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Efforts to Save John Johansen’s Stage Center
Published by Liz Waytkus on
Courtesy of Rees Associates
By: Emily Rinaldi
John Johansen’s Stage Center in Oklahoma City, OK stands in disuse and disrepair. Originally called the Mummer’s Theatre, the building was closed in 2010 after suffering considerable damage when the theater’s basement flooded. Built in 1970, the Stage Center is composed of three separate structures connected via ramps, tunnels, and tubes that frame an open, central space. The exterior is a series of raw concrete forms, punctuated by brightly colored corrugated steel in red, blue, yellow and orange.
Johansen describes this design as having “an order that is adopted from the electronic organization of elements.” It is a massing of available materials that puts the viewer at the center of its spectacle. The Stage Center houses two theaters, a 580-seat thrust stage theater and a 210-seat round stage theater, as well as a smaller third unit used for offices and rehearsal space. In 1972, the AIA presented Johansen with the National American Institute of Architects Honor Award for the building’s design. That same year, MOMA accepted the building’s model into its permanent collection.
Despite its celebrity, the theater has always been a point of public and private controversy due to the cost necessary for maintenance and operation. The high cost of renovation forced the Stage Center to close in 1986. Through the hard work of the Arts Council of Oklahoma City, the building reopened in 1992, updated to suit the needs of the Carpenter Square Theatre. The building served as the anchor of the city’s Arts District, figuring as a counterpoint for the Myriad Botanical Gardens located directly across from the theater on South Hudson Avenue. Faced once again with renovation costs due to flooding, the theater closed in 2010 and the Arts Council of Oklahoma City transferred ownership of the property to the Kirkpatrick Center Affiliated Fund, under the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
Tracy Zeeck, an Oklahoma City public relations professional, brought the current status of the structure to the attention of Docomomo-US. Because the Kirkpatrick Center has no current plans to reopen the Stage Center, the AIA Central Oklahoma Chapter stepped in and organized an advocacy campaign, issuing a request for proposals. Save Stage Center advocates for the adaptive reuse of this modern masterpiece. Zeeck herself approached the Central Oklahoma AIA Chapter with a proposal for the renovation of the theater into a children’s museum; but with estimated costs at $17-20 million and no source of funding for this new project, the fate of the Stage Center remains undecided.
The make-up of downtown Oklahoma City is quickly changing. A newly built fifty-story office building has heightened real estate values in the area. With its land value rising, Zeeck as well as the Central Oklahoma AIA Chapter fear that the Stage Center will be demolished to make way for new development. Johansen said that he “saw the building as a palimpsest, not a permanent solution but rather one that would someday accommodate additional and changing functions.” Whether the building houses a theater or is renovated into a children’s museum, the goal of both the local AIA chapter and Zeeck is to save the building from demolition and see the reopening of the Stage Center as a community space for Oklahoma City.
The upcoming film "Seasons of the Soul: The Innovative Mind of John M Johansen" by John Veltri is an exploration of John Johansen’s lifetime of achievements, original designs and futuristic visioning. To see a clip of the film and John Johansen speak about his design of the Stage Center, visit You Tube or www.seasonsofsoulfilm.com.