Sunday, January 2, 2011

When A City Closes Its Heart, It Suffocates Its Soul

Since the 1930's, Oklahoma City's First National Bank building has towered like an Art Deco light house over this prairie metropolis. Although spared the wrecking ball of Urban Renewal in the 1960s (that fell so many glorious structures), the First National building hasn't been without its difficulties. Read about current owner financial issues here. Now, gorgeous marble floors and walls have been ripped out and replaced with cheap tile that makes the soul weep.

What makes this building so marvelous is how little has actually changed about it over the years. The old wooden-banistered stairwells still stand; Art Deco bas relief abounds, mixing with graceful remnants of Art Nouveau stylings; and that glorious lobby! The old bank lobby sits like a two story marble sanctuary in the heart of the building, empty of course. There hasn't been a First National Bank in years. It's used now to house the lofty Christmas tree that's put up each year.

1st National Tree
It's on this note, I cringe. A friend of mine who works downtown recently went to the First National building--as people do each day for business or to enjoy the many shops and restaurants still left along its main concourse--to snap some shots of the Christmas decor. He had done it before. I have done it before. It's a beautiful set-up. Only this time, he was ushered off by an irate building manager and security staff--for doing nothing more than taking pictures of an empty bank lobby that hasn't been in business for decades.

It's a sad day when a building that was once open for people to enjoy has now become something of a police state. Given their financial woes, I'm surprised the current owners aren't more hospitable to customers--that's what they are, because they could come to eat, shop, visit the offices of the Oklahoma Tourism Department... It's for that reason I have been there myself several times, delivering copies of my book to the offices of Oklahoma Today magazine.

I used to go with my father sometimes when I was a kid to the underground Concourse beneath the building, where a favorite breakfast spot of his was located. It was such a treat for me, an adventure. While not as big, by any means, the First National building reminds one (especially a kid in love with all things King Kong) of the Empire State Building, although First was built first.

"featuring polished aluminum, granite, glass and several varieties of marble from around the world. Rising 446 feet above the sidewalk, the building was topped out with an aluminum aviation tower and a red beacon light above a polished aluminum notched roof line. The aviation tower originally housed a massive white rotating beacon that was visible for 75 miles....The 32nd floor was a public observation deck." [Wikipedia]

Demolishing HistoryRecently several buildings have been demolished only one street up from the First National building. Historic buildings. I took pictures.

In those sections ripped open by the crane, I could see a graceful and artistic structure that once stood beneath a cheap mid-Century facelift. It's sad, really. I guess I can't explain to those who just don't get it how beautiful architecture can be, how it becomes a part of a city's soul. I'm not opposed to modern architecture. Some might get that impression from reading my various diatribes on the matter. No, I appreciate any design wherein the architect's love for both the creation and the community is made evident instead of just drafting an answer to a need. A solution to a problem.

Transcendence. That's what is required. Transcending banal need and function to embrace a deeper craving, something the soul demands. I think Oklahoma City has a hungry soul and I could easily fathom (sad as this may sound) a wrecking ball one day coming for the First National building.

We marvel at other cities. In fact, some might say that is one of Oklahoma City's failing: always wanting to be someplace else. We have to remember, though, that those other cities--New York, Chicago, Paris--didn't happen overnight and all that glorious architecture we marvel at didn't survive because the populace sat back with a collective "meh" and did nothing. True, treasures have been lost in the those cities as well, but I think they fight for each and every one. There seems to be the sense that people really care about these buildings, as if they are citizens too. The people don't shut the buildings out, and the buildings, in turn, don't shut the people out.

I've often heard it joked that if Oklahoma City is a PC, Tulsa is a Mac. And it seems true in a way. Tulsa has a far nicer skyline with many beautiful older buildings still hanging around. And there's no denying that Tulsa seems to have a vein of artistic appreciation that runs far deeper than Oklahoma City's. They've had a riverfront area and beautiful parks far longer. I think it's about the people and what they see as important. The old can sit alongside the new--and should. In Barcelona, I ate in a restaurant that was probably a restaurant a thousand years ago. It was built into the niches along the base of an old Roman wall. These cities care about history, art, and beauty. It's important to them, to their souls, and to the soul of their city.

I often ask myself when thinking of the icons of great cities (Alamo, Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower) what Oklahoma City's icon is. I haven't yet found a satisfactory answer to that question. Maybe it's because we demolished it already. Maybe it's the First National Building. If so, it won't be a beloved icon by shutting the people out or falling victim to the mentality that soulless glass and steel structures are somehow better and that all this old junk needs to go to make way for the Future.


Adsila said...

I agree, too many modern buildings are replacing the historical ones with the amazing architecture. I have gone around my state and taken photos of abandoned buildings and other places. I don't see the decaying mess, I see the beauty that once was. I wish that they would just save the old buildings and resore them to their former glory.

Autumnforest said...

Beautiful point you're getting across so eloquently. I have to admit that my favorite cities are not about steel and glass, but the more industrial ones that still retain their old buildings. When a part of town still holds an era in stasis, it has my love and adoration. I grew up in DC and the buildings there all look as if they were constructed in the same era from the same kind of stone and it has a cohesiveness that makes you know it's DC the minute you look at the light gray buildings. Other cities, like Pittsburgh, have an industrial brick feel that is so classic. Here in Phoenix, there are so few "historic" buildings in a state that is so young, but the ones we have they work hard to revive. I am glad for that.