A History of Oklahoma’s Mod Domes, Part 2: The Gold Dome
text and photos by Lynne Rostochil unless otherwise stated. Most vintage photos from the Oklahoma History Center.
In part two of our look at Oklahoma’s mod domes, we focus on perhaps the most famous dome in the state, the iconic Citizens State Bank at the corner of NW 23rd and Classen in Oklahoma City. Here we go!
The Early Years of Citizens State Bank
The sparkling new Citizens State Bank was formed in 1946 by C.R. Anthony, Fred Sewell, Felix Simmons, B.D. Eddie, V.V. Harris, and Virgil Brown, all of whom were prominent local businessmen. Their new endeavor was the first bank to open outside the downtown area in decades, and its directors couldn’t have picked a better location than the rapidly developing northwest side of town along the bustling Uptown shopping district on NW 23rd. Here are some of the movers and shakers behind the new bank at groundbreaking ceremonies for the building at NW 23rd and Dewey in 1947:
The small suburban bank opened in May 27, 1948, and it grew so rapidly that the building was expanded soon after its completion to include more parking and a revolutionary concept in OKC’s increasingly car-dependent society, “auto teller windows.”
Within the next few years, the bank once again outgrew its space and looked to expand. This time, a second building with department store space was added:
But even this expansion was not enough and the bank soon was in need of even more room. By 1956, Citizens boasted $20 million in assets and was the ninth largest bank in the state. Looking toward an even brighter future, the directors decided that a completely new building was in order. Ultimately, they agreed to purchase from the Oklahoma City school system a block-long section of land down the street at the corner of NW 23rd and Classen where the recently-vacated Jefferson School sat.
The board then hired Robert Roloff of Bailey Bozalis Dickinson & Roloff to design a structure as optimistic and forward thinking as the bank itself. Roloff returned with a revolutionary geodesic dome design.
The Geodesic Dome
Walther Bauersfeld invented geodesic dome in the 1920s, and the first such dome ever constructed was the Zeiss I Planetarium in Jena, Germany, which opened in 1926. Here’s the building under construction:
Buckminster Fuller was teaching at Black Mountain College in 1948 when he and his students refined the geodesic dome design, and he constructed a dome at Bennington College in Vermont in 1949 that received a lot of publicity. Here’s a photo by Hazel Larsen Archer of Bucky surrounded by geodesic dome forms:
Fuller liked the idea of geodesic domes because a sphere design encloses the greatest volume for the least surface area and is strong, economical, and easy to construct. Ever the opportunist, Fuller obtained U.S. patents for the geodesic dome design in 1954 without crediting Bauersfeld’s work.
The Gold Dome
After the old Jefferson School was removed at the corner of NW 23rd and Classen, the flashy and beautifully mod Citizens started going up. The 27,000 sf building cost $1 million to build and was erected by Secor Construction. As for the dome, it was built in pieces by Dale Benz, Inc., of Phoenix, and the panels were then hauled to Oklahoma City and assembled on site like a giant puzzle:
The dome consisted of 625 panels, ranging in size from 7.5 to 11.5 feet in length. Each panel weighed 60-70 pounds and the whole roof spanned 145 feet in diameter. Here are some shots of construction:
The Gold Dome, as the immediately beloved building came to be known, was completed on Monday, December 8, 1958, and Citizens soon vacated its old digs and moved its 86 employees into the funky, Space Age facility that was one of the very first geodesic domes built for commercial use.
As for the original Citizens Bank building, it was a savings and loan for awhile and then a church for several years. It remained unoccupied for a long time …
… but in 2014, developer Bruce Fraley purchased the building for $1.4 million and gave it a beautiful makeover. The original bank is now home to Hurts Donut and other businesses are moving into the remaining spaces.
Here’s the new bank soon after it opened for business:
Let’s take a tour of the interior, shall we? In the lobby, visitors were greeted by a poured terrazzo floor with a circle/oval motif that was reflected throughout the interior space, including the rings along the balcony and the disc-like acoustical panels hanging down from the gold ceiling:
There were circles literally everywhere, including the balcony railing:
And even on the conference room door handles:
Custom furniture was even made to fit with the modern design of the building:
As for the work areas, they were very loungy with comfortable furnishings:
Even the basement level employee breakroom was roomy and modern:
Back on the first floor, the large vault area contained safety deposit boxes and a relaxing waiting lounge:
The boxes are mostly gone now, but the vault and safe are still there:
The Accounts area was located near the main entrance:
Originally the space was open, but the back area was later enclosed to create private offices. However, some original features remain, including the concierge desk and partition:
The new Citizens offered what it called “convenient banking,” with both walk-up and drive-thru services:
The drive-thru proved so popular that it was ultimately expanded to include several bays:
One of the bank’s most infamous moments came on April 11, 1965 when a man approached a teller window with a ransom note in hand, demanding the teller to turn over her cash drawer. She complied and he took off with $3,231 but was quickly apprehended by police. Apparently, the novice robber was found by police when they inspected his ransom note and found a reminder he had written on the other side of the paper about a pink slip for a 1957 Mercury. That car was linked to a California robbery a few weeks before, and the suspect was a 21 year old man who had skipped town with his 16-year-old runaway girlfriend. Police found the couple just a few hours after the robbery holed up in a garage apartment on the 2000 block of N. Shartel. Here’s the young man after his arrest — he looks so clean cut and is even wearing a button down shirt:
The young man pled guilty to both robberies, saying that he was “extremely emotionally involved” with the girl and that they wanted to get away from her parents. I don’t think the judge had a lot of sympathy for this love sick robber, though, because he sentenced the young man to 15 years for both robberies – he could get out in five years with good behavior. He must have been a very good inmate because he was out of prison by 1971, married to a woman who was not his jailbait girlfriend, and living in Los Angeles. I didn’t find that he committed any further crimes, so he must have learned his lesson and led a crime-free life from then on.
