Oklahoma City has a treasure in the middle of downtown. It’s a 33-story skyscraper built in 1931 and is a prime example of art deco elegance. Originally known as the First National Bank Building, it is now First National Center. This first building was joined with two others in 1957 and 1977. The First National Bank Corporation, the original owner, failed financially during the 1980s oil bust. There followed a series of owners that did not maintain or update the building. The final owner tried to renovate, but it proved too expensive so they left the grand building, with partially finished restorations, to sit for 20 years. Developers Gary Brooks and Charlie Nicholas have agreements with the city using a brownfields loan fund to clean up contamination. Other funds will come from public assistance.
Before cosmetic renovations can begin, the lead paint and asbestos must be removed. Of the $230 million total cost for restoring the buildings, $9 million will go toward removing the lead paint and $12 million for the asbestos abatement. Both of these deadly materials were commonly used starting early in the 20th century, but were discontinued for construction use in the late 1970s. Asbestos exposure can lead to asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma – a deadly disease.
Once abatement is completed, the developers project a hotel, housing, retail, and a parking garage as part of the redevelopment. This is set to begin in September of 2017. There are two main areas full of memories: the Great Banking Hall and the Beacon Club. Both will be reborn with their original character. During the renovation, original building plans were discovered and will be displayed as works of art in a building museum to be located in a portion of the Great Banking Hall. The Hall is a magnificent space, with 16 sandstone columns, 35 feet tall, and Egyptian birds and foliage on top of each. Floors are Italian traverine marble and walls have murals showing state history. The Beacon Club, which opened in 1941, will be a lounge open to the public with panoramic views of downtown Oklahoma City. The Club, in its heyday, hosted well-known personalities such as Lillian Gish, Carol Channing, Hedda Hopper, and John F. Kennedy.
Fortunately for Oklahoma City, there are many people willing to risk financially in making this vision a reality. They were willing to spend time and money ridding the structures of asbestos before seeing any visible signs of this dream.
Councilman David Greenwell described the project as a “substantial risk” by saying, “We’re not just handing over money and it’s going to be a slam dunk. It’s going to require a lot of things falling into place. But at the same time I think it’s critical because it is a big blight on the downtown area. If this isn’t fixed, I don’t think we can ever really move to the next level as a downtown as long as this remains vacant.”
Developer Brooks visualizes the past glory and its ability to shine once again, but also knows the difficulties, “The history of First National Center is as important as its future,” Brooks said. “The founders and builders of the bank were the leaders of early Oklahoma City. First National will never reach its potential if we ignore its past.”