Design committee efforts result in history saved, restored
Looking back, Tim Johnson was right.
Appearing before an agitated Downtown Design Review Committee a few years back, Johnson apologized for an unauthorized destruction of the front steps to the century-old former Oklahoma City School Board headquarters in Deep Deuce while also questioning whether the building was really historically significant.
To Johnson’s credit, he at least showed up to face questioning from the committee, which was being asked to approve a renovation to the building that would include the virtual destruction of the building’s classic design and the front Georgian-style columns to allow for a redevelopment into apartments.
Representatives of Venture Architecture and McNitt Construction were no-shows at the meeting, and the identity of the owner at the time was never disclosed.
“I forgot it was even there,” Johnson said. “It’s dwarfed by the (former Irving) school. I understand the concerns and the comments. I know the owner looked really hard at the columns that were there but just couldn’t find a way to keep them with what they wanted to do.”
The building had been forgotten by time. Its windows were replaced and “modernized” years earlier. The grandeur of the entry was compromised by a handicap ramp added to the steps.
The building did exist, however, and later research would show it was designed by Andrew Solomon Layton, widely considered the father of civic architecture in Oklahoma, whose work included the State Capitol, the Oklahoma County Courthouse, Central High School (now home to the OCU Law School) and the Skirvin Hilton Hotel.
To the north of the forgotten landmark at 400 N Walnut Ave. stood the former Irving School, renovated into offices without ruination of historic facade. To the south stood the highly acclaimed restoration of the Calvary Baptist Church by its owner, the Dan Davis Law Firm.
Yet here was Johnson, making a final pitch at the March 19, 2015, design meeting to allow work to proceed on conversion of the school board building into offices that would include an addition being built that would cover up most of the original historic facade.
The design committee, consisting of both design professionals and developers, warned they were not likely to approve the project. And it was on that day, looking back, that the historic structure was saved.
The design committees, which are appointed by the mayor, are empowered to determine whether projects downtown and surrounding areas move forward (their decisions can be appealed to the city’s board of adjustment and district court).
Time and time again, we’ve seen the city’s design review committees call developers to a higher standard, to ensure that the urban core does not give way to the latest in disposable building design. Their track record is not perfect — the last decade had multiple examples of demolitions that typically would have been rejected but for the influence of powerful and wealthy interests.
But five years after the design committee made their stand, the value of the work by these volunteers can be seen at 400 N Walnut Ave. Ryan Whaley Coldiron Jantzen Peters & Webber, a litigation, energy and environmental law firm, purchased the building in 2018 and quickly launched into a historic restoration of the exterior while building out modern office space in the previously gutted interior.
A team effort by Vincit Constructors and Studio Architecture got the job done in just a year with work including the ongoing review by the State Historic Preservation Office. The firm moved in last month. The steps, columns and historic entry, now bathed in light at night, are unforgettable.
The Downtown Design Review Committee, meanwhile, deserves recognition for preventing the ruination of 400 N Walnut Ave. Most of the members who were a part of the discussion about 400 N Walnut Ave. have rotated off the committee, but this project should be a case study for their current successor and those who follow in years ahead.