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Saving Downtown Oklahoma: The Preservation of Historic Buildings

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

They were coal miners, railroad workers, merchants, farmers, husbands, wives, and children. They came to Oklahoma for many reasons. Some came to begin a better life. Some came because their job brought them here. Others came in an attempt to escape the law.

Whatever their reasons for coming, they were the people who built and shaped Oklahoma.

The built the luxury hotels and theater that now sit abandoned on an almost forgotten downtown street. They established the first drug stores and general merchandise stores. They ran post offices, courts, and jails. They were the people who came to a wild and rugged land and tamed it.

They were the early Oklahoma pioneers, and as each day passes, their stories are lost.

The Aldridge Hotel in Downtown McAlester

The Aldridge Hotel in Downtown McAlester

Honoring those who have built Oklahoma’s Historic Downtowns

Hundreds of small boomtowns sprang up all across Oklahoma. The stories of these towns are as varied as the people who inhabited them. Some, like Witteville in southeast Oklahoma, sprang up during the Gilded Age of coal during the 1880’s. Others, such as Okmulgee, just south of Tulsa, were born with the explosive oil boom of the early 1900’s. Still more came about by the railroads, old Indian agencies, and some, merely by happenstance.

For most of the 20th century, these small towns boomed. The streets downtown were filled with people. The sturdy brick buildings built by Oklahoma’s early pioneers provided an elegant feel to an era of prosperity and progress.

For most of Oklahoma, those glory days of a bustling and lively downtown district have faded into the echoes of time. Buildings that once houses million-dollar enterprises sit alone, abandoned and neglected. Where hundreds of window shoppers walked along rustic streets, only cracked sidewalks weeds reside.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Many efforts have been taken to restore many of these old downtown areas to their former glory. Some cities, like Guthrie, Oklahoma’s first capitol city, have taken preservation to the next level. The city has brought back the elegance and feel of the early 1900’s in splendid style. Other towns, such as Downtown McAlester, haven’t had the prestige of places such as Guthrie, but have still done an amazing job at restoring their downtown district.

While these efforts have had positive effects on the old downtown areas in Oklahoma, many places cannot afford to go to such extremes. They must rely on local businesses and government grants to help restore their historic downtown districts. With the economy as it is, funds for downtown improvements decrease with each successive year. Grand plans of beatification projects and building restorations are put on the back shelf.

Again, it doesn’t have to be like this.

The men that labored so fiercely to build these historic downtown areas need to be honored, and everyday another building crumbles is a story lost in time. We should be proud of their achievements, as we are proud of our own achievements as well. Nothing symbolizes this pride more than the environment we live in.

There are many things that can be done to improve Oklahoma’s historic downtown districts, but it takes coordination, dedication, and a sense of pride to get things done. This section is broken down into two parts, first what individuals can do to help improve their downtown areas, and second, what businesses can do to help.


Downtown Preservation and Restoration: Citizens have a voice

  • Create community “green spaces”, gardens, or “pocket parks”

Many of the historic downtown districts throughout Oklahoma consist of seemingly solid rows of brick buildings and concrete sidewalks. All of this brick and concrete presents a purely utilitarian view, and definitely does not encourage visitors to travel to the downtown areas. Most main street communities don’t have a lot of room to develop large parks, but bringing life into downtown is not impossible.

Areas where old buildings have been burnt down or otherwise destroyed provide a perfect place for “pocket parks”. Many times, it is possible to talk to the owner of the property and get their permission to create a small park where the building once stood.

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If the area is still covered in concrete, a green-scape can be created by using movable structures, such as large pots and benches. Drought resistant perennials can easily be planted in the pots, along with small trees and ivy’s. If the area is full of green grass, the options become much larger. Fountains, streams, large trees, and other landscaping aspects can be created in the area. This provides a pleasant place for shoppers to stop and cool off in the heat of the day, or to seek a little seclusion from the busy street traffic.

Even if a “pocket park” can’t be created, volunteers can still create green-scapes throughout the downtown area. Hanging baskets, large planters, and benches can do wonders to create life in an otherwise drab downtown area.

  • Volunteer your experience

Old buildings have a way of deteriorating without constant maintenance. Many of these historic buildings have been lost due to fire and water damage. Old wiring poses a major hazard, as well as leaky roofs and outdated plumbing. For many of these buildings owners, it simply costs too much to make much-needed repairs, and eventually, this causes the buildings to deteriorate.

