Endangered Places and Some Fun Saves
text and photos by Lynne Rostochil unless otherwise noted. Riverside Studio photo by Tulsa People.
Every year, Preservation Oklahoma (POK) releases its Most Endangered Places list and I’m both happy and sad to say that a lot of modern made the cut this year. It’s good because mod buildings are being recognized as valuable and well worth saving, but it’s equally sad that so many landmarks are threatened. Here’s the mod that made the list and POK verbiage about each entry:
Founders National Bank, OKC:
The Founders Bank building is one of Oklahoma City’s best examples of mid-century modern architecture, and it’s the only known design of the architect and former Bruce Goff student, Bob Bowlby, in the area. Although the building was expanded in the 1990s, it remains a beloved local icon and an incredibly fresh design today. The Bank of America that was a long-term tenant in the former Founders National Bank building moved out of the space in 2017, and the property was listed for sale that October. The structure sits in the middle of a large undeveloped lot and, the fear is that a developer will buy the building and demolish it in favor of new development.
Westhope is one of only three Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings in Oklahoma. Built in 1929 for his cousin, Richard Lloyd Jones, Westhope is larger than most Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses, containing over 8,000 square feet of floor space. WestHope was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 Westhope was also on the Most Endangered Places list in 2014.
(This building made the list again because the owner lives out of state and rarely visits the property, and deferred maintenance is an issue.)
Route 66 Signs, Statewide:
Route 66, the Mother Road, has many historic structures along its nearly 375-mile route across Oklahoma. Tourists from all over the United States and beyond travel along Route 66 hoping to catch a glimpse of yesteryear and feed their nostalgic dreams of simpler times. Many Route 66 signs are well cared for by
thoughtful owners, but so many others are being neglected or are poorly maintained by owners who may not realize the joy they bring to passing motorists. Route 66 structures and sites have been on our Most Endangered Places lists multiple times.
Riverside Studio, Tulsa:
Riverside Studio in Tulsa, also known as Tulsa Spotlight Club or Spotlight Theatre was built in 1928, designed by architect Bruce Goff in the Art Deco International Styles. The Riverside Studio was listed in the National Register for Historic Places in 2001 and was included in the Most Endangered Places list in 2015.
(The studio is on the list again this year due to deferred maintenance issues. The theater group that occupies the structure is poorly funded and can’t afford to properly maintain the 90-year-old building.)
For the first time, POK added success stories to the list. These are buildings that have been on the Endangered Places list in the past and have been restored. These include:
Tower Theatre, OKC:
Tower Theatre opened in 1937 and is one of Oklahoma City’s last original movie houses, with an auditorium and its neon marquee shining over Uptown 23rd Street district in Oklahoma City. Tower Theatre was an active theatre up until 1989. Marty and Mike Dillon who began renovations purchased the building in 2005. In 2014, Oklahoma City development group Pivot Project stepped in to complete the project. In 2017, Tower Theatre returned as a live music and event venue.
Page Woodson/Douglass High School, OKC:
Page Woodson serves as a success story for redevelopment and is now home to affordable housing and apartments. Page Woodson, former Douglass High School, was purchased in 2013 by a development group led by Ron and Jason Bradshaw, after being vacant for 20 years. The Bradshaws garnered community support, working closely with the JFK neighborhood where the building is located in Oklahoma City. Page Woodson was originally Lowell School in 1910, an all white school, before turning into Douglass High School, an all-black school, in 1934.
The unveiling of this year’s list took place at the newly rehabbed Page Woodson, which is more beautiful today than it has ever been:
To see the entire 2018 Endangered Places list, go here.
The Tower Theatre and Page Woodson aren’t the only historic buildings that have been saved recently. The iconic Owl Courts motel in old downtown Britton has sat derelict and nearly vacant for decades. It was originally a gas station and when Route 66 was routed through Britton in 1931, the owner added the motel and cafe (opened in 1932). It was at this time that the rock was added to all of the buildings. I found an ad in the Oklahoma listing the cafe for sale in 1936:
The motel was built with garages, which were later converted to rooms.
On a sad note, a Colorado trucker named John Aughinbaugh rented one of the cabins for the night on a cold winter night, February 2, 1956. It must have been very cold outside because he turned up the stove all of the way and went to sleep. The next morning, he was found dead, a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. Poor John.
In the 1970s, the motel was converted into apartments. There are rumors that it also served as a brothel during these sad years when the town and Route 66 fell into decay much like the motel itself, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that’s true. When John Dunning purchased the Owl Courts at auction in 2004, it was in sad shape, indeed.
John did some restoration work, and here’s the Owl Courts office in 2008 with a fresh coat of paint and looking better than it had in decades:
Over time, however, the place became too much for just one man to restore, and Owl Courts looked sadder with each passing year. Finally, the city council added the decaying motel to its delinquent and abandoned list, paving the way to have the complex demolished.
That’s when a group of men determined to finally rehabilitate the Owl Courts stepped in. Investors and developers Thomas Rossiter, Marcus Ude, Brad Rice, Rusty LaForge, Tyler Holmes, and Marc Weinmeister are intent upon saving the historic complex and converting it into restaurant and/or retail space. To help brainstorm restoration ideas and possible uses for the buildings once they are in good condition, Marc and the other owners invited engineers, architects, historians like me, and Rock Cafe owner Dawn Welch (who rebuilt her eatery from scratch after a devastating fire there in 2008) to tour the property. Here are some photos of the place in its present condition. The office building looks pretty healthy:
The motel rooms are, to put it nicely, a big mess. Owners have spent weeks cleaning them out, but they still have a long way to go. As I wandered through small rooms with crumbling walls and ceilings, I didn’t see the ghost of John Aughinbaugh, but I could easily imagine what this place could look like with a little imagination and a pile of cash:
The old cafe and residence at the front of the property are in equally bad condition:
But can’t you just imagine this tree-canopied space being an outdoor eatery/biergarten?
