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Saving Johansenís Stage Center

February 28, 2012

After a period of neglect, efforts have grown to rescue the Oklahoma City theater that Harvard Five architect John Johansen considers his masterwork.

By David Hill

Kimball Art Center Expansion
Photo © Robert Shimer/Hedrich Blessing / Courtesy Elliott + Associates Architects

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In Oklahoma City, John Johansen’s 1970 Mummers Theater has long been one of those love-it-or-hate-it buildings. Now called the Stage Center, the structure is a whimsical assemblage of brutalist concrete forms and brightly colored steel ramps. Hovering above it all are three corrugated metal boxes containing the building’s mechanical systems. A member of the Harvard Five, Johansen, now 95, called the theater “not a building as we have known it, but a fragment,” and claimed it was inspired by the complex beauty of electronic circuit boards. In 1971, Time magazine critic Robert Hughes praised it as “an exquisitely human building in its scale, organization, and intriguing unpredictabilities.”

But the future of Johansen’s controversial masterpiece is uncertain. Built for a local theater company that went bankrupt after just one season in its new home, the theater hosted a series of tenants until a 2010 flood forced it to close. The current owner, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, says it costs more than $100,000 a year just to maintain the empty building, which no longer has a functional heating, ventilation, and cooling system and has suffered from occasional vandalism. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s tallest office building, the new 50-story Devon Energy Tower, designed by Pickard Chilton, sits directly across the street. With the city’s downtown district booming, Stage Center seems a likely candidate for demolition and redevelopment.

But not if the AIA’s Central Oklahoma Chapter has anything to do with it. In December, the group, whose office was once located in the Stage Center building, convinced the community foundation to allow it to issue a request for proposals to redevelop Johansen’s building. The foundation agreed, but only if the proposals were “economically viable,” says Melissa Hunt, AIA Central Oklahoma Chapter’s executive director. She says the most promising idea so far (the deadline for RFP’s is February 29) is to convert the theater into a children’s museum.

That plan is being proposed by Tracey Zeeck, a mother and public relations consultant, and Farooq Karim, vice president of Rees Associates Architects. The Stage Center building, Zeeck says, “is perfect for a children’s museum. It’s so kinetic. When I was little, I used to look at it and think that it was a machine from a Monty Python cartoon.” Karim adds, “If there is a building on this planet that looks like it was designed for kids, it’s this building.” Working pro bono, his firm has come up with preliminary designs to convert the building without making significant alternations. The $30 million estimated price tag, however, could be a stumbling block. “We have some promises from several small family foundations and some private donors,” Zeeck says, “but nothing that’s going to get us over the edge.” She hopes the community foundation will allow more time to secure funding for the project. (A separate proposal to turn the theater into an architecture and design museum may be incorporated into the children’s museum plan.)

Johansen, reached at his Cape Cod home, says contemplating the possible demolition the stage center has been depressing. “I’ve been bracing myself,” he says. “Ten of the 27 houses I designed have been torn down, and others have been threatened. I’ve lost more buildings than many other architects."

But the architect is heartened by efforts to save the Stage Center, and he is happy to see it turned into a children’s museum if that’s what it takes to preserve his masterwork. “I think it’s the finest thing I’ve ever done,” he says.

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