It started with a gunshot – Legally, there were no residents at all in Oklahoma City when gunshots rang out on April 22, 1889. The shots heralded what may be one of the most sudden births of a city in the history of mankind. The Land Run of 1889 offered hope and opportunity for anyone brave enough to stake their lots and gamble their fortunes that a great city would rise at Oklahoma Station. With a river flowing through it and ample rail access, this new city’s population quickly swelled to 10,000.
One area of this new city, however, was initially off limits. Troops from Fort Reno established an outpost east of the Santa Fe tracks. Once convinced that law and order had been established, the troops withdrew, making the area ripe for development. A decade after the land run, Congress instructed the city to plat the area and sell the properties with proceeds benefiting public schools. The deal also called for creation of Riverside Park along the North Canadian River and construction of a school.
The former outpost was fertile ground for industrial development. Wholesalers and distributors, many from Chicago, early on set up shop along the Santa Fe tracks. Rock Island tracks and Katy tracks formed the south and north borders to the city’s new wholesale district. Some industries flourished. Wholesale grocers like Williamson Halsell and Fraiser, and Carroll Brough & Robinson became major regional distributors. Oklahoma Sash & Door and the Federal Steam Company helped build the new city. The First State Ice Company kept the new city cool, and also provided the critical element to ensuring wholesalers’ success. Households were furnished and maintained with goods from the Miller-Jackson Company and Oklahoma City Hardware. The Iten Biscuit Company, meanwhile, put bread on families tables, while the Steffen’s dairy provided them with milk and ice cream.
The wholesale district also became an important regional hub for agriculture and cotton production. Implements dealers with names of Kingman, Rock Island Plow and International Harvester set up shop to provide everything a farmer might need while taking care of the business in the big city. The wholesale district persevered and continued to grow through World War I and beyond. Grand new passenger depots were built by the Santa Fe and Katy railroads. And even in the midst of the Great Depression, the city and the Sante Fe Railroad joined together to build a raised viaduct that would allow for safe passage of cars and pedestrians under the busy tracks.
The wholesale district was rarely without some fun or mischief. Employees of the Fox-Vliet Drug Company played baseball against employees of Carroll, Brough & Robinson. The Southern Club offered cigars, liquor, gambling and loose women all while trying to claim it was just a respectable gentleman’s club. And ‘Big Anne’, well, she made no such pretense as she operated her bordello at the foot of the Walnut Avenue bridge along Main Street. Families came to the wholesale district as well to grab a free ice cream at Steffen’s or sample some treats at the Walter Williams Candy Company.
The ties between the black community and the wholesale district were strong. The Walnut Avenue bridge connected the all black Deep Deuce to hundreds of jobs. Children from Deep Deuce cross the bridge to attend Douglass High School. It was here that jazz legends Jimmy Rushing and Charlie Christian perfected their craft under the tutelage of Zelia N. Breaux.
By the 1930s the wholesale district was a handsome collection of sturdy brick warehouses and plants that were the pride of the city. Companies like Oklahoma Furniture Manufacturing built ornate brick buildings and painted their name in big letters on the side. Corporate leaders of these plants and warehouses were convinced their legacies would last for decades – that the wholesale district would continue to bustle forever. And as if to put an exclamation point on that belief, the discovery of the Oklahoma City Oil Field created a forest of oil derricks as a southeast backdrop to the district.
The dreamers and corporate titans were wrong. The very progress that made the wholesale district great began to turn against it. The loss of too many important businesses like the Cotton Exchange to fire began to have its toll on the area’s vitality. Civic leaders began to plot a new industrial district north of downtown that they hoped would thrive with more space to grow than the original wholesale district. The Great Depression killed more major wholesalers. The railroads began to suffer as they lost passenger travel to the emergence of airliners. The closure of the Douglass High School and relocation of its student body further east seemed to mark the start of decay. Obsolete structures were no longer likely to be torn down and replaced with new industry. The overall stature of companies that still called the wholesale district home dropped precipitously.
Construction of the Interstate 40 Crosstown Expressway cut the wholesale district off from the once thriving cotton exchange area. And the start of Urban Renewal eliminated what wholesalers remained on the west side of the Santa Fe tracks after construction of the railway viaduct. Train depots closed, entire track spurs went silent.
