Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Oklahoma Skyscraper City Circa 1931

Right now, we're all wrapped up with last week's approval and next-year's construction commencement and 2012's opening of the supertall Devon Tower, which, when done, will place our city in a relatively small handful of United States cities which boast one or more skyscrapers at or above the Tower's 925', 54 story level.

But, relatively speaking, we've been there and done that before, even if "we'd" have to have used our grand-or-great-grandparents' eyes to see that happen when it did — in 1931, seventy-seven (77) years ago. Consider this article to be a time machine which takes us back in time to when our ancestors were just as giddy as we are today, to 1931 when Oklahoma City first became a bona fide member of the national "Skyscraper City" club. So, ladies, put on your roaring 20s flapper dresses, and gents, don your stiff-brimmed straw hats ... snap your fingers and come on back in time ... and you are there!

THE BACKGROUND. Oklahoma City's downtown building history has not been a constant, steady type of thing. Instead, rather like our oil-based economy, it has come in a clustered series of gushers but it has likewise had significant spans of time which produced nothing but dry holes. The time from 1925 or so through 1931 represents one of Oklahoma City's most "gusher-i-est" building periods our city has known.

Before 1926, Oklahoma City's tallest buildings were in the 10–12 story range. A spurt of those buildings popped up between 1910-1912: the Colcord (1910, 12 story), Herskowitz (1910, 12 story), Lee-Huckins Hotel, replacing the 1900 Lee Hotel after destroyed by fire (1910, 10 story), Skirvin Hotel (1911, 10 story), Hales (1910, 10 story), Campbell (1910, 10 story), and Kingkade Hotel (1912, 11 story). Another group with similar dimensions grew from the ground in the early 1920s: Tradesmen's Bank, City Center today (1921, 11 story), Braniff (1923, 10 story), Medical Arts, now 100 Park Avenue (1923, 12 story), and Harbour-Longmire (1923, 10 story).

That burst continued into the mid-1920s but finally included one that jumped higher than the rest, the 18-story Petroleum Building which started construction in 1926 and was done in 1927 as shown in the postcard at the right from Vanished Splendor by Hal Ottaway & Jim Edwards. The 16 story Southwestern Bell building (1928) was close behind. The 1923 6-story Cotton Exchange Building was expanded to 10 in that same year. Others built in the 10-13 story range in the last five years of the 1920s were the Skirvin's expansion to 13-stories in 1928-1930, Perrine, now Robinson Renaissance (1927, 12 story), Roberts Hotel (1927, 10 story), Oklahoma Savings & Loan (1928, 10 story), Commerce Exchange (1928, 10 stories), and Hightower (1929, 10 story). For more about these and other "tall" buildings, see my tall buildings article.

Oklahoman articles boasted of Oklahoma City's progress in 1929, like this one in January 6, 1929:

By the end of the 1930s decade, downtown looking east looked like the photo below from Terry L. Griffith's Images of America: Statehood to 1930. At left, 1928's Southwestern Bell building is seen, 1927's Petroleum Building is left of center, and the east/west railroad tracks which would not be removed until after November 30, 1930, are still present. The 1929 Wards building is at the right.

1930-1931: THE GREAT RACE. But, the dimensions would change with the pair of buildings announced in 1930 — those buildings would change Oklahoma City's perceptions about itself and would thrust our town into the position of being a leading United States skyscraper city in that day. Compare the above photo with the photograph below contained in the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce's archives:

At the far left, the tower of the 1932 Post Office & Federal Court building is under construction and, at right. the structure of the Biltmore which opened in 1933 is progressing. But, in the middle, Oklahoma City has its new skyline.

The first 1930 announcement was about First National. The April 20, 1930, Oklahoman splashed the proposed First National Bank Building's expectations to all who would read:

Ramsey Tower headlines came a bit later, on August 31, 1930.

What happened thereafter is called by all Oklahoma City historians as, "The Great Race."

THE GREAT RACE. Both proposed buildings being located on the east side of Robinson across the street from each other on the street which is now Couch Drive, the race was on as to which would be finished first. Both were completed in 1931 and in remarkable time. (City of Oklahoma City approval, permit, etc., procedures were obviously much less time-consuming and rigorous in 1930 than they are today!) The following photographs trace the race's progress — most photographs were taken from a Ramsey perspective — Ramsey contractors were apparently more interested in documenting this race than were its 1st National counterparts ...

