Save the Circle: A Brief History of the Donnay Building and Why We Should Save It
by Lynne Rostochil. Photos by Lynne Rostochil unless otherwise stated.
Last week, OKCTalk.com released a story about Braum’s plan to demolish the iconic Donnay Building, which is home to Charlie’s Records, the Drunken Fry, and the Hi Lo Club, along with the building in which the iconic Classen Grill is housed. Right away, the Mod Squad posted a petition in protest, which now has over 13,000 signatures. With all of the uproar, every major TV and radio station covered the news, and the first protest, organized by City Councilman Ed Shadid and the group, Save Classen Circle, was held just two days later:
One guy even made a bunch of t-shirts on such short notice:
Here’s Ed Shadid being interviewed by KFOR’s Bill Miston:
This lovely lady, who is in her ’70s, remembers going to the Patio Restaurant as a kid and braved the 100-degree weather to join the protest:
There was even a guy there banging the drums and keeping everyone rhythmically entertained:
So, why all of this fervor over a building that has, admittedly, fallen into disrepair since the owner, Red Oak Properties, purchased it in the mid-’90s? Well, let’s go into a bit of the building’s history to learn why.
The Donnay Building was the brainchild and namesake of Matt Donnay, a WWI vet who worked as an architect and home builder after his return from the war. Here’s a photo of him during a VFW ceremony in 1984 — he’s the chipper older gentleman on the left:
(OPUBCO collection at the History Center)
In 1949, he branched out of his single-family comfort zone when he designed and built his first apartment complex, also named the Donnay and now known as the Chardonnay in the Paseo District:
(Oklahoma County Tax Assessor)
The complex was originally 12 units and cost $25,000 to build, and the Donnays lived here during the time that he developed the property at Classen Circle.
I believe that he also designed his self-named mixed use building along the old Classen Circle. The Donnay Building may have been constructed in two phases, the first in 1948 and the second in 1954. A few things lead me to believe this. First, I have phone directories from 1949 and 1950, and the only mention of the Donnay Building is for Matt’s construction office and also for an insurance company he owned. I looked up other businesses that may have occupied space — restaurants, bars, attorneys and architects offices, beauty salons and barber shops, etc. — and didn’t find anything else listed at that address. Although I looked around in my phone book, I still need to check a reverse directory to verify that Donnay’s businesses were the only ones located in the building in 1949 and 1950.
Another thing makes me think that the building may have been constructed in phases is this photo from Historicaerials.com:
The Donnay Building is in the upper right corner of the photo — here it is blown up:
This aerial shot was taken in 1954, and it looks like the entire front, rounded part of the building (where the Patio was located and where the Drunken Fry is now) hasn’t been built yet. In every other aerial photo after this one (1969-2013), it is easy to spot the circular portion of the building, as well as the section where Charlie’s Records is now, but neither seem to appear in the 1954 shot. As an example, here’s the 1969 view of the Donnay Building — it’s yucky and grainy and has a water mark, but you can clearly see the space where Charlie’s is now and where the Patio was:
Here are the detail shots from 1954, 1969, and now (from Googlemaps) so that you can see the difference between the 1954 version of the structure and later versions:
The shadow from the diagonal portion of the building on the west side is apparent in all of the images after 1954, but it’s not in the 1954 photo. So, I think that those parts of the building were added very soon after the 1954 photo was taken. What do you think?
I believe that the Matt Donnay waited until after the Classen Traffic Circle was completed in 1952 before he decided to expand the building. It seems that, when it was announced that the circle was going to be constructed, the City took some of Donnay’s land and didn’t pay him for it. He filed suit against the city and they went back and forth for two years until a jury sided with Donnay and awarded him a $4,450 settlement. Perhaps he used that money to expand the building once the traffic circle was constructed. Here’s a photo of the Classen Traffic Circle soon after it was completed in 1952:
(Oklahoma History Center)
This is the intersection looking south from Classen just north of the circle. That’s Horn Seed in the foreground on the right. The vacant plot of land just to the left of the circle is where Jimmy’s Egg is now. Anyway, apparently there was so much confusion on how to use a traffic circle that the City produced a local TV show called “Going in Circles” to teach citizens the “proper driving procedure” in using the unusual intersection. Um, okay. I guess Oklahoma City drivers were just too dumb to know how to handle a traffic circle, even though they had been exposed for a decade to another one at the intersection of May and NW Expressway, which was completed in 1940:
(Oklahoma History Center)
The May Avenue traffic circle was replaced with its current and odd three-clover-leafed exchange in 1952 — probably because people didn’t watch “Going in Circles”:
I find it very interesting that city planners chose to build a circle at Classen and the same time they were opting to remove the one at May. Anyway, more about Classen Circle later….
