In 1964, Oklahoma City bought its downtown’s future from architect I.M. Pei for $60,000.
Although the future constructed by the world-renowned designer never fully arrived, the model displayed to an estimated 600 spectators on Dec. 11, 1964, is being rebuilt. The Pei model, a 10-by-12-foot replica of how he planned the city to look in 1989, will be unveiled for the second time at the Cox Convention Center on Monday.
The model has been in storage for the past 14 years. After the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995, the Smithsonian Institute used it in an exhibit to display sections of downtown. Crated in 1996, it remained in dormancy until a group of history sleuths uncovered the link to the past.
Rachel Mosman, board member and archivist for the Oklahoma City/County Historical Society, was researching downtown’s past while looking at the Barney Hillerman collection ” a series of more than 750,000 photographs detailing Oklahoma from the early 1900s to 1980s. After noticing several unfamiliar buildings, she decided to find out why she couldn’t visit them today.
“I didn’t recognize the buildings in the photos, so it led me on a quest to figure out what Oklahoma City looked like before urban renewal,” she said. “I found out about the model and pitched the idea (of rebuilding it) to the Oklahoma County Historical Society.”
The pitch was approved, and reconstruction began on Feb. 15. Mosman’s team of builders ” or more accurately, puzzle-assemblers ” speedily put together the 46-year-old model within the month. Fortunately, the Smithsonian’s packaging remained intact, minimizing damage and decay. Mosman said they only had to clean a few glue stains and re-attach some small details while maintaining its vintage look.
“The model is a relic of its time,” she said. “We don’t want it to look like a new model; it’s historic. We’re trying to preserve that feel while cleaning up glue stains and dusting.”
Despite its age, the 120-square-foot vision of downtown is still impressive and almost has a life of its own. The small cars and trees dotting the surface are dwarfed by ornate skyscrapers, a Tivoli Gardens-sized Myriad Gardens and a grand galleria mall, which Pei believed would increase business activity significantly.
Hans Butzer, a professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma, said because the model was so detailed, it is a window into the future residents of Oklahoma City wished to see.
“It’s pretty extensive in terms of detail,” he said. “If you commissioned this model today, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete.”
The model presented specific challenges to the city. Pei’s idea was the first of his city plans to call for clearing and redeveloping a city’s central core. Without taking such immense steps, he thought Oklahoma City could never become the home of major residential, commercial and cultural landmarks.
The plan carried a large price tag, however. The plan’s ballpark figure totaled nearly $311 million, which would equal nearly $2.1 billion if completed today.
“You may ask if you can afford it,” The Oklahoman reported Pei said to the crowd at the 1964 unveiling. “We think you have no choice. You have a wonderful bargain to get more for your money than any city in the country in this plan.”
The original plan envisioned the preservation of the Biltmore, Huckins and Skirvin hotels and the Colcord building ” the city’s oldest skyscraper. It also called for a skyscraper to be built where the Chase Building stands, and ” eerily enough ” a reflecting pool close to where the Oklahoma City National Memorial is located.
The Pei Plan received a mixed response of compliments and criticisms. Steve Lackmeyer, co-author of “OKC: Second Time Around” and reporter for The Oklahoman, said it wasn’t until nearly 10 years later when others would understand the real cost of the plan, leading to its unpopularity.
“One must understand the community response was passive at first,” he said. “It wasn’t until the 1970s when the price became clear that urban renewal became unpopular. That price, of course, being the Criterion Theater, Warner Theater, the Biltmore Hotel and many others. It was a violent makeover where we saw over 500 buildings torn down.”
Lackmeyer, whose book addresses the failed downtown renaissance, believed the plan needed a large amount of commitment and bravery from city leaders, which wasn’t understood at time.
“I don’t think they had a grasp as to what was being proposed,” he said. “Everything was changing culturally and socially: the Summer of Love, the Vietnam War. There was a great upheaval nationwide. This was no exception.”
To some, however, the Pei Plan shouldn’t be considered a total failure. Local attorney Doug Loudenback said the city’s downtown area was dying in 1964, and there was need for a plan to be adopted. Despite the economic troubles that ultimately disbanded the effort and left it incomplete, there were benefits.
“There was a lot of good that came out of (the Pei Plan),” he said. “There were some nice buildings built: the Kerr-McGee Building, Liberty Tower, Leadership Square and the Oklahoma Tower were built. I’m not sure anyone should consider it a failure at all.”
However, Loudenback said he believed the plan wasn’t the right solution and could have created more problems in the long run if it was completed. Downtown department stores wouldn’t have been anchored with major retailers, and the plan could have become crippled during the oil bust and bank failures.
“The big fault, from my perspective, was it didn’t give enough attention to history,” he said. “(Pei) was a modernist, futuristic city guy. As a result, 40 percent of downtown was destroyed.”
Despite some of the negativity associated with the plan, Lackmeyer and the presenters remain neutral, hoping only to preserve a piece of Oklahoma’s history.
“We don’t promote or criticize the Pei Plan,” Lackmeyer said. “We think it’s important for people to know of Oklahoma City’s 50th anniversary of downtown transformation. “¦ While I.M. Pei was the architect of the vision, we were the builders. We think there is a benefit to our future if we also look back at what transpired.”
The Pei model will be unveiled at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Cox Communications Center. Mayor Mick Cornett and local historian Bob Blackburn are scheduled to speak at the event, which is free and open to the public.
photo I.M. Pei’s concept envisioned an Oklahoma City of the future. The urban
redevelopment initiative will be unveiled again this week. photo/Mark Hancock