouses between Reno, Sheridan, Walnut avenues and the BNSF Railway Viaduct. A third partner, then young land attorney John Michael Williams, joined and the three began to draw up ambitious plans to create “a town within town.”
Their name? “Brick Town.”
Horton was the lead visionary. He sought to create a stretch of murals along the viaduct wall forming the western boundary — the same wall that is home to artwork by muralist Bob Palmer and his students at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Horton also planted trees in the then-barren district, installed vintage style gas-lit street lamps, worked with the city’s public transit to get a vintage style rubber-tire trolley for the district, and started to tell the city about old town developments and Bricktown’s potential for leading a revival of downtown.
No expense was spared, meanwhile, in renovating and linking the Glass and Confectionary buildings. New York-style basement entries and storefronts were added, and skylights were installed to add more inside light.
The hotels, the restaurants, the shops, the bars, the public art — Horton had it all written on a list, along with his own sketches of envisioned storefronts.
Horton, however, was a visionary with bad timing. He took out high-interest loans, typical of the early 1980s, with the assumption the oil boom was not going to end and that the level of office occupancy downtown was not going to change.
The failure of Penn Square Bank in 1982 marked the start of an oil bust and economic collapse in Oklahoma that would continue through the rest of the decade, taking down banks, energy companies and real estate deals throughout the state.
Two years later, Horton lost it all and his project went bankrupt. The next generation, led by Jim Brewer, Don Karchmer and Jim Tolbert, picked up the pieces with Brewer using his skills as a showman to generate interest in making the area an entertainment district.
Horton’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was briefly homeless until friends rallied and got him an apartment. Brewer never lost his passion for Bricktown, with updates provided to him by Karchmer.
Horton died on Oct. 25, 1992. He was 54 (an age I hit next year). His vision at that time was still alive, but little did he know how far it would go. The city was still struggling to recover from the oil bust and even as Horton was facing his final days, the mayor, Ron Norick, was working behind the scenes on an audacious capital projects plan to jump-start downtown.
For Bricktown, the plan — MAPS — would include a ballpark and a recreational canal through the district and to the river. Funding and plans were set, though not in cement, for a streetcar to traverse downtown and Bricktown (politics would result in an initial return of a rubber tire trolley until a real streetcar could be launched with MAPS 3).
Downtown Oklahoma City Partnership did a great job celebrating the 20th anniversary of the canal. Don’t rest too long … when the 50th comes up for Bricktown, the goal should be to stage a celebration so big, so historic, it would bring a smile back to Horton and make Brewer blush.