Watching the gypsy-jazz outfit Man Man convulse its way through a closing number, Joanna Carter of Yukon looked unimpressed. She tossed her cigarette, hiked up her tube top and took a swig from a koozie-covered Pabst before turning from the fringe of the crowd at last month’s Norman Music Festival and navigating a crowded Main Street.
Little did she know, she walked in the shadow of a building that once teetered on the verge of collapse. Or, at least, that’s what spawned a string of headlines this year as streets around the building were cordoned off and neighboring businesses evacuated.
Hours earlier, gusts of more than 40 miles per hour whipped across the metro, the sort of wind that could potentially knock a building over.
But the Financial Center ” better known as the Vista building ” didn’t budge that Saturday as some 30,000 festivalgoers passed through what previous news reports ominously referred to as the “clear zone.”
In February, the building’s owners voluntarily evacuated 18 tenants. Then they faced a decision: to raze the building or reinforce it.
Their decision to prop it up and the tube-topped music fan from Yukon represent the confluence of two glacial floes in downtown Norman as it seeks to maintain the economic pillars that have kept it humming now for decades while taking on the trappings of an art district.
The two are not mutually exclusive. But there are a limited number of storefronts east of the railroad tracks in Norman where the festival sprawled. And for downtown businesses, a bar owner’s rock concert can be a boutique owner’s roadblock.
Banks and city employees need a place to lunch, while Norman needs to be seen as a destination for shoppers, rock fans and art connoisseurs from the metro area.
‘YOU CAN SEE FOR MILES’
The Main Street America invoked in battles over bank bailouts and federal stimulus packages looks almost exactly like Main Street Norman, a parade of one- to two-story storefronts that once housed local drug stores or appliance shops before they ceded to strip malls and big-box stores.
But very few have what amounts to a skyscraper in the low-slung center of their quaint, if economically challenged, downtowns.
As Norman stretched west, taking over one green pasture at a time, the financing for the expansion came largely from banks that still dot Main Street to this day with their stonemasonry facades ” albeit under different names.
In the early 1970s, Harold Liddell and other real estate investors decided they needed office space to support their operations in the burgeoning town, but they faced a choice of whether to build that office space out west in the new developments or smack in the middle of downtown.
“Norman was, and still is, a very aristocratic and plutocratic town,” Liddell said, rattling off the names of a few families who financed and built wide swaths of the city.
The Financial Center provided a place to lunch and a place to work in downtown Norman. Construction was no small feat: “The tallest building between downtown Oklahoma City and the state line,” Liddell said of the Financial Center. He said the builders invested $600,000, or more than an estimated $3 million adjusted for inflation.
In 1972, the developers hired an Oklahoma company to ship in blocks of “pre-stressed concrete with stress cables inside all the posts,” Liddell said. One of Norman’s most prominent landmarks went up in a matter of months.
There was a small opening ceremony, ribbon and all; the mayor came. Recently, a tenant said owners noticed a portion of the structure was “out of plumb,” according to The Norman Transcript.
The building played host to a cast of real estate companies, accountants and law offices. The ownership is now set up like a condominium, with each floor parsed out to a different owner.
Most who have passed through the Financial Center’s lobby know only the six-floor elevator ride to The Vista Sports Grill. Sam Talley, a Norman attorney whose family owns the bar, is unsure if the restaurant will reopen with the building in December, the Transcript reported.
The Vista’s beer-soaked bingo cards with liquor-infused witticisms scrawled on the back provided countless students with weekday-night homework avoidance.
“I went up there for months, every Tuesday,” said Marcus Spitz, a former OU student. “There’s nothing like beer and bingo in the sky. You can see for miles.”
PROP IT UP
The building will remain. After a crack was found in the structure, engineers were reportedly brought in to investigate and decided that sustained gusts of extreme wind could cause the building, or a part of it, to collapse.
The inspection led owners to conclude that the flaws dated back to the building’s construction.
“The floors were not connected at the time of construction to the actual beams. “¦ They’re just sitting there,” one of the building’s owners, James Agar, told the Transcript.
Two walls of metal beams are reinforcing the structure on each floor. “But the real motivation of the owners was the importance of the building in the downtown office market and the iconic nature of the building in the downtown streetscape,” said Jim Adair, another of the building’s owners.
Adair would not disclose the repair cost. Likewise, the demolition would have been prohibitively expensive.
THE BIG DRAW
Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal said the city had no say in the decision to keep the downtown skyscraper beyond safety concerns. The area has been developed to its potential, and the city must now focus on “quality of life issues” to draw more value out of the area, she said.
The area has been dubbed the “James Garner Corridor” with two sphinx-like road signs guarding the way as Main Street curves left toward downtown, and there is a statue of the native son, of “The Rockford Files” and “Maverick” fame, near the train station.
Several years ago, the Norman City Council declared the area an official “arts district,” a move that drew some businesses to the area. What once was a succession of pawnshops and appliance stores is now home to gourmet food outlets, a record store and art galleries.
The vision is to push the boulevard as an art center while connecting it with Norman’s other hot spot, Campus Corner, via a monthly transit service and art walk.
But, while new businesses are infusing the area, many have been there for decades. They are popular destinations like Mister Robert furniture, where people come from across the metro to stock their homes with oaken armoires that they can pass on to their kids.
For businesses like this or the towering Financial Center building, downtown Norman is what it always has been: the center, and thus, the place to be.
“We’ve always been a destination,” said Steve Calonkey, the furniture store’s president. “As far as the Vista goes, it’s a landmark for downtown Norman, and nothing’s changed.” “Grant Slater