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Notes on the Geography of Oklahoma: Oklahoma City: Almost Modern

The great theme shaping American cities in the 20th century was escaping them, which is to say suburbanization. Developers were more than happy to satisfy their restless clients. If customers chafed at the restraints of convention, developer built bungalows like witches's hideaways.  Sunny Spain was a more popular choice.  No problem: Spanish hacienda it was, by the score--maybe the hundred.  If people wanted country living that they could not afford, Oklahoma City's developers in the 1920s could and did quit platting straight streets: instead, they offered paths meandering through a forest. 

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Oklahoma City boomed during the first decade of the 20th century, then went into a lull. A second boom began about 1920 and within a decade doubled the city's population from 91,000 to 186,000. This map, showing the area just west of Classen's University Addition, shows one of the hot neighborhoods in that hot decade. You can see the big gridded Gatewood Addition, almost all built out in the '20s. To its right, the diagonal Carey Addition consists of a central street (not shown on the map) fringed by two rows of houses, one facing in and one facing out. The diagonal has nothing to do with elegant variation: it's a reworking of an old 160-foot-wide streetcar right-of-way. Because it was built later, when styles had changed, Carey Place became an Iberian hideaway.

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Here's the plat, dated 1922 and designed by Warren Moore. (We met him back in Lincoln Terrace, and we'll see his name later on.) We're about to look at 21st Street.

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Gatewood Tudor, we might call it: all three of the houses in this lineup--the addresses are 1908, 1912, and 1916 NW 21st--are from 1926 or '27. The land had been patented in 1896 to Lewis Walch, apparently a patient man because he waited 24 years before platting the Gatewood Addition in 1920. The actual business of selling lots and building houses was handled by Streeter and Margaret Flynn, who ran Flynn Real Estate.

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Here, at 2005 NW 22nd, is a brick home from 1926. The half-timbering is gone, but we still have the oversteepened gables that suggest Thomas Kinkade. (No! He couldn't have grown up here! Do you think?)

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A Spanish escapee from 1926. It's at 1920 21st and is typically sized for the time at 1,500 square feet. It also has an untold story, because it was sold in '86 for $62,000, then foreclosed the next year, then sold in '88 for $42,000.

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Farther east, within walking distance of the O.U. Health Sciences Center, this 1928 brick Tudor Revival is at 1017 Dean Place. You'd think President Coolidge would have forbidden such gnomic diversion. On the other hand, Wall Street was having a party, so why shouldn't prairie folks have some fun?

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A lithic variant, built in 1930 at 1225 NE 14th.

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And here's Carey Place, ready to tango.

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The developer had spent some time out West and returned besotted: that's the story, at least. Here is 1901 Carey Place, built in 1937.

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Across the street, at 1908 Carey Place, this house is from 1938.

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But Carey Place wasn't Oklahoma City's first Spanish infatuation. For that, we might visit 1601 Classen, which borders the dumbbell-shaped Harndale Park. What makes it especially interesting is that it's an early product of Doc Nichols. That would be Dr. G.A. Nichols, a dentist who in the 1920s became Anton Classen's successor as Numero Uno among Oklahoma City's builders. If Nichols knew anything, it was how to hustle. He built this house in 1925 and sold it for $32,000 after advertising it as "a Castle in Spain" in "aristocratic Harndale."

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Another Spanish rendition. Oddly enough, it started out in 1907 as a frame house with a steep roof. It was later redone--date uncertain--in the Spanish style, which included a lowered and tiled roof, plus stucco and arcades. The house is at 437 NW 14th, in Heritage Hills.

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Could you have the country in the city? It's a tall order, but one development made it happen at Lake Aluma, built in the 1920s at the east end of 63rd Street. The land is on a quarter-section patented in 1894 to one Granville Vaughn, reportedly an African-American. He sold the north half of it in 1898 for $500, then the south half. The buyers, Alfred and Mary Smith, built the dam (seen here on the left) in 1921-2 and sold the whole 160 acres to the Aluma Chulosa Preserve Association, founded by Joe Morse, in 1923 for $4,500. Houses began popping up on the lake's periphery, although the plat showing a circumferential road and a necklace of lots around the lake was not filed until 1946.