The following are credited to Norman Thompson
from his Leo Sanders Collection

Ramsey site looking east toward Broadway
Petroleum Building at left; Skirvin in center; Medical Arts right

Foundation work in the Ramsey

Looking South From Ramsey Toward 1st National's Progress

From Robinson Looking Northeast
Petroleum Building is at the left

The following are credited to Terry L. Griffith's
Oklahoma City — 1930 to the Millennium

Ramsey Tower won the race, but both then supertall skyscrapers opened their doors in late 1931 at 33 stories apiece.

SKYSCRAPER CITIES IN 1931. This pair of 1931 buildings vaulted Oklahoma City into the ranks of the then-existing skyscraper cities. Using the "Timeline" drawings at www.skyscraperpage.com and based upon the number of storeys, here's the data for skyscraper cities circa 1931:

First, In Alphabetical Order. The following table shows principal United States cities, arranged alphabetically, buildings measured by stories and not height. It shows the name of the building with the most stories, when built, and use at the time:

 City33 or moreMostBldg. NameYearBuiltUse
2Baltimore137Bank of America1924Office
3Boston032Custom House Tower1915Hotel
4Chicago2348One North LaSalle1930Office
5Cincinnati149Carew Tower1931Office
6Cleveland152Terminal Tower1930Office
7Columbus147LeVeque Tower1927Office
8Dallas029Magnolia Hotel1923Hotel
9Denver024AT&T Building1929Office
10Detroit647Penobscot Building1920Office
11Ft. Worth023Courtyard Ft. Worth1929Hotel
12Houston136JP Morgan Building1929Office
13Indianapolis017Circle Tower1930Office
14Kansas City235K.C. Power & Light1931Office
15Los Angeles028LA City Hall1927Govt.
16Memphis029Sterick Building1930Office
17Miami028Miami-Dade County Courthouse 1928Govt.
18Milwaukee025Hilton Mil. City Center1927Hotel
19Minneapolis032Foshay Tower1929Office
20New Orleans020Hibernia Bank Building1921Office
21New York61102Empire State Building1931Office
22Oklahoma City2331st National & Ramsey Tower1931Office
23Philadelphia233Drake Hotel1929Hotel
24Phoenix016Westward Ho1927Hotel
25Pittsburgh240Grant Building1928Office
26Portland016Public Service Building1927Office
27Providence026Bank of America1927Office
28Sacramento015Citizen Hotel1925Hotel
29Salt Lake City016Deseret Building1912Office
30San Deigo015El Cortez Hotel1927Hotel
30San Diego015El Cortez Hotel1927Hotel
31San Francisco031Russ Building1927Office
32Seattle138Smith Tower1914Office
33St. Louis028SW Bell Building1926Office
34St. Paul0321st National Bank1930Office
35Tulsa022320 S. Boston1929Office

Second, In Order of Story Rank. Sorting the above information by cities having buildings at least 33 stories (not height), Oklahoma City fared pretty well in 1931, a tie with Philadelphia for 12th in the list — heady stuff for the young pup of a city that Oklahoma City was only 42 years of age.

 City33 or moreMostBldg. NameYearBuiltUse
1New York61102Empire State Building1931Office
2Cleveland152Terminal Tower1930Office
3Cincinnati149Carew Tower1931Office
4Chicago2348One North LaSalle1930Office
5Detroit647Penobscot Building1920Office
6Columbus147LeVeque Tower1927Office
7Pittsburgh240Grant Building1928Office
8Seattle138Smith Tower1914Office
9Baltimore137Bank of America1924Office
10Houston136JP Morgan Building1929Office
11Kansas City235K.C. Power & Light1931Office
12Oklahoma City2331st National & Ramsey Tower1931Office
12Philadelphia233Drake Hotel1929Hotel
14Boston032Custom House Tower1915Hotel
15Minneapolis032Foshay Tower1929Office
16St. Paul0321st National Bank1930Office
17San Francisco031Russ Building1927Office
18Dallas029Magnolia Hotel1923Hotel
19Memphis029Sterick Building1930Office
20Los Angeles028LA City Hall1927Govt.
21Miami028Miami-Dade County Courthouse 1928Govt.
22St. Louis028SW Bell Building1926Office
23Providence026Bank of America1927Office
24Milwaukee025Hilton Mil. City Center1927Hotel
25Denver024AT&T Building1929Office
26Ft. Worth023Courtyard Ft. Worth1929Hotel
27Tulsa022320 S. Boston1929Office
29New Orleans020Hibernia Bank Building1921Office
30Indianapolis017Circle Tower1930Office
31Phoenix016Westward Ho1927Hotel
32Portland016Public Service Building1927Office
33Salt Lake City016Deseret Building1912Office
34Sacramento015Citizen Hotel1925Hotel
35San Diego015El Cortez Hotel1927Hotel

THE BOOM ENDS. Well into 1931, optimistic articles and headlines spoke of how Oklahoma City was avoiding serious impact of the Great Depression which followed Wall Street's month long October 1929 crash.