Yes, a TON of work needs to be done to save the Owl Courts but the people I met on my tour of the place are determined to make that happen, and I can’t wait to see this place evolve into a fabulous hang out in the near future.
The final building that now has a bright future thanks to a forward thinking owner is the beloved Villa Teresa complex in Midtown. After the school, which was in operation for 79 years at this location, closed in 2012, its fate was quite uncertain. Luckily for us, preservationist extraordinaire, Marva Ellard, purchased the 3.5 acre property in the heart of Midtown and intends to rehabilitate it, much as she did the glorious Seiber Hotel down the street. With her at the helm, Villa Teresa faces a bright future, indeed.
Every quarter, the Oklahoma City Foundation for Architecture (OCFA) hosts a tour of an iconic OKC building, and this time the entire Villa Teresa campus was open for a rare glimpse into these historic buildings and the incredible plans for them — go here to learn more about the OCFA:
The first structure we wandered through was the administration building and convent:
Originally, this glorious mansion was the home of Frank E. Anderson and his family. Anderson was one of the founders of the Anderson Clayton Company, a cotton brokerage firm that was founded in OKC in 1904 and morphed into a food products company over the years. Anderson’s brother, M.D., was also a founder and the internationally renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston was named in his honor.
As the business grew and became more successful, it was relocated to Houston, but Frank decided to remain in OKC and constructed this grand Georgian mansion at the edge of Heritage Hills. It was completed in 1917 and soon became a social hub for the family and their friends.
All of the fun ended in November 1924, however, when Frank’s appendix burst and peritonitis set in. He died three days later. I believe that this branch of the family soon joined the others in Houston and by 1931, this house was rarely used and was becoming a huge maintenance and tax burden. So, Frank’s son, James donated the house to the Carmelite nuns in 1933, and it became Villa Teresa. Other than a dorm addition on the back of the house, the nuns left many original features of the mansion intact for over 80 years, like the grand staircase and library:
Here are more original details:
How nice is this sunroom?
I’m sure the Andersons hosted many a soiree in this cheery space. The kitchen isn’t original but it’s AQUA!!!
Even the basement laundry room is cool and not creepy at all:
The nun’s quarters, which were constructed in 1967, are compact but sweet:
And I love the tile in the shared second floor bathroom:
Back in the living room, plans for the development of some of the empty spaces of the grounds were on display. Fitzsimmons Architects is bringing a little modern fun to the Villa Teresa campus:
And before you get upset, know that just one current structure, an ugly temporary building, is coming down to make way for the new condo construction. As for the original buildings, three will be converted to multi-unit housing, and Frank’s house will become a boutique hotel.
Speaking of Frank’s house, here it is after Villa Teresa took ownership:
The next building on the tour was the Nursery:
Like the convent, the Nursery began life as a private residence. I believe that Frank had it built for his son James when the young man wed in 1919. Nice wedding present, aye? When the last owner, druggist Paul Westfall, died in 1946, Villa Teresa acquired the property and converted it into classrooms.
My favorite part of the house is the slide fire escape:
I can just see a gaggle of tiny butts getting stuck half way down the scorching hot slide and nearly catching fire themselves, can’t you? Still, I hope that it is kept as the Nursery is renovated because it’s just too cute and more than a little funny.
Back inside, the upstairs rooms are HUGE and will make beautiful living spaces:
The downstairs living room is pretty gorgeous, too:
Next up is the only building the nuns constructed from the ground up, the main school, which was completed in 1951:
Like the other structures, this one will make for very desirable housing with its large, light, and airy rooms:
I love the happy graffiti — this was certainly a place of positivity and love. And, how cool would it be if the architects keep some of these vintage chalkboards (hint, hint)?
The green terrazzo flooring throughout is pretty spectacular, too:
And check out the lunch tables that slide out of the wall, making the cafeteria a multi-functional space:
And I found the A/V room with old film strips — woo hoo!!
Such a fun building!
Last up is the stucco mansion. I believe it was built by R.W. Dick sometime before 1922, but it was known for generations as home to the Lowrey family, who lived there from around 1930 until 1970. That same year, I believe Villa Teresa purchased it along with a house next door that the school demolished to create the playground. This building became home to the pre-school:
Like the other mansions on the block, this one retains many original details:
But, by far, the very best part of this house is the crazy stalactite-stuccoed-ceiling room in the basement. It’s crazy, man!
With the safe built into the fireplace, surely this was a gambling room or friendly neighborhood speakeasy during Prohibition, don’t you think?
I can just see W.W. Lowrey and his corpulent, cigar-puffing pals hanging out and playing poker, drinking hooch, and maybe enjoying the company of lovely ladies who weren’t their wives in this space, can’t you? In other words, I doubt this was a nun hangout.
After Villa Teresa closed in 2012, a popular Tulsa restaurateur purchased the property and said that he would save it, but rumors soon swirled that the lovely, park-like campus would be demolished. That’s when, just like Wonder Woman, Marva Ellard swept in and saved the day!
I can’t wait to see the transformation of the Owl Courts and Villa Teresa, and I hope that, in the near future, we will be cheering the rescue of all of the buildings on the 2018 Endangered Places list, too.