Here’s the bank back in business just a few hours after the young man absconded with the cash:
Looks like business as usual.
Over the years, I’ve seen several vintage and pretty rare photos of the bank that I thought I’d share here. This one looks like it was taken around 1959 — there are no cars newer than that in the shot:
This one is pretty good, too, with that sign. It was taken by Johnny Melton in 1974:
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Dome was all decked out for the holidays, as you can see in this photo courtesy of Dean Avants:
By 1976, Citizens boasted $100 million in assets and was the fourth largest bank in the city. Just a few years later, the building received a really dumb renovation that included dropping the spectacular interior ceiling and hiding it from view with boring panels. You can see the ceiling panels about to be installed in this 1983 photo of the dummy who was running the bank and thought a dropped ceiling was a good idea:
The dropped ceiling signalled the beginning of the end for Citizens. On August 14, 1986, the bank failed and was purchased by Liberty Bank and, later on, Bank One. By 2000, Bank One was looking to vacate this branch and wanted to sell the land to Walgreen’s, which planned to demolish the bank and build a new store on the site. Preservation organizations, the OKC chapter of the AIA, and concerned citizens from all over the city came together and protested the lackluster plan with weekly rallies across the street from the Gold Dome, appeals to the owners, etc.
“Save the Dome” became the popular mantra around town as the weekly protests and periodic rallies continued.
Luckily, Bank One proved to be a friendly adversary and agreed to an extension to allow time to find a buyer. Soon, Dr. Irene Lam came forward and purchased the Gold Dome. According to Robert Roloff’s son, Scott, “Bob Roloff wouldn’t show people his feelings. After several plans to demolish it failed, Walgreens’s plan was firm. He said nothing. Later he confided to (probably only) me that when people from the neighborhood went into the street to stop the wrecking equipment because they liked a job he’d done, it had been the most gratifying thing that happened to him. That’s saying a lot. He was gratified more than anyone I ever knew.”
In 2003, this local beacon of Modernism was placed on the National Register, and in 2007, it was listed among the 100 best buildings in Central Oklahoma by that chapter’s AIA. Yes, the future looked as bright and shiny as the Gold Dome’s reflective roof, and people flocked to the mid-century marvel to attend weddings in the perfectly preserved bank lobby, eat and drink at the very popular Prohibition Room, and wander around the small gallery located in the former bank’s vault.
You would think that the drama would be over for such an iconic and beloved structure, but sadly, it was just beginning. In August 2012, Dr. Lam defaulted on the building loan and it went into foreclosure.
On September 12, 2012, developer David Box bought the beleaguered structure for $800,000 at auction and sought a demolition permit in March 2013, presumably to replace the Gold Dome with a gas station. Yes, a gas station. Once again, the mantra, “Save the Dome” was being chanted at the former Citizens.
After plenty of loud protesting from the community, Box backed off and ultimately turned the building over to TEEMCO, an environmental services company. TEEMCO announced grand plans to restore the building, but other than painting the dome a crazy shade of canary yellow and painting parts of the facade a very tacky faux oxidized copper green, not much was done. Here’s the dome before and after the horrible paint job:
Yes, TEEMCO was responsible for the horrible paint job … and also for equally horrible business practices that ended with the owner heading to prison. Bye, Felicia.
Box then listed the building for sale in 2015 and Johnathan Russell of Land Run Development purchased it for $1.1 million. While the building is safe for now and Russell plans to restore it, the TEEMCO group’s half-assed efforts are haunting him. A geodesic roof needs to “breathe” and move, but the dummies at TEEMCO decided to seal it without investigating the best way to do that while also letting the roof continue to breathe. It’s going to cost $200,000 just to fix their error, and that doesn’t count replacing plumbing (all of the copper tubing has been stolen), electrical, etc. Russell seems very committed to restoring the building, however, so my hopes remain high that he can pull it off.
The Okie Mod Squad was very lucky that Russell loaned us this mid-century modern marvel for our third annual Oklahoma Modernism Weekend in 2018. It proved to be the perfect venue for all of the mod lovers in the group, many of whom had never been inside this iconic structure before. Hopefully, we will be able to return for another weekend once the building is renovated and up and running again. Until then, enjoy these drone photos that were taken for the Oklahoma Modernism Weekend in June 2018:
Long live the Gold Dome!