The September 27, 1931, Oklahoman

The buildings shown in the above optimistic article are, clockwise from the upper left corner, the Biltmore Hotel, Ramsey Tower, 1st National, Skirvin Tower, Post Office & Federal Court expansion, YWCA, Black Hotel, and Union Station. Notice the planned design of the Skirvin Tower at the right which Bill Skirvin intended to be a 26 story building.

The Great Depression was slow to reach Oklahoma City, but it did. The buildings shown in the above article, already started, would get done, sort of. Excavation started for the planned 26-story Skirvin Tower in 1931, as shown below:

Credit Norman Thompson's Leo Sanders Collection

But, when the economy turning sour, Bill Skirvin delayed construction and eventually scaled back the plan. The final 14 story structure was fully opened in 1937. Although some doubt existed that the 26-story Biltmore Hotel would get done, the Oklahoman expressed "Faith" that it would . . .

May 3, 1931

. . . and of course it did and opened its doors in 1932. As for the others appearing in the above Oklahoman article, they got done, too, plus another, the 1930 10-story Midwest Building which was the home of the Midwest Theater.

But, aside from the WPA funded/assisted Civic Center project, including 1937's 11-story Oklahoma County Courthouse, the "pause" button was pushed firmly down on any new significant downtown Oklahoma City buildings for more than 20 years until the next "mini-spurt" would occur in the mid-1950s — Fidelity Bank, now Park Harvey (1956, 17 stories) and a handful of other 10 to 15 story buildings (Southwestern Bell, now DEQ, 1957 at 10 stories; 1st National addition, 1957, at 14 stories; Globe Life, 1957 at 15 stories) would be constructed during that time — all good to have, but really nothing to get spastic about in your letters to your relatives in Chicago or Los Angeles or any other big city. By the time the 1950s rolled around, Oklahoma City had drifted far back in the skyscraper pack, as far as really tall buildings were concerned. Only in 1971, 40 years after the "Great Race," would a taller-than-33 story building be built in Oklahoma City, Liberty Tower at 36 stories.

But, all that said, in 1931, Oklahoma City was riding high, at least as high, if not more (relatively speaking), than we are today. So, get your shovels and hard hats ready and, next year, start gawking at that thing which will come out of the ground, just like your grandfathers and grandmothers did 77 years ago! With them, you will share their joy and awe and be one with them. It's about Damn Doug Dawg time!

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Stormy said...

Thank you for this incredible history! I'm an OKC native that has moved away and longs for home. Your site has taught me more about my city than 20 years of living there did. As for the skyscrapers, I remember when the biltmore was imploded. I was just a kid and my parents took us to near downtown to watch the implosion. I was like 4 or 5 at the time. I hope that Oklahoma Citians recognize the value of these old buildings now and rehab them rather than destroy them. Keep the info coming!!!

Doug Dawg said...

Thanks, Stormy, much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I was searching the web for information on the Oklahoma Biltmore and came across your wealth of knowledge on the history of OKC. I am a native of Ardmore OK now living in Florida. My Mother recently passed away and I was looking through some old things of hers and found 6 silver condiment forks with Oklahoma Biltmore embossed on the back. Would you have any more information on the Oklahoma Biltmore? I did read one article that said the Oklahoma Press Association use to have an office in the building. Thanks for a great article Donna

Doug Dawg said...

Thanks, Donna.

More information about the Biltmore is in this blog in the Golden Era article, and the Reinhart Legacy, Part 2, article and the downtown hotels article.

If you want more than that, it's probably best that you send me a regular e-mail. Click my name link (Doug Dawg, above) and you will see how to do that.

But I will certainly say that those pieces of silverware that you have are Oklahoma City treasures. Hopefully, one day not too far off, Oklahoma City will have its own History Museum and such artifacts as you have would be excellent. Some of us are presently working on such a project.

But, to your point, you've got a keeper in the items that you described! Very much so!