April 4, 2014

Oklahoma City's Modernist Mummers Theater Faces Final Curtain

Exterior view of the Mummers Theater architecture inspired by the electronic-age

photo by: Corey Gaffer

Architect John Johansen found his inspiration for the theater in electronic-age inventions such as the computer circuit board and the motorized vehicle.

The Mummers Theater/Stage Center in Oklahoma City, Okla., the ultra-modern product of world-renowned architect John Johansen, received the highest award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), is internationally recognized, became eligible for the National Register for Historic Places before it was even 50 years old … and is now set for demolition, 44 years after its construction.

Despite its decorated history, years of legal battles, and appeals from advocates, the theater is going to be leveled to make way for new construction, due to constant financial difficulties and structural damage caused by rainfall.

Built in 1970, Mummers was constructed during Oklahoma City’s Modernist period.

“Stage Center was not the first Modernist building in Oklahoma City. As the downtown core filled up and development pushed out away from the city center, post-World War II buildings began to adopt the design components of the Modern style,” says Catherine Montgomery, former AIA Central Oklahoma president. “By the 1960s, many buildings began to emulate the glass and metal looks of the time.”

The front of the Mummers Theater that has served as a back drop for the annual Oklahoma City Arts Festival

photo by: Corey Gaffer

Mummers Theater has served as the sculptural backdrop to the annual Oklahoma City Arts Festival for many years.

Architect John Johansen, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, found his inspiration for the avant-garde structure in the design of the computer circuit.

“I looked for new organizing ideas. What I found then, of course, [was] the electronic age. What I did take from electronic organization was to examine what the elements were. I found there was always a chassis, a base upon which the components were plugged in. And plugged into the components were sub-components,” Johansen says his interview in "Seasons of the Soul: The Innovative Mind of John M. Johansen."

As a result, Mummers is an elaborate display of futuristic boxes and arenas. The three theaters become the components; the lobbies, bathrooms, and other service areas make up the sub-components. All are connected by various walkways, tunnels, and tubes.

Because of its unique design, the theater became a divisive issue in Oklahoma City’s aesthetic-conscious communities since its completion.

A close-up of the Mummers Theater building structure

photo by: Corey Gaffer

The theater was at its inception was designed to serve the need for an amateur/community theater.

“The Mummers Theater has always had an interesting relationship with Oklahoma City. When it first opened in 1970, there were a lot of people who weren’t very comfortable with its design. It was kind of shocking to a lot of people,” says David Pettyjohn, Executive Director at Preservation Oklahoma, Inc. “One of the stories I heard is that immediately after it opened, some of the town founders planted a bunch of trees around it to shield it from view. It kind of had that challenging existence here.”

Pettyjohn worked extensively with local preservationists to rally support to save the theater, which had been experiencing financial difficulties within two months of its opening play in December 1970.

Preservationists created a Facebook page, took out an ad in the local paper, and contacted community leaders and organizations, but with little success.

The future of the theater took a drastic turn for the worse when a series of torrential downpours occurred in 2010, causing irreparable damage to the theater and its offices. It was soon condemned, although Pettyjohn and local preservationists continued to fundraise for the theater and tried to find local groups who could restore the structure for different uses.

Exterior view of the concrete angles of the Mummers Theater

photo by: Corey Gaffer

Although flooding damage has been cited as a major reason for closing the building and its eventual demolition, the building is constructed with solid concrete and could be renovated, provided the funds were accessible.

Because of complicated details in its original deed, the theater’s ownership reverted to the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. Despite Preservation Oklahoma’s efforts to save the theater, funding for renovations didn’t materialize, so the Oklahoma City Community Foundation sold the property to Rainy Williams Jr. of Kestrel Investments. In December 2013, he filed the formal paperwork for a certificate of approval to demolish the structure.

Preservation Oklahoma, Inc. filed an appeal to the Board of Adjustment, but it was denied by a 4-1 vote. In a press release, the group stated that they will not file an appeal to the U.S. District Court.

Although Mummers will cease to be part of Oklahoma City’s urban landscape, its memory will serve as a reminder of the experimental and nuanced phase the city went through many decades ago.

“There are many factors that are involved with people’s misunderstanding of the structure,” Pettyjohn says. “There are people that love it and there are people that hate it. That’s one of the things about it. When you have people come visit and you explain [the design] to them, they understand it. They see it.”

Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

Find Out Who Is Listed