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Oklahoma: Core Norman, 2017 picture 1

What does a growing town need? Why, what else but new freeway interchanges. Here's a splendid single-point interchange the day before its grand opening in July, 2017. Norman now has two of these baffling triumphs, one on Main Street and this one, on Lindsey. If you don't know what a single-point interchange is, be grateful, very grateful.

For the uninitiated, we're on a bridge over Interstate 35. Everybody getting on or off that road passes here, controlled by a single, gigantic signal pole. Think it's confusing? Wait until a snowy day when the lane markings are obliterated. That said, of course it must be conceded that traffic engineers are professionals who know what they're doing.

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A new interchange means you have to pave the rest of the world, too. Here's Lindsey, with half of its new concrete poured. Two lanes will become four, plus room for left turns. The view is east, toward the university campus.

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A creek intervenes and demands a fitting bridge. What should it look like?

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Ta-da! Call it the Norman Conquest.

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Main Street was getting the same makeover. Here's the Before.

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Here's the after. The brick median is gone, replaced by a skateboarder's heaven.

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Downtown had already got new sidewalks in 2004.

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New paving came in 2009. The improvements took long enough that many merchants gave up the ghost.

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Major intersections on both Main and Lindsey got brick trim, with a curious bull's-eye, a pseudo traffic circle. Perhaps it was a nice touch, but few noticed.

People do notice the cutaway building here, but few wonder what it was. From 1938 to 1966 it was the Palace Garage. There you go: free knowledge.

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A few blocks to the south, campus corner got its own do-over with new paving and brick trim but no bull's eye. A street that had been one-way for decades reverted to two-traffic traffic.

If Louie's on the left looks a bit Spartan, that's because the building used to have a Mission-style roof line. Somebody whacked it off after 1930. The Boomer Theater opened in 1947 and showed films until the 1970s. Harold Powell eventually bought it and made it into corporate offices.

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The railway looks unchanged, though ATSF has been taped over to keep up with the times.

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The railroad signs aren't at all welcoming, but the town has worked to make the right-of-way more attractive.

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Welcome to Legacy Trail.

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At the crossing of Main Street, a clock that used to stick out from the corner of the 1st National Bank has been hauled out of storage. The bank itself, a block to the east, was demolished in 1958, which means that somebody cared enough to store the clock for decades.

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Somebody also worked to create a series of displays spaced along the trail. Odd, isn't it, for a state that hates taxes, but Norman is a college town, and college towns are sui generis.

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The display is a painstaking model of the university and its neighborhood about 1930. The view is from the west, looking over the university, whose two pairs of entrance gates, standing in lone grandeur, are lined up along Boyd Street.

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Most remarkably, the two dozen or so trains that pass through town daily no longer sound their horns at any of the grade crossings. This can be unnerving, and not just for motorists shocked to feel the rumble of a train without any warning hoot. It's unnerving because something's missing, and you can't tell what. Besides, everyone knows that train horns are soporific once you get used to them. And trains are so honest--but don't get me started.

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So here's the first block of East Main in mid-2017. Originally there were two lanes of traffic, with median and curb parking. The street was converted to four narrow lanes (each only 9 feet wide) in the 1950s. In 1973 it went one-way, with three 12-foot lanes. It's stayed that way ever since.

The Sooner Theater, designed by its owner, the architect Harold Gimeno, opened as a movie theater in 1929 and offered refrigerated air at a time when there wasn't a lot of it around. The theater closed in 1975; at that time it still belonged to Gimeno. The city bought it and turned it over at a nominal rent to a non-profit live-theater company, which renovated the building and reopened it in 1982.

The blockbusting Vista Building is from 1965. It's won a string of international design awards. (If you believe me, I have a bridge for sale.)

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Most of the in-line buildings on Main have been heavily renovated, but owners are still trapped by those old, massive walls. The steel beams supporting the upper floors must bear the weight of all that brick; beams farther back in the buildings are wood.

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Some of the early renovations were crude.

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Others were better, like this unusual but not unique bay window on the Alden Building, circa 1920.

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Many of these buildings have been empty upstairs for decades, but that's changing.

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Old offices have become apartments, in this case with windows overlooking Main.

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Kitchen.

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The old telephone company building has been restored with apartments upstairs and a pricey restaurant below.

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The old Allard Cleaners is now a Mexican restaurant.

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A block north of Main, the Coca Cola bottling plant, which operated from 1944 to 1967, is now a body shop.

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A lot of work has gone into improving Main Street, but on a summer afternoon things are pretty quiet.