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Here it is.

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Here's the circumferential road. We're less than a dozen miles from downtown.

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Here's the lakefront home at 161 Lake Aluma Drive, just next to the dam. It was built in 1922 as one of the first homes on the lake, and--as if to prove the premium value of waterfront--sold in 1992 for the premium price of $385,000. It's bigger than it looks, though: 3,600 square feet.

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Next door, a new home takes shape at the high end.

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Sigh. Most people couldn't afford such a country retreat, but here's a development--Capitol Courts--that provided at least a refuge from traffic and maybe some encouragement for social cohesion--"community," to use an overworked word. It's a few blocks east of the capitol, which sounds like a great location. Any bets how it looks on the ground? The survey, by the way, was by by our friend Warren Moore. You remember that he had arrived in Oklahoma City in 1902 as the engineer for the city's new streetcar company. In 1908 he established a surveying company with Guy McClure. McClure died ten years later, but Moore carried on, ultimately surveying a very high percentage of the city's new additions. Disliking straight lines, late in life he spoke out in vain against flood-reduction programs that were about to straighten the North Canadian River in Oklahoma City. Along with the Gatewood Addition, this one--from 1921--is perhaps his most conservative design.

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Here's the main entrance. Old postcards show Capitol Courts in good shape, but that was then.

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Most of the lots on the cul-de-sacs remain vacant; the scattered houses are all very modest.

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One of the more substantial houses in the neighborhood: at 1431 Milam, it was built in 1925. Milam is also the name of the Capitol Courts developer, who exercised the developer's sacred right of naming a street for himself.

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Another house in the neighborhood; at 1423 N. Court, it was built in 1928.

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Here's a more representative Moore project: Edgemere Park, on the right side (that would be the west side) of the Santa Fe tracks just south of 36th. Moore bent Harvey and Hudson into curves around the park he created on either side of Deep Creek.

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The park upland.

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Here's the axial Deep Creek, on its way to Lake Eufaula.

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Another view of the creek, this times showing how it is incised into the locally ubiquitous red sandstone.

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The neighborhood is a stylistic museum. Here, at 2727 Harvey, is a shingled Craftsman-style house built in 1915. It sold in 1998 for $35,000 and again five years later for $220,000--presumably after heavy restoration.

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Nearby, at 3115 Harvey, a massive (5,600 square feet) house from 1928. It sold in 2002 for $462,000.

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Moderne at 3200 Harvey. Built in 1935.

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A fine Spanish style house from 1929; it's at 3100 Harvey.

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Off a sidestreet (241 NW 32nd) is a Tudor from 1928; in 2002 it sold for $310,000.

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A park side house at 406 NW 35th. Built in 1935.

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A couple of doors north and just outside Edgemere, this house, at 438 NW 35th, was built in 1929 and sold in 2003 for $188,000. Little Red Riding Hood was just here. Or was it Goldilocks?

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In those days, people shopped here on 23rd; this lineup was built from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. The Family Dollar used to be a Safeway.

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To the immediate north of Edgemere was Crown Heights, a Nichols production surveyed by Moore; mostly gridded, it was deep into Tudor escapism, with a park on the south.

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Here, at 1009 38th, is a house from 1934.

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Here, fronting the Crown Heights Park at 501 NW 38th, is a house from 1940.

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The westward extension of 38th turns into a promenade when it enters the addition called Putnam Heights.

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Facing that boulevard, at 1201 38th, is this house from 1919.

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All of these ventures pale alongside the 2,380 acres of Nichols Hills, which Nichols began developing in 1928 to a layout by the peripatetic Moore. Here's just one part of the development, which was incorporated and remains an independent city, an enclave of Oklahoma City.

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The surprisingly understated southern entrance. No electric gates, no guardhouses, not even a recycling waterfall. God forbid something approaching good taste and civic mindedness.

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Here, stone is made to work harder. The house, at 6615 Grand, was built in 1931. It sold in 2004 for $1.3 million.

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Tudor amplitude at 1408 Camden, built in 1930.

