The Oklahoma State Fair Goes Modern

by Lynne Rostochil.  Modern day photos by Lynne Rostochil.  Vintage photos courtesy of the Oklahoma State Fair and the OPUBCO collection at the Oklahoma History Center.

This blog was originally posted in 2012.  Over the years, I’ve found more photos and history about the fair and updated the post with that data in 2018.

It’s that fair time of year again, and thousands of people from all over the state are flocking to the square-mile plot of land between I-44 and May and I-40 and NW 10th to enjoy this, the first great celebration of fall.  Every year, visitors go to State Fair Park to check out the locally-raised horses and livestock, eat gobs of turkey legs and funnel cakes, try to dunk that sour-mouthed Bobo, and enjoy all of the dipping, spinning, and flying rides while simultaneously attempting to keep down the aforementioned turkey legs and funnel cakes.  In addition to all of the traditional fair fare, this is also a place where you can find a lot of great mid-century modern architecture among the midway rides, displays, and food booths.

Originally, State Fair Park was located just east of downtown, but by the mid-’30s the park was completely surrounded by development, parking was a real issue, and, perhaps most importantly, oil was discovered on the site.  With all of the tanks and machinery involved in oil drilling, space at the fairgrounds became even more limited, and it seemed obvious that it was time for a move.  But, it was the middle of the Depression and WWII was looming on the horizon, which meant that the fair wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and it stayed in its cramped quarters until the post-war building boom began over a decade later.

By 1950, fair organizers and city leaders decided the time was finally right to relocate the fair three miles west of downtown to a 440-acre site out in the middle of nowhere, and OKC residents supported the idea by passing a bond issue that included $4.75 million for the new facility.  Here’s what the site just southwest of NW 10th and May looked like in 1951:

The park’s master plan was developed by the Dean of the School of Architecture at Oklahoma A&M (now OSU), Phil Wilbur, and members of the fair board and city council agreed that a different architectural firm should design each of the fair buildings.  Perhaps not surprising considering the fact that Wilbur was featured so prominently in the picture, all of the firms selected to design the buildings had members or engineers somehow associated with OSU, and they all embraced the new, which meant the look of the fairgrounds would have a distinctly modern feel.  These firms included Coston Frankfurt & Short, who designed the Modern Living and Centennial buildings.  Here’s the Modern Living Building in theory and in reality …

And the Centennial Building:

…Wright & Selby, who designed the Grandstand (just before it was demolished)…

… and Sorey Hill Sorey, who designed the OPUBCO building:

The bandshell was constructed during this time, too:

It got a facelift a few years ago and is still looking great today:

Construction began soon after the master plan was approved, and when the new park opened its doors for the 1954 State Fair on September 25th, city leaders, park officials, and the citizens of Oklahoma City had reason to be proud of the shiny, thoroughly modern buildings and grounds.  Enthusiasm for the new park was so strong that the fair attendance for 1954 reached an all-time high to that date with 416,000 people attending the fair during its nine-day run.

In 1957, Oklahoma celebrated 50 years as a state with its Arrows to Atoms exposition at the fairgrounds:

In celebration, the Arrows to Atoms sculpture was unveiled…

… and all kinds of performances, races, and parties ensued:

In the meantime, plans were in place to add even more buildings to the new park, including an indoor arena, a science museum, and transportation building:

Over the next decade, almost all of the buildings in the plan would be constructed.

The Oklahoma building was added in 1957:

One of the most popular additions to the growing State Fair Park was the 15,000 seat All Sports Stadium, which was designed by Coston Frankfurt & Short and opened in 1961:

The Kirkpatrick Planetarium opened in 1962 and was an immediate success:

The year 1965 saw a lot of changes to State Fair Park —

The oval arena, designed by Jack L. Scott, was completed:

The round Oklahoma Art Center was designed by Parr & Aderhold and opened to great fanfare:

The beloved monorail arrived in 1965…

…along with 57 Mondrian-like street lights that had been used at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  Each light cost $600:

Here’s what the lights looked like in 2005, a year or so before they all came down:

Finally, in 1968, the “Arrows to Atoms” sculpture was replaced with a rotating Space Needle that provided riders with panoramic views of the entire city.

Here it is when it was still in operation in 2008:

Nowadays, the Space Needle is grounded and may never rise up over the fairgrounds again:

As for the Arrows to Atoms sculpture, when it was dismantled, it was chopped down quite a bit and mounted on farmland south of town and it remains there today:

In 1976, the Spirit of ’76 arch was added to the complex as the gateway to the park:

By 1993, State Fair Park was all filled in and the site looked like this:

Until the late 1990s, State Fair Park remained pretty much unchanged.  Then, new management came in, and in an effort to “beautify” the park and save money at the same time, many of the fairground’s most iconic structures began to come down.  The great World’s Fair lights were removed around 2006 for more traditional and boring models, and after the Oklahoma City Museum of Art moved downtown, the donut-shaped former Art Center was unceremoniously demolished in 2008.  The monorail was dismantled in 2005, with only a token piece of track and two cars left standing to pay homage to one of the fair’s most popular rides:

Now, even those are gone.

All Sports Stadium was home to the 89ers until they moved to Bricktown and became the Redhawks in 1998.  After years of baseball fun and many a concert — Beach Boys, Smashing Pumpkins, Motley Crue, etc. — the stadium bit the dust in 2005 and the site is now a parking lot.

Then, in 2010, it was the Grandstand’s turn:

In 2017, weather and not man destroyed the Spirit of ’76 arch when a violent spring storm passed over the fairgrounds and toppled the iconic structure:

So far, the Space Needle is still there, but it hasn’t been operational since 2011 so who knows what its fate may be.

As part of  MAPS3, the west side of the park has undergone a dramatic and much-needed transformation with more agriculture buildings and a new transportation building being added.  From the master plan, it looks like the remaining mid-century buildings at State Fair Park are safe … at least for now.  If you’d like to see the MAPS3 plan, go here:

Even with all of the changes, some of which have been good by the way, I still love to go to the fair with my camera and snap shots of the people, all while munching on candy apples, drinking jugs of freezing cold root beer — diet be damned — and finding Bobo still craggily barking away.  So, to end things on a positive note, which I like to do, here are some of my favorite shots of the State Fair of Oklahoma from 2005-now: