The Founders District: A History of Mid-Century Modern Architecture
by Lynne Rostochil
Recently, I was asked to talk about mid-century modern architecture in the Founders District for the neighborhood’s first-ever Heritage Night, and I thought I’d share the presentation with the Mod Squad, too. Enjoy!
In 1961, the United Founders Life Insurance Company bought a 60-acre tract west of May and north of NW Hwy for $600,000.
The area had recently become home to Baptist Hospital and several new suburban neighborhoods, and United Founders president, Horace G. Rhodes, envisioned a multi-use development that would be pedestrian friendly and include living, office, retail, and recreational space surrounded by fountains, plazas, and greenery.
The Founders District, 1969 and 2015:
With its location on one of the highest points in town, the United Founders Tower was technically the tallest building in the city, according to Founders president Rhodes. Here’s a rare shot of the district taken from Baptist Hospital in the mid-1960s:
Let’s talk about some of the buildings that make up the Founders District, beginning with the NW Hi-Way Drive-In:
Both the 77 Drive-In and the NW Hi-Way Drive-In opened the same day, July 2, 1947, and were the first drive-ins in the Metro. The NW Hi-Way was a one-screen theater and had room for 756 cars. Interestingly, during the time that the neighborhood behind the theater was being built, the screen at the drive in was widened, making it the largest in the state:
New homeowners, who had been reluctant to buy lots backing up to the bright and busy theater anyway, were not happy with the changes to the theater and protested. To appease their new neighbors, the ingenious theater owners appeased the protesters by offering to install speakers on their back patios so that they could watch movies for free from the comfort of their own homes. That quickly squelched all protests and the homeowners and drive-in lived peacefully together for many years.
Here’s a photo of the drive-in shortly after it closed. The screen on the right was added in the 1960s to block light from Baptist Hospital and the Hilander Bowling Alley:
By the mid-’70s, the value of the land where the theater sat had increased so much that the old drive-in was no longer viable, so it closed after the 1979 summer season and was replaced with a Marriott Hotel, which is now the Tower Hotel. The only part of the original theater that remains is the gully facing NW Hwy, where I remember excitedly rolling my three-year-old body down the hill, squealing with delight every second, until it grew dark and the movie began:
Next to the existing drive-in was the Founders flagship project, the United Founders Tower designed by Hudgins, Thompson, Ball & Associates (HTB). Here’s the building under construction in 1963:
When Founders Tower opened in 1964, it was heralded as one of the best examples of modern architecture in the state. At 20 stories, it was also the third tallest building in Oklahoma City.
Comprised of 35,000 square feet of glass and 1,500 windows, the $2.5 million tower was the tallest building constructed in Oklahoma City in 30 years and could be seen on a clear night as far away as Norman, Guthrie, and Kingfisher. In addition, the building contained 140,000 square feet of office space – each office suite boasted its own balcony — and the United Founders Life Insurance Company took six floors of the building and rented out the rest of the space. Finally, a luxurious penthouse suite was available for visiting VIPs and there was a basement-level secretarial service and health club available to all tenants.
Some of the original businesses in the new tower included Rainbow Travel…
… Johnnie’s and Dottie’s Grooming for Men, San Souci Salon, and the Anna Maude Cafeteria, which was soon replaced with the iconic Queen Ann Cafeteria:
Queen Ann would stay in business in the first-floor restaurant space of the Founders Tower until the building closed as offices in 2006.
Because it was located on a high point in town, HTB designed the top two floors of the Founders Tower as a rotating restaurant, which became the ultra-exclusive, members-only Chandelle:
The Chandelle was only the fourth rotating restaurant in the world when it was constructed — Seattle’s Space Needle, La Ronde in Honolulu, the Fairmont Hotel in San Franscisco, and a restaurant in South America were the others. Engineers at HTB had to innovate the 20th-floor restaurant’s revolving mechanism themselves; they decided on a plan similar to the Space Needle’s, where the rotating floor was set on tracks and powered by several 10 1/4 horsepower motors.
This design allowed the 188 seats on the nine-foot-wide outer rim of the restaurant to smoothly rotate one revolution an hour, giving diners a unique, 360-degree view of the city.
The opulent Chandelle was the place to be seen in the mid-’60s, and many a dignitary and celebrity enjoyed listening to tunes by the swanky Al Tell band while enjoying fabulous fare and, of course, the magnificent views.