Here’s a ’60s photo from the Oklahoma History Center’s collection of the lovely Donnay Building in all of its mid-century glory:
Soon after the circle was constructed, the first of the Donnay Building’s iconic businesses, the Patio Restaurant, opened on October 9, 1954, perhaps the same year that the building was added on to.
(Mark’s Super Blog)
With its giant, amoeba-shaped sign, the Patio was one of the big hot spots in town for well over three decades. Here’s a photo of the Patio and its beautiful sign from 1975:
(Oklahoma History Center)
How glorious is that? The sign, along with the Donnay Building itself, was such a staple in the community that artist Greg Burns took the time to paint it in the 1980s, and it has remained one of his best sellers:
Almost anyone who lived in town during the restaurant’s heyday remembers the tiny, 900-square-foot space that seated just 34 people. There was rarely a day that the place wasn’t packed with enthusiastic patrons devouring one of owner Loreta Eckles’ sweet treats or a Joe Miller burger (named after an Oklahoman photographer) prepared by her husband, Vern. According to Classic Restaurants of Oklahoma City by Dave Cathey (a book that I highly recommend, by the way), Loreta and Vern were working for the Beverly’s chain when he drove by the Donnay Building one evening. “It (the future Patio space) was so cute I fell in love with it. I bought it the next morning, went home and told my wife and she wouldn’t speak to me for a year.” She must have forgiven him pretty quickly when she saw the line of people out the door day after day.
Back to my theory that part of the Donnay Building was constructed around 1954, six years after the original structure was completed. I found a classified ad in the Oklahoman stating that there was a “new luxurious office space” for lease above the Patio Restaurant. This ad was placed in September 1954, just a month before the Patio opened for business. “New” certainly makes me think that this was, duh, new and not just a revamped space.
As for the Patio, it remained in business in one form or another until 2000, when it closed for good. Bummer.
The next of the Donnay Building’s long-term businesses to open was the HiLo in 1956.
It looks like the Hi Lo has been the scene of many an interesting evening. Perhaps the most unusual event to happen on the premises was in 1966 when a man (possibly a boyfriend) was seen loitering outside the Hi Lo. When a woman exited the bar at 1:30 a.m. on a quiet Tuesday night, he fired shots at her, dragged her kicking and screaming to his car, threw her inside, and took off. Witnesses saw the incident and called the police, but the man, who was 27, and woman, 22, were long gone by the time they arrived. According to the Oklahoman, police found “a coat, which contained four bullet holes, two pairs of shoes, a skirt and sweater, and other articles of clothing when they arrived at the club.”
After leaving the parking lot, the man drove onto the Turner Turnpike heading toward Tulsa. At the Chandler turnpike gate, the woman escaped the vehicle and started running. The man jumped out of his car and took off after her. Luckily, a highway patrolman saw the two struggling at the gate and came to the injured woman’s rescue. While he was assisting the woman, the man got back into his car and took off toward Tulsa. The officer took the woman to the Chandler hospital, where she was treated for “minor flesh wounds and powder burns.” The police found the man in Tulsa and initially arrested him for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon but vacated that charge in favor of a more serious one, assault with intent to kill, which carried up to a 20 year sentence. The man was the son of the owner of the Tulsa Oilers baseball team and was released on a $2,000 bond. I haven’t been able to find out if he was convicted or went to jail, but it looks like he was a free man and living in Texas by the 1990s.
Even from its earliest beginnings, the Hi Lo was a place to hear great music. I found this image of local pianist, Leslie Sheffield, playing at the Hi Lo in 1960:
(Oklahoma History Center)
Surprisingly, even with all of its original vintage charm, the bar looks quite a bit different now, doesn’t it? That’s because there was a fire that gutted the bar in April 1970. Here’s a photo of the bar’s charred remains from the OPUBCO collection at the History Center:
Those poor, beautiful lights and all of that great furniture ruined. So sad. Here’s another image of a fireman on the roof struggling to put out the blaze:
Happily, the club was rebuilt and opened not too long afterward. I say happily because the neighborhood watering hole morphed into one of the first public spots in town where members of the LBGTQ community could gather without fear of being discriminated against, beaten up, or worse. The Hi Lo was a safe haven — it was home. Now, the Hi Lo is home to anyone and everyone who walks in the door and remains one of the most popular taverns in town. And, the fact that the decor hasn’t changed a bit since after the fire makes the place a true treasure for all kinds of reasons.
