Over time, buildings come and buildings go in any city. But downtown, where SandRidge Energy plans to raze four structures of the former Kerr-McGee complex as it creates a corporate campus in its corner of the world, some are concerned that the company is unnecessarily taking away irreplaceable pieces of the city’s history.
No one is likely mourning the loss of a parking structure to be replaced with a new glass-walled building featuring rooftop basketball courts and recreation areas, but some are concerned the mistakes of urban renewal may be repeated by razing some of downtown’s oldest buildings.
One in particular, a building known as the India Temple, at the corner of Broadway and Robert S. Kerr, was constructed in 1902 and is set to be torn down. It housed the Oklahoma Legislature from 1913 to 1917 while the Capitol was being built.
As part of Kerr-McGee’s corporate makeover of its campus in the early ’70s, the company built a 30-story tower as the centerpiece, and a modern face was slapped on the India Temple that bore no resemblance to the original facade.
Downtown resident Steve Newlon said he and other young professionals who have decided to call downtown home would like SandRidge to take another look at the entire plan, and especially the India Temple to see if it could be restored and incorporated into the company’s plans rather than razing the building.
“As a downtown resident and property owner interested in historical preservation of our remaining few historical buildings, I am deeply upset to hear that the India Temple building, built in 1902, has plans for demolition by SandRidge,” Newlon said. “While no one would recognize the historical structure today due to fake concrete facades ” that can be removed ” it is a very important piece of downtown Oklahoma City history.”
The request to raze that building, the parking garage, and two other buildings is expected to come before the Downtown Design Review Committee for consideration at its March 18 meeting.
Despite any shred of historical significance that might remain, all are slated for demolition as SandRidge plans to eliminate most of the structures surrounding the tower to open up the campus to more park space and improve the sight lines of the tower. The two other buildings in the discussion are at the corner of Robert S. Kerr and Robinson avenues, one that also dates back close to 100 years. Those two are set for demolition to open the campus up on the southwest side.
The only building other than the tower set to remain is the former Braniff building, 324 N. Robinson, built in 1923 and designed by Solomon Layton, the architect behind the Skirvin Hilton Hotel and the state Capitol building. The Braniff is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, is the person in the state perhaps most interested in historic preservation and keeping the wrecking ball from buildings with specific historic merit.
He first looked at the buildings surrounding the Kerr-McGee tower in 1979 and had a blunt assessment as to each one’s historic significance.
Blackburn saw merit in the Braniff building and set about getting it placed on the national register. At the India Temple building and the two buildings on the southwest corner of the Kerr-McGee complex, however, he did not see reason to work toward federal and state preservation efforts.
“That India Temple did not have enough integrity in 1979 to be listed on the National Register (of Historic Places),” he said. “It was a very conscious decision not to nominate it, (and) none of that has changed.
“It’s no more significant now than it was in 1979.”
As for the other two buildings on the southwest side that are set for demolition, Blackburn looked at those in 1979 and also did not see merit in adding them to the national register.
“The other two are not even on my radar screen in terms of a preservation conversation,” he said.
A step that SandRidge may be making in the right direction, from Blackburn’s assessment, is the willingness of the company and its architect, New York-based Rogers Marvel Architects, to preserve the Braniff building. Blackburn is also encouraging SandRidge to seek tax credits for the project to show the public it is dedicated to restoring the building while abiding by strict standards set forth by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Those federal tax credits could cover 20 percent of the renovations to the Braniff building, not including possible state tax credits.
“If they do that, that’s a good-faith gesture that they will do it right,” he said.
SandRidge and Rogers Marvel Architects confirmed the India Temple’s historic integrity is not salvageable.
Blackburn suggested the one building that is the most important in the complex, and with the most historic significance, is not necessarily the oldest.
“In terms of historic buildings in that immediate area, I put the tower as the most important historic building,” he said. “It is a pivot point in the history of downtown Oklahoma City.” “Kelley Chambers
photo the historic, original India Temple.