A private club, the Chandelle offered a variety of memberships: A lifetime membership was $122, annual memberships were $24.40 per person, and company memberships cost the company $20 a year and the individual within the company a whopping $10 a year. Not bad for a seat in the swankiest club in town!
This being Oklahoma in the ’60s, there were some pretty crazy liquor laws in effect at the time that created all kinds of problems for club owners. As with other restaurants and drinking establishments, the Chandelle functioned “on the purchase order system, with the club manager (Connie Riggs) designated as purchasing agent for each member.” Apparently, ole Connie didn’t care much for the policy, however, because shortly after it opened, the Chandelle was raided when waiters served undercover agents liquor straight from the bar (and not their own bottles). That was really illegal … and the police cared to enforce such silliness? It’s hard to believe, but I guess so. Anyway, the raid resulted in the confiscation of nearly 100 bottles of whiskey and dozens of bottles of other spirits. Because the club got caught operating as an “open saloon,” the owners were fined $500, but one brazen and maybe half tipsy club member sued the City for the return of his liquor. Wonder if he won….
At night, the stunning Founders Tower lit up like a Christmas tree, with 200 floodlights at the base of the building illuminating upward and 40 at the top that extended “out to give the appearance of a crown of jewels,” according to some of the tower’s marketing materials from the era:
Here’s another look at this OKC icon with its original dark glass:
I really love now/then photos, so here are a few that were taken from the Founders Tower in the 1960s and again in 2011. This one is looking northeast and features Lakeview Towers, Normandie Apartments (in the middle) and Tara condos (on the left):
Here’s the view looking to the southeast. You can see Founders National Bank and the Terrace Office Building in the original shot, and the Crowne Plaza Hotel and Oil Center in the 2011 photo:
Looking east, you can see the Shoppers World/Home Depot site and the Belle Isle neighborhood:
Finally, check out this view to the south, where you can see the old Voyager Inn Motel in the original image, which was replaced with the Warwick West Apartments in the late 1970s:
As for the Founders Tower, it remained a popular office complex through Oklahoma City’s economic ups and downs, during which many of its fellow buildings were razed or renovated beyond recognition. But by the beginning of the millennium it was apparent that a change was needed for the four-decade-old structure. It was purchased in 2005 by Bridgeport Development, who then hired Richard Brown Associates to transform the former office building into condominiums. During the renovation, the only change to the exterior was the black curtain wall, which received a light blue-green, energy efficient glass replacement. The refreshed Founders Tower re-opened in 2007 to great acclaim and has been a model for illustrating how effectively Oklahoma’s mid-century buildings can be re-adapted for new uses.
One last note about the tower. In the ’60s, A.D and Azalee Thomas were the lucky owners of a home that backed up to the Founders Tower construction site (lucky because they also received one of the speakers from the Northwest Hi-Way Drive-In). At the time, there was a greenbelt that separated A.D.’s backyard from the commercial area that included the tower, and he would mow the green expanse whenever it became unruly. While mowing one day, he noticed something interesting peeking out of a dumpster near the tower … a model of the newly completed building. Thinking that his grandchildren would enjoy playing with the model, A.D. rescued it from the dumpster and took it home. Luckily for us, his grandchildren weren’t very interested in the model as a toy, and it quietly sat in his — then his son, Joe’s — garage for decades until Joe’s wife, Jonita, contacted The Oklahoman’s Steve Lackmeyer about donating it. Steve immediately thought of the Mod Squad and contacted Lynne, and that’s how we got this incredibly rare piece of mid-century modern Oklahoma history. Although some of the building’s 170 balconies are missing and it’s a bit bunged up here and there, the model is in incredible condition and Squadder Brent Alexander spruced it up a bit and strengthened it to last another 50 years. Here’s the model before its restoration:
Here’s another great image of Founders Tower surrounded by other buildings in the district. Even though different architectural firms designed these buildings, they made an obvious attempt to create a cohesive look that gave the area a purposeful, elegant look:
Let’s chat about the second tower in the above image, the top-hatted Medical Tower:
The 10-story, charcoal brick building highlighted with white MoSai trim was the brainchild of Drs. Meredith Appleton, J. Hartwell Dunn, and Charles Reynolds, Jr., and cost $1.3 million to build. Here’s a model of the tower:
And the model showing neighboring buildings:
I love this photo of the building under construction, too:
Completed in 1966, the stately Medical Tower was designed by Fritzler-Knoblock, who did several of the medical buildings surrounding Baptist Hospital, and it provided office space for 30-40 doctors.
Sadly, the once-stylish Medical Tower wins my award for the most horrific remodel in Oklahoma. Just take a look at the abomination that is this building now and you’ll shake your head in disgust like I do every time I drive by it and remember what it once looked like:
This mustard-colored piece of blech occurred when developer Bob Patel bought the Medical Tower in 2002 and spent $4.2 million — yes, you read that right, $4.2 million for MUSTARD — renovating the building and converting it a Country Inn & Suites Hotel. He hired Socrates Lazaridis of Renaissance Architects for the remodel and, after it was completed, boasted that his “desire to restore this stately building to a more appealing and productive state has been realized.” Post-modern mustard is better than what was there? I … have … no … words.
My dumbfounded stupor continues with the Ackerman Building, a once proudly mod piece of architecture that boasted a “floating roof” and black brick that beautifully complimented all of the other buildings in the area:
Sadly, after Ackerman moved out in 1984, the building ultimately found a very unsympathetic owner, who added a third story to the building and converted it into a Comfort Inn. YUCK!
Let’s move on to the Dunn-Reynolds Urology Clinic:
One of the first projects to get underway in the Founders District was the elegant Dunn-Reynolds Urology Clinic, which was also designed by Fritzler-Knoblock. The charming two story building took advantage of its hillside location and was built into the slope. The first level could be accessed from the NW Expressway entrance – back of the building was an entrance to the second level:
Now occupied by the OKC Metropolitan Association of Realtors, the former clinic was expanded and updated in the early 1990s and lost many of its original mid-century modern features. The balcony was enclosed and most of the façade was sheeted in reflective glass. Here’s the front of the building now:
The original street numbers remain on the building (although the address was originally 3113):
The back of the building received more reflective glass:
Sandwiched between the Medical Tower and Founders Tower was the lovely Continental Theater, which was the first modern suburban theater built in decades:
The Continental was considered by many to be the best movie palace in the city. Designed by Calvin Garrett, the low-slung theater was one of three — there were Continentals in Denver and Tulsa, too:
Here’s the theater under construction:
Opened in 1965, this modern delight sat off of the main road and was barely visible from the bustling NW Expressway:
The single-screen theater saw initial success but, as multi-plex theaters began opening nearby, the Continental ultimately failed and closed its doors in 1983. The building remained abandoned and boarded until it was finally demolished in 2006. Here’s a photo shortly before the theater in its derelict last days.
The site remained undeveloped for nearly a decade until recently when a Residential Inn by Marriott began being constructed on the site:
Next up is the Founders National Bank:
Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on Oklahoma City’s suburban expansion, movie theater owner, Jerry Barton, who also sat on the board of Founders National Bank, decided that the area around N. May and Northwest Expressway would be the perfect place to construct a new bank building that would serve the quickly growing suburban area. Once the board approved his idea, Barton enlisted the services of Robert Alan Bowlby to design the new bank, giving the young architect free reign to create something bold and unique.
An OKC native, Bowlby graduated from Central High School and moved to Norman to attend OU and study under Bruce Goff. This was his first project after receiving his architect’s license. Bowlby’s bold and elegant design for the new bank, which opened in 1964, incorporated the use of two 50-foot exterior arches that supported the building and removed the need for interior walls altogether. This allowed for expansive, open spaces inside that gave the structure an exuberant feeling of lightness, so light it seemed the entire building could lift up and fly away with the breezy Oklahoma wind if not for the giant arches tethering it to the ground.
Other distinctive features of the bank included a concave, floating roof that provided a substantial amount of indirect lighting, large floor-to-ceiling windows that made the interior spaces look much larger than they really were, and a century-old, 16-ton vault door shipped from Toledo, Ohio, that both protected the bank’s assets and became the focal point of the otherwise modern lobby.
When architectural photographer, Julius Shulman arrived in Oklahoma City to take images of a nearby home that Bowlby was assisting on, he asked the young architect, who was also an architectural photographer, to assist him during his stay. The two spent the next three days photographing the home and other buildings, during which time Bowlby drove the always-curious photographer to the recently completed Founders National Bank.
Shulman was immediately intrigued by the bank’s unique design, as well as the photographic possibilities it presented, and added the building to his list of structures to shoot while he was in town. On the last day of his visit, Shulman and Bowlby headed over to Founders National Bank just before dusk one evening, and the famed camera man captured the stunning building in all of its dramatic glory just as the sun was setting in a cloudless sky.
The photo was published and garnered Bowlby a lot of attention and to this day, he credits Shulman with getting his career off the ground.
The building was expanded in the early ‘80s when many of the large windows were removed to add more office space around the perimeter of the building.
This stunning, one-of-a-kind building was unceremoniously demolished in October 2018:
One of the last buildings completed in the Founders District during the initial building phase was the Hilton Inn at the intersection of May and NW Expressway:
Built in 1969, the hotel consisted of 196 rooms, 24 cabanas situated around the pool, and two garden-facing suites, one of which had its own private pool. Here’s a rendering of the hotel and cabanas:
Although it had the Hilton name on it, the hotel was locally owned and its first manager was Paul Huckins, whose family owned the Huckins Hotel downtown for decades.
Atlas Construction built most of the first wave of buildings in the district, and this photo of the Hilton Inn hangs in their office today:
Wonder if that incredible tilework is under the building now.
The hotel was remodeled in 1980 and again in the early 2000s and few, if any, original elements remain. It is now the Crowne Plaza.
One of the early Founders District buildings that is no longer around is the gigantic Shoppers World:
Designed by Sorey Hill Sorey, Shoppers World was the largest one-floor store when it opened in 1962. Here are groundbreaking ceremonies in July of that year:
The 100,000 sf space cost $1.5 million to build and contained 60 different departments, including a large grocery store that imported exotic foods from around the world, a drug store, a restaurant, toy department, and even a nursery where kids could play and have fun while mom shopped. Over 200 people worked at Shoppers World, which was located in what is now known as Centennial Plaza:
Here’s a photo of Shoppers World under construction:
And here’s a view of it from May — it’s hard to believe that May ever looked like this, isn’t it?
The huge store opened to great fanfare and every one of the 1,700 parking spaces was full for days; however, the business seemed jinxed from the start. Within a week of opening, a lawsuit was filed against the owners claiming that Shoppers World was undercutting other dry cleaning businesses in the area with their much cheaper prices. Then, a few months later, the store was robbed. I guess the owners weren’t happy with the way things were going and by 1965, they were out and the new buyers had changed the name of the store to Founders Fair. Unfortunately, the new alliterative name didn’t help with business — or the rash of robberies that continued to plague the business — and it was bought again in 1969 and became Trade Mart. The new owners hoped that business would boom with the new moniker, and they even opened a twin in SWOKC at 7301 S. Penn:
As the store’s bad luck — and robberies — continued, enthusiasm for the huge center waned and Trade Mart closed in early ‘80s. The building was then divided into a Service Merchandise on one side and an events venue called the Centre on the other side in 1983. Not even this worked, however, and both businesses were gone by 1986. Shoppers World was torn down soon after and the space began filling up with the shops that are there today – Home Depot, Best Buy, Guitar Center, and Gordman’s to name a few. It’s known as Centennial Plaza today. Shoppers World was located where Gordman’s is now and it stretched south to north into what is now the parking lot:
Our final stop on the Founders District tour is the Local Federal Savings & Loan building:
Local Federal Savings & Loan was formed in 1908 with a stock capital of $200,000, and Charles F. Colcord was its first president. In 1920, the S&L built its first headquarters, a three-story building at Robinson and First (now Park) Avenues in downtown OKC:
The bank continued to grow and that building was demolished and replaced in 1959 by a six-story modern building designed by Sorey Hill Sorey:
For the firm’s first suburban branch bank, the directors once again hired Sorey Hill Sorey to come up with a modern design and the bank was completed in 1964. It boasted comfortable and classy interiors:
At some point, the fountain and lawn were removed to enlarge the drive-thru, but other than that, the building remained very original as Local Federal became Local Oklahoma Bank in 1999 and ultimately merged with IBC in 2004. A few years later, the mid-century modern bank was demolished and replaced with this smaller and much more lackluster building in 2008:
And that’s it for our tour of mid-century modern architecture in the Founders District!
Vonnee Gregg/Curtis Burga collection
Oklahoma History Center
OPUBCO Collection – OHC
Allison collection – Retro Metro OKC
Metropolitan Library System – Oklahoma City collection
Drake Sorey collection