The uplit bar is the BEST in town:
And the stage where all of the great music and drag show magic takes place:
Here’s a photo of KFOR reporter, Bill Miston interviewing bartender Topher last week:
The next oldest business that calls the Donnay Building home is Charlie’s Records:
Here’s a little blurb I wrote about Charlie’s a few years ago:
As always, the atmosphere was low key and funky at the venerable Charlie’s in the old Patio building on Classen, which is the premiere store in town to search for old jazz, blues, and R&B records. An eccentric’s lusty wet dream (and a neat freak’s worst nightmare), Charlie’s is a crazy-but-cool amalgamation of all of the Charlie’s passions — music, old band instruments, wild African masks, and ancient microphones and cameras — all of which is for sale for the right price.
Although Charlie died recently and his 18-year-old grandson, Justin, took over the shop earlier this year, the record store remains the best place to go in search of that longed-for jazz or blues album.
The baby in the building is the Drunken Fry, which opened in the old Patio space in 2009 and offers a great beer selection, as well as french fries with over a dozen dipping sauces.
This place is always hopping and, if the Donnay Building is saved, promises to be around for a long time like its much older neighboring businesses.
When it was constructed in 1948 or 1954 (or both), the Donnay Building was one of the first mixed use projects to be built in town. The building contained retail and office space, as well as apartments. Today, the apartments are still being rented — I don’t know how anyone sleeps in them with all of the activity downstairs, but at least tenants don’t have far to go after an evening of pub crawling around the building and across the street at Edna’s. (Another early example of a mixed use building is the old Nuway Cleaners on May, which was designed by Hudgins Thompson & Ball and built in 1953.) To me, it’s so exciting to realize that these buildings are the grandparents of all of the mixed use projects sprouting up in Midtown, downtown, the Plaza District and, really, all over the city. They were the first.
The Donnay Building is not the only one on the chopping block — so is the one that houses one of the most popular breakfast spots in town, Classen Grill:
As for Classen Circle, it was obsolete within a few years of its construction. By 1966, over 55,000 cars were going through the circle daily, many more than it could handle. There was usually a back up along NW Expressway, and there were too many accidents to count.
(OPUBCO collection at the History Center)
In 1966, a columnist for the Oklahoman wrote, “As soon as we get everything straightened out on the moon, I wonder if we could start working on the Classen Circle traffic bottleneck.” In spite of an effort in 1972 to stop the bottleneck by enlarging the circle, the complaints and accidents continued. Finally, in 1976, funding was approved to remove the circle and start over with something new. A few years later, city planners announced that the circle would transform into an “interstate-type intersection with thoroughfare ramps.” Area citizens and business owners protested this solution, though, citing that it would be even more difficult to get around the area with all of those ramps — not to mention how ugly all of that would have looked. The plans were changed to omit the elevated ramps and create some kind of semblance of a proper intersection. The new non-circle opened to traffic in 1981, but it wasn’t much more effective at curtailing confusion, traffic, and accidents than the circle — and it was a lot uglier, too. Over the years, the non-circle has received more facelifts to help with traffic problems, but all to no avail. It’s still a mess of an intersection and probably will always be.
So, even with all of this interesting history, why should we worry about saving an obviously dilapidated structure like the Donnay Building? Why shouldn’t it come down to make way for a Braum’s parking lot? On the practical side, because the area is already congested enough with traffic — NW 50th can be a big pain in the butt at certain times of the day, and people still can’t figure out the whole jumbled Classen Circle/non-Classen Circle intersection. Imagine what all of that will be like if a Braum’s comes in and amps up the traffic by thousands of cars a day. I don’t know about you, but I will want to stay far away from that mess.
Also, with each historic and unique building we lose, Oklahoma City loses a little more of its identity, which, in my opinion, is more important than building yet another ugly, soulless box. Also, the long-standing businesses in the Donnay Building may not reopen if their homes are demolished. Imagine a celebratory Saturday night with no Hi Lo or Drunken Fry or an early morning Sunday brunch without the delicious fixin’s and freshly squeezed orange juice at Classen Grill. Oh no, I can’t — I just can’t.
For those of you who love the Donnay Building and its businesses, you can fight to save them by signing the petition and by showing up at the City Council meeting on August 24th at 1:30 that will hear Braum’s motion to rezone the area so that the company can build on the site. Also, you can join the Save Classen Circle Facebook page to learn about planned protests, etc., or keep up with everything on the Okie Mod Squad Facebook page. Finally, I will update this Mod Blog with all news as it happens.
Save the Circle!!
(Save Classen Circle Facebook Group)
A huge thanks goes to Pete Brzycki at OKCTalk.com for always being on top of things in OKC and for breaking this story.