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Not much you can do with eyesores like this. The building closed in 2009 for structural repairs, but it would have been better to tear the thing down.

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Remember the old Lockett Hotel, from 1951? It became the Coronado Hotel in 1965, but a name change wasn't enough to overcome the power of the interstate. In 1973 the building was converted to offices, and in 1991 it was sold by the Resolution Trust Company for half its appraised value to a moonlighting economics professor who was smarter than he looked. He soon quit the uni and became a fulltime developer. In 2015 he decided to make the building pretty with a new roof.

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Fantastico! You must savor the Juliet balconies.

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Back up on Campus Corner, we have the iconic gateways given by the class of 1919. And who's across the street? But who else?

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Not a new building in sight.

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The best-known store on campus corner is gone, however. Harold Powell's parents had run Sooner Drug on campus corner since 1927, and after World War II Harold opened a men's store right here in 1948; a decade later he added women's clothing. The operation grew to 40-odd stores, 1,800 employees, and revenues of $150 million. New investors were needed, and they arrived in 2001. They insisted on shifting from classic to trendier lines. Bad move: the chain was liquidated in 2008. Powell had his own summary observation: "A lot of success is just about luck and timing. The same with failure." (See Brianna Bailey in The Oklahoman, 20 July 2014.)

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The space was leased by the campus computer store. Yawn.

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Sic transit gloria mundi.

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Behind the store, a group of shops and a parking lot keep the Harold name in play. The family still owns a lot of neighborhood property. In fact the whole district is a little oligarchy, despite the variety of merchant names.

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These little buildings are disguised goldmines. Built for next to nothing, the county assessor low-balls their market value at anything from $100,000 for a building like the yellow one, to just under half a million for the larger ones in the distance.

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A block farther along, the Orient Express was Norman's first Chinese restaurant when it opened in 1976. It closed in 2015 for two years while its owner, a native of Shanghai who had come to Norman and earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering, went home for the first time in decades. It reopened in 2017.

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A cheesy convenience store promises a new beginning.

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Across the street, the world's only four-story pizza place was under construction in 2015. Easy to overlook, Campus TV opened in 1960; its owner, Joe Walden, ran a repair business in an industry whose product slowly grew disposable. He shifted to making keys and repairing guitars, which he did at any hour because, law be damned, he lived on the premises. The store closed after his death, age 80, in 2016.

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The restaurant opened with its kitchen on the second floor, offices on the third, and a rooftop bar. Will wonders never cease?

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A neighbor, built in 1968, got into the act with useless but oh-so-stylish protrusions.

For more on campus corner, see Amber Sarmiento, "Urban Morphogenesis of Campus Corner Norman, Oklahoma," 2013, online at https://ou.academia.edu/AmberSarmiento

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The residential neighborhood around campus corner and extending toward Main Street began seeing investments in duplexes and small apartments.

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Here two duplexes squeeze into the spaces between older homes.

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See the faces? Urban paranoia.

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In an Italian mood.

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Train-lover's paradise. Not really. These condominiums were marketed to football fans who could breeze into town and walk to the stadium in 10 minutes.

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Apartments targeted students, too. Do the math: a 1-bedroom apartment was $894 a month; a 4-bedroom unit was only $2,000. Stack 'em up, pile 'em high.

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Would you guess that such a building has a wood frame? Here's your proof. Apparently, framing is at least 10-20 percent cheaper with wood than steel, but until walls and sprinklers are added the buildings are vulnerable to fire. Boston's fire commissioner has been quoted as saying, memorably, "You have nothing but a vertical lumber yard with very limited protection." How high can you go with wood? International codes permit five stories atop a concrete base. How high is this building? Guess.

Multi-story wood-framed buildings are now almost 10 times as common as steel-framed ones, except in super-expensive markets like New York and San Francisco. A builder says, "Quite simply, to build buildings where the rent is affordable to a market-rate renter and most certainly an affordable-housing renter you almost need to make it out of wood frame." (Jon Kamp and Luara Kusisto in WSJ, 17 Aug 17)

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Meanwhile single-family homes were being renovated or built from scratch close to campus. This one was for sale in 2017 for $700,000.

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Here's a home from 1930 that's been done-over root-and-branch.

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No end to it. Did you know that with a house like this you can get listed in Debrett's? It's true!

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Slightly less over the top.

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A personal favorite, spiffed up and with Adirondack chairs offering an unsurpassed view of the railroad track. And you think I'm kidding?


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