If you have the time and the desire, ask around to see which buildings could use the most help. No matter what your experience is, always something can be done. Sometimes it involves something as simple as painting a few walls, or as complex as fixing broken tiles.

Better yet, get a group of volunteers together to canvas the historic downtown district, searching for anything that can be done to improve the downtown area. By forming a club, this will encourage more people to join as well as allowing people to form lasting friendships

  • Donate those penny jars

...or better yet, donate dollars. Major downtown preservation and restoration projects aren't cheap, and some projects can run into the millions. It can get expensive. Still, if projects are broken down into smaller parts, they become a lot less daunting, and less expensive. If a lot of people only contribute a couple dollars a week, this can easily add up to big money.

  • Clean-Up

As simple as it sounds, simply taking time to pick up trash and litter from the downtown streets can have a huge effect. Litter is a major eye sore along city streets, and can, in fact, be dangerous. Gather a group of people and once a week hold a "Clean Streets" day. Pick up trash, wash windows, pull weeds, and get rid of anything that can have a detrimental effect on the beauty of the historic downtown area.

For more ways to help restore and rejuvenate your historic downtown district, contact your local chamber of commerce.


Downtown Preservation and Restoration: Business Solutions

  • Merchandising

Visual Merchandising not only improves the look and feel of downtown, but it can also prompt a huge increase in sales. In essence, visual merchandising is presenting products for sale in an appealing way that encourages browsers to make purchases.

Many historic downtown districts seem bland and boring simply because there's nothing to look at. Without shops and other businesses, these downtown districts wouldn't exist. By utilizing the large window spaces that many of these old buildings have for unique displays, businesses entice more people to visit downtown to see the newest products and the best deals. This also acts as "free" advertising. A store that is properly merchandised appeals to more customers than one that is thrown together happenstance. If possible, create merchandising themes that relate to your downtown district.

Simple Housekeeping

All retailers strive to keep the interior of their store looking crisp and clean, but many forget that curbside presentation also matters. Dirty windows, weeds growing through sidewalk cracks, and even broken or chipped cement can make even the most beautiful store look dingy. Simple things like sweeping the sidewalk, repainting faded signs, and patching holes in the sidewalk can and do make a huge difference. Not only does this show that a business takes pride in what they do, but it also shows that they take pride in their city.

  • Document Historic Spots

As more and more historic buildings disappear, it's increasingly important to document their history. Signs placed outside historic buildings that tell a brief history of that building are both entertaining and informational. Shopkeepers and other businesspeople can also use this as a marketing strategy. Historic signs encourage visitors to spend more time downtown. It has been found that, after visitors read these types of signs, they become more interested and want to know more. Businesses can showcase historic pictures and other information within their stores, and encourage people to come in to learn more.

In addition to historic signs, local business owners can band together to create a historic walking tour. As many of the historic downtown areas only cover a few blocks, most people can easily handle a historic walking tour.

  • Seek low-cost/no-cost “people-grabbers”

Most cities and towns put on special events to draw in new visitors. Sometimes, these events can cost thousands of dollars, but low-cost alternatives are often overlooked. Weekly events can be held that draw in a lot of people, but cost very little to organize and put on.

Events such as Shakespeare in the Park and other plays can be presented by simply providing a "stage". Many schools and most towns have amateur actor groups. Most of these groups would be delighted to perform in front of a large audience.

Once a week, businesses can host an outdoor movie night. Put on a classic film and invite locals to bring blanks and lawn chairs to the showing. Many of the classic movies can be downloaded and shown for free, while others provide a special permit for public viewing.

Many times, bringing people downtown doesn't have to involve any event. By scattering "conversation areas", businesses can encourage more people to stay longer. A few bistro tables set off to the side create places for people to hang out. It has been said that perception is a powerful tool. The more active people perceive downtown to be, the more active it will become.


Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on July 25, 2011:

Wait, there was a contest?!?

Thanks for the comment - I hope this article encourages people to do what they can to help preserve their local heritage. Sometimes, it only takes a couple of well-motivated people to make a substantial difference.

RedElf from Canada on July 25, 2011:

Another great hub on preserving landmark and heritage buildings - I hope you entered this one in the contest :D

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