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In Spanish mood, from 1936 at 1501 Drury.

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A second generation of houses is being built in Nichols Hills these days. A house at 6703 Grand was sold in 2001 for $650,000, then knocked down and rebuilt like this in 2003.

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Here, at 6607 NW Grand, is an 8,000 square-foot home built in 2000 and assessed at a market value of $1.7 million.

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Underway at 1512 Drury; a new house on the site of an 8,000-foot house that was built in 1952 and sold in 2004 for $1.5 million, then demolished.

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Here's 6900 Grand, with a deep setback. Goldman Enterprises sold this property in 1992 for $500,000, but the house here now was finished in 1995. Goldman ran a chain of supermarkets, but his real claim to fame is the invention of the shopping cart.

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Across the street at 6901 Grand, this house from 1996 hides from the street.

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Another way of hiding: a gated subdivision on 63rd Street just west of Nichols Hills. Don't ever say that developers are humorless, in this case flying the flag of the republic over the entrance to a gated neighborhood called The Commons.

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Nosebleed? Don't worry: ever on the alert against wounded feelings, the Great Mirror now returns you to the middle-class. We begin in this 1930s district between NW 27th and 30th, just east of May Avenue.

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Here's the neighborhood plat, with grid-busting Venice Boulevard.

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Here it is on the ground. No canals. Sorry.

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Cleveland was an upper-range product of Warr Better Built Homes, a company run by C.B. Warr. By 1950, he had built over 4,000 homes in Oklahoma City. This one, at 3021 Venice, was built in 1939. It's conventional to the point of being reactionary, even for its day. We're right on the edge of a huge postwar transition, however.

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Cross 30th Street and we're in the large block of homes developed by Steve Pennington in the late '40s between 30th and 36th Streets. The development is bordered on the east by Venice Boulevard, shown here and originally called Pennington Boulevard. Pennington, by the way, was the third owner of the land, which had been patented to Sam Finley, who sold it in 1914 to a man named Cummings.

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This house, at 3101 Venice, was built in 1951. It sold in 2005 for $175,000. Style? It's a rancher. Odd to find it in Venice, but such is life.

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Another view of the sprawling layout.

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Another boulevard-front home, this time at 3501 Venice. It's only 200 square feet larger than the Warr Better Built house a few pictures back, but it's on a different planet, not to mention a single level.

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Around the corner and also from 1950. The design has aged well. The house is at 3215 Winter.

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Warr created and named a city for himself. It's now an enclave (roughly 2,000 acres and 10,000 people) on the west side of Oklahoma City. It has its own history. Short version: early in the '40s, scuttlebutt had it that the federal government was going to build a major air base near Oklahoma City. Developers scrambled to buy up property near where they thought it would be. One of the developers, Guy Atkinson, guessed right and built Midwest City about 10 miles east of downtown, next to what is now Tinker Air Force Base. Warr guessed wrong, buying a bunch of land on the west side around 50th street, six miles from downtown. Still, it wasn't a complete loss: Warr Acres went ahead without the military.

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The plan was singularly cost conscious.

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But Warr dared to experiment. This house was designed for Warr in 1948 by William Caudill and John Rowlett, then built by Clarke Pace. The cost is kept down by forgetting the attic and basement. Garage, too. The interior has an open plan, with few windows on the north side but large ones on the south. The bedrooms were big for the time: 12 by 15 and 12 by 12. When built, the house had no air-conditioning--only a 36-inch attic fan. It had no clothes dryer--only an automatic washer. Older shoppers didn't like it; younger ones reportedly loved it. Warr planned to build 80 houses like this, priced between $9,500 and $11,000. Most of the survivors have been modified, but this one, at NW 5905 49th, is intact.

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Meanwhile, stores were following rooftops: that's the law of the land. So let's look at commercial developments, starting with this stylish venture by Doc Nichols.

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The design, with the unusual arc of the Paseo, was by none other than the ubiquitous Warren Moore.

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A current map of what's become an arts district.

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Entrance.

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Cafes.

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Studios along a street that's not quite as energetic as people would like.