By the 1970s blight was spreading throughout the area. Once grand buildings began to fall to the wrecking ball. Without a savior, there would be no need for Urban Renewal to come through and clear-cut the area as it had west of the tracks. Time and neglect were taking care of the job quite effectively.
BRICK TOWN U.S.A.
Neal Horton was considered crazy, and not a savior, when he began to buy up properties at the start of the 1980s. After a stint in banking, Horton caught the development bug from one of his acquaintances. During trips to Colorado, Horton saw historic preservation in Denver’s Larimer Square. Much of downtown Oklahoma City’s oldest and finest buildings had been razed by Urban Renewal, but a few had survived. After an unsuccessful attempt to buy the Cravens Building at Robinson and Park Avenues, Horton got his shot with nearly-century-old Oil and Gas Building down the street. But much of the building had been covered with metal siding, and so much of the original building had been damaged that he had to erect a new brick façade. Moving further south along Robinson Avenue, he got another shot at historic preservation with the Colcord Building. And it was while he was looking out of an office window at the Colcord that Horton saw the old wholesale district.
Where others saw the wholesale district as an eyesore, Horton saw a historic district that would draw people who thought all of Oklahoma City’s architectural heritage had been destroyed. Attorney Bill Peterson, meanwhile, saw an opportunity with the Iten Biscuit plant. He entered into negotiations to buy the property and commissioned an architect to draw up plans to convert the warehouse into a retail mall. Peterson lost the deal to U-Haul, however, and the building was instead turned into a storage facility. But Peterson’s effort caught the attention of Horton, and the two teamed up to form the Warehouse Development Company. They recruited one more partner, John Michael Williams, who had previously worked as a land attorney with the city. Together, they began doing deals with wholesale district property owners, many of whom were now living out of state.
Despite its abundance of brick warehouses and brick streets, the name Bricktown did not originate with any of the three partners. Instead, it was thought up by a potential San Francisco investor being solicited by Horton and Peterson. When asked what they were going to call their development, the pair admitted they didn’t have an answer. It was then the investor, looking out of Horton’s office at the Colcord, responded “Why don’t you call it Bricktown?”
The plan for Bricktown (initially marketed as “Brick Town U.S.A.”) seemed simple at first. The oil boom in the early 1980s was going in full swing and downtown office space was virtually full. The partners agreed to double-digit interest rates on construction loans fully anticipating they could capture a lease rate of $15 a square foot or better. They dreamed up lists of potential tenants – a candy store, an antiques shop, clothing stores, a radio station, cleaners, music stores, restaurants, bars, delis and art galleries. Horton made presentations where he suggested Bricktown would be a great place to introduce a “new concept” – a bed and breakfast inn.
Just as renovations were getting underway on the first pair of buildings, the boom turned to bust. Wheeling and dealing at Penn Square Bank in northwest Oklahoma City led to it being closed by the FDIC. The bank’s collapse then triggered failures throughout the oil and gas industry as loans based on handshakes went bad. Occupancy rates downtown plummeted as companies went bankrupt. Horton, Peterson and Williams had gone too far to stop – they had to continue on and hope that the downturn would be temporary. They continued to promote Bricktown as the state’s first urban entertainment district and tried to negotiate deals for offices and restaurants.
The Warehouse Development Company was going broke. In addition to buying up properties, Horton had gone on trips across the country and throughout Europe buying up old furnishings and fixtures for the delis, shops and restaurants that did not yet exist. Horton’s car was reposed as he tried to negotiate a deal with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to get a grant for a parking garage. Horton was mocked behind his back and city planners suggested he might have fared better by razing all the warehouses and starting from scratch with a new office park.
Jim Brewer – “Mayor of Bricktown”
The demise of the Warehouse Development Company, however, did not end Bricktown. A new group of owners would come in and keep Horton’s dream alive. They included Jim Tolbert and Don Karchmer, turn-around experts who bought the two nearly finished buildings along Sheridan Avenue. They completed the job and moved in, and thus maintained a stable presence in an area still avoided by the public. Williams, meanwhile, recruited a fellow southsider, a gritty oilman who had survived the bust with his assets intact. Jim Brewer had pulled himself out of poverty by working his way up from operating a transmission shop to opening successful nightclubs to his luck in the oil patch. When touring the former wholesale district, Brewer brought along some acquaintances. They included Craig Brown, who previously had been involved in development of Crossroads Mall. Brewer and Brown together realized the old Hunzicker Lighting building, filled with Horton’s antiques, reminded them of a haunted warehouse. After touring a similar operation in Kansas City, they did a deal with bankers to lease the Bricktown warehouse. The Bricktown Haunted Warehouse was a huge success, and Brewer instantly became the P.T. Barnum of Bricktown.