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What else from the '30s? How about this? Known locally as the Milk Bottle Store, it opened in 1931 as Cooper's Cleaners. The little triangle it sits on was an artifact of the streetcar system: the tracks were curving on the right side here into Classen Boulevard.

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What do you think this is? No, it's not a recycled church. Yes, it was originally a theater, the Victoria Theater. Opened in 1910 at Classen and 18th, people could arrive by streetcar or walk over from Epworth University, a few blocks in the background. The theater hall has been divided into three floors of offices.

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Oklahoma City has several theaters from just after World War II. They're all in this very distinctive style. If TV hadn't killed them, multiplexes would have. Here's one, from 1946.

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Here's another, also from 1946. It's at 4322 North Western and is now offices. A third, the Tower Theatre, on 23rd Street, has been brought back to life more than once. The most recent resuscitator says, "I don't think we would have tackled it if we had known what we know now." In 2017 it began offering live concerts, as well as movies.

See Steve Lackmeyer in The Oklahoman, 22 August 2017.

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Here's a still flourishing product of the late 40s. It's the shopping-center part of Mayfair Heights, one of C.B. Warr's projects, in this case at May and NW 50th. Houses and apartments surrounded Mayfair Village, which straddles both sides of May Avenue on the south side of NW 50th.

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Mayfair Village has had some recent and major renovations, probably including the addition of a new roof line with decorative gables and the obligatory clocktower. An investor in Woodland Hills, California, bought the shopping center in 2006 for $13 million. Who says the Colonial Era is dead and gone?

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The plat of the first part of Mayfair Heights; Warr let the streets meander a bit. See that wide street in the center called Steanson?

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Here it is, lined by these 1948 apartments.

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The city's first regional mall, Shepherd Mall, opened on 23rd Street in 1963 with Sears as the anchor. Sears left in 1993, and the mall was subsequently reorganized into office space and a smaller shopping center called Penn Crossing, which is owned by an outfit in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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The mall proper is very quiet now, with most of its space taken by AOL, Farmers Insurance, and the Social Security Administration, whose local offices were destroyed in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.

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Oklahoma City's Vietnamese population has meanwhile brought some life back to 23rd Street. One example is this supermarket, jammed on weekends. The palms are fake, but the fish market is by far the best in town.

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This photo was taken on a weekday; on weekends, you can't even see the counter.

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Freeways were about to transform shopping habits. Here, in a glimpse of Oklahoma City's highway network before freeways, is old U.S. 77, coming in on the right from Fort Worth and turning north onto Robinson, which carried it to downtown.

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You could stay overnight at this corner: there were three motels right on it, although only this one survives. It was built in 1939 and, like so many motels of its vintage, is now Indian-owned.

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So is this one, from 1953, at 7600 NW 39th. In the median you can even make out the old U.S. Route 66 sign, here pulling in behind you from Weatherford, Clinton, Elk City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and sunny California.

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How do you catch the eye of motorists going fast? Heres one answer, at the corner of NW 39th and MacArthur. Despite the massive sign, the tenant mix whispers of problems for the landlord.

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Highway engineers love parks so much that, given the chance, they'll run their pavement through them at every opportunity. Here, close by the motel in the last picture, is a good example: Interstate 44 transects Will Rogers Park. The park straddles Grand Boulevard, which was conceived in 1910 as a 26-mile circumferential green way. Much of it survives, but where convenient, as here, the road has become a highway.

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A pond in the park, presumably from the 1930s.

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Picnic gazebo.

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The gazebo seems quaint alongside this McDonalds at 2101 NW 23rd. The restaurant looks about ready for the National Register, but it's actually new, an homage to the '50s. (Yippee! I've waited for over 8,000 captions for the chance to use that word.)

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What have we forgotten? One thing is the public housing of the 1930s. There wasn't a lot of it in Oklahoma City, but here's some, none too artistic but presumably built with the intention of getting the maximum bang for the federal buck.

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These are the Will Rogers Courts, covering several southwestern blocks around SW 15th and Blackwelder.

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Do you remember those distant days when the federal government thought that it should take upon itself the burden of housing the poor? The only other instance of federal housing for civilians in Oklahoma is in Enid.


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