Brewer had succeeded where Horton had failed – he had found a way to draw crowds to Bricktown. Slowly, the district’s fortunes began to turn around with a few offices leased by Tolbert and Karchmer and clubs lured in by Brewer. The final spark to set Bricktown in motion, however, would be the opening of Spaghetti Warehouse in 1989. Founder Robert Hawk followed a blueprint for choosing where to expand. Only an old building in a run-down urban setting would work, and the community had to have a population of at least 100,000. Bricktown fit the bill perfectly, and lines formed outside the restaurant nightly when it opened in the old Oklahoma Furniture Manufacturing factory.
Spaghetti Warehouse’s success opened the floodgates for other restaurants and shops wanting to capitalize on the public’s sudden love affair with Bricktown. Brewer kept the momentum going with festivals and promotions aimed at portraying the district as being busier than it really was. Having once operated nightclubs as a younger man, Brewer went back into the business with O’Brien’s, an Irish bar with dueling piano players and karaoke. The re-establishment of the old minor league Blazers ice hockey team, and launching the minor league Calvary basketball team, provided a stream of sports fans to visit Bricktown before and after games at the Myriad Arena just west of the Santa Fe tracks.
Oklahoma City started the 1990s with momentum, but was also still dogged with poor self-esteem. A new mayor, Ron Norick, won voters’ support for a series of tax initiatives aimed at luring new industry. But despite the best of incentives packages, Oklahoma City was repeatedly rejected. He visited Indianapolis after that city won the competition for a new airline maintenance plant. He saw a vibrant downtown and a city that took pride in itself. He returned home with renewed enthusiasm to get Oklahoma City to re-invest in itself. His timing was good – veteran advertising man Ray Ackerman was leading a similar discussion as chairman of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. The resulting vision was the Metropolitan Area Projects, which called for multiple projects downtown, including a RiverWalk-style canal and a vintage-style ballpark in Bricktown. The proposition was passed, but not before Horton died from emphysema. Horton had never recovered from his failure in Bricktown, and in the months leading up to his death he was destitute and one point homeless.
The Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS, proceeding at a turtle pace that frustrated the public. Early bids came in over budget and timelines were slipping. The ballpark was to be the first project built, located on the site of the old Douglass High School. When it opened in 1998, the ceremonies were attended by some of the greatest names in baseball. The ballpark won rave reviews from the public.
Oklahoma City residents were not sure what to think of the next project – the Bricktown Canal. Planners had originally suggested building it south of Reno Avenue. It was then moved to California Avenue where construction would require excavation at basement level of some of the city’s oldest buildings. Property owners debated design plans. Brewer even yelled and cursed at engineers as he insisted the canal included walkways at both water-level and street-level.
New property owners including orthodontist French Hickman – also a musician known as “Doc Blues” – bought some of the most prominent buildings along the future canal with plans of attracting shops, restaurants and clubs. When the canal opened on July 2, 1999, the ceremonies were mobbed with people wanting to witness history. Long lines formed night after night to ride water taxis that simply traveled to one end of the canal and back again.
A decade later, Bricktown is a regional destination admired and studied by civic delegations across the country. The district is home to hotels, shops, restaurants, condominiums, theaters and even a bowling alley and a massive outdoors store. The district continues to evolve, and is once again one of Oklahoma City’s most important commercial hubs.
Retro Metro OKC’s Bricktown historical exhibit is almost complete and will be unveiled soon in the Bricktown Marketplace, 121 E California (Miller-Jackson Building) along the Bricktown Canal.
Steve Lackmeyer, president of Retro Metro OKC, is considered the city’s historian on Bricktown, having conducted extensive interviews with key players including the widow and partners of original developer Neal Horton and years of discussions with the late Jim Brewer. These photos represent acquisitions made by Lackmeyer over more than a dozen years and include materials provided by Horton’s Warehouse Development Co., the Brewer and McLain families, the Oklahoma Historical Society, the City of Oklahoma City and various contractors, architects, businesses and merchants. Lackmeyer authored two books detailing Bricktown’s history – “OKC Second Time Around” (with co-author Jack Money) and “Bricktown.”