First National Center
- 445.86 feet (135.9 meters) ground to roof.
- 493.11 feet (150.3 meters) ground to spire.
By 1930, Oklahoma City had experienced two periods of remarkable downtown vertical development, the early 1910s and the 1920s. 1910 produced the 12-story Colcord, State National (Hales), and Herskowitz Buildings, the 10-story Campbell Buildings, and the 10-story Lee-Huckins and Skirvin Hotels. The 11-story Kingkade Hotel was added to the group in 1912. In addition to several smaller buildings, the 1920s produced the second wave of downtown growth —
1921’s Tradesmen’s Bank (City Center), 11-stories, followed by 1923’s 10-story Braniff, 12-story Medical Arts (100 Park Avenue), and 10-story Harbour-Longmire Buildings. Although two slightly taller buildings rounded out the decade’s growth — the 18-story Petroleum Building in 1927 and the 16-story Southwestern Bell Building in 1928 — by the end of the decade no single building had made a signature statement which at that time would cause it to stand head and shoulders above the rest. That was about to change.
Notwithstanding the Wall Street Crash of 1929, on Sunday, April 20, 1930, a huge vertical drawing and article splashed across the Daily Oklahoman’s front page, top to bottom, under the headline, “First National Pays $1,050,000 for Site At First and Robinson for New 32-Story Structure to Cost More Than $3,000,000.” Despite national economic woes, that front page news was a signal that Oklahoma City was nonetheless moving full speed ahead with its unprecedented wave of downtown construction. First National Bank, founded April 22, 1889, was on the threshold of supplying that signature statement and even as this is written in 2010 Oklahoma City’s skyline is probably most readily recognized by this art deco icon built almost 80 years ago.
If it was not enough to have one such building under construction, high drama presented itself by having a pair of such construction rivals side by side. First National’s story cannot be properly told without mentioning that on August 31, 1930, another Daily Oklahoman article announced by another magnificent drawing and article that, “Ramsey Completes Deal for 31-Story Office Building on Robinson Avenue Corner; Cost Will Total $3,000,000.” The construction of these two towers is often referred to by locals as, “The Great Race” — Ramsey Tower opened October 3, 1931, First National on December 14.
Even though Ramsey Tower won that race and even though both were 33 stories, First National with its lighthouse-like beacon was slightly taller and its silhouette became the city’s enduring hallmark for 80 years. 1931 was a heady time for the city — only 11 US cities (New York, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Baltimore, Houston, and Kansas City) could boast of buildings greater than 33 stories. Oklahoma City and Philadelphia were in a tie for 12th place, each having two 33-story buildings.
This article complements the visual and documentary history contained in RetroMetro OKC’s first contributed collection, the photographic and documentary archives of the First National Center, and focuses upon the construction history of the First National Center from 1930 through 1973.
The Original Building:
Statistics. Building height is 445.86 feet (135.9 meters) ground to roof, 493.11 feet (150.3 meters) ground to spire. The tower’s main entrance faces west at 120 N. Robinson Avenue. On the tower’s east side, a pair of 13-story wings extend east, forming a U – the Great Banking Hall is nestled between them, with its ceiling at what would be the base of the 5th floor (no floors exist above the hall).
Said by many to resemble New York City’s Empire State Building, also completed in 1931, First National was designed by Weary and Alford Co. of Chicago and was constructed by the Manhattan Construction Co. The building’s exterior is limestone except at its ground level which is embellished with grey-black marble along its north (then 1st Street) and west (Robinson Avenue) sides. Elaborate aluminum art featuring swans, peacocks, cherubs and other art deco designs at some places reaching 5 stories high mark the building’s main entry. Art deco inside and out, the interior lower level walls were enhanced by marble from Germany, Italy, Missouri and Tennessee, some cream-colored, others gold-brown, pink, and rose. Dark mahogany wood was used throughout the building.
Great Banking Hall
Upon entering from Robinson, a broad staircase led up and east to the Great Banking Hall, a nearly 3-story public area which not only served banking customers but was also the venue for many public events and displays. The ornately designed ceiling reached what would be the underside of the 5th floor. The open central rectangular area of the hall was outlined by 14 massive Corinthian columns each of which consisted of a plain marble cylindrical base from which limestone fluted shafts extended upward to Roman Corinthian capitals, the vertical span approaching 3 stories high. Above the columns, entablatures connected the columns horizontally and contained friezes enriched with bas-relief. Originally, the central part of the ceiling was a skylight, assisted by electric lights as needed, but in 1959 the skylight was covered with a tar and gravel roof in lieu of replacing the 4,000 lights which earlier augmented the skylight when sufficient sunlight was not available. Additionally, light was supplied by numerous art deco chandeliers which hung from the perimeter of the hall. Each corner of the hall was adorned by a large mural painted by Chicago’s Edgar Spier Cameron depicting important events in Oklahoma and Oklahoma City history. In addition to the ornately designed customer tables and teller windows, 28 replicas of ancient coins, each about 2 feet in diameter, were mounted on three sides of the hall high above the teller cages.
Aside from height, the most notable external feature was the building’s top, the beacon, from which the 1941 Beacon Club derived its name. Quite like a lighthouse, its rotating beam of light sent a signal to ships in the air — a point to approach from a distance and one to avoid when near. Reports were that the beacon’s light was seen from a radius of 50 miles and that its light was strong enough to cast shadows at the city’s municipal airport five miles away.
Other than adding escalators to the Great Banking Hall in 1950 and various other improvements, the First National Bank Building was largely unchanged for 26 years. Beginning in 1955, major changes would shift focus from the bank alone to a broader definition and name, the First National Center.
After a long period of downtown non-growth following the Great Depression and World War II and spurred on by the business community’s 1955 “600,000 in ’60” campaign, downtown business-related construction began showing signs of growth between 1955 and 1957. A planned 17-story Petroleum Tower at Harvey and Park Avenue was announced (by its 1957 opening, the name had become Fidelity Bank Building) and Liberty Bank, which purchased the Apco (Braniff) Tower in 1950, opened its new 16-story Petroleum Club Building (Globe Life, today) between Couch Drive and Robert S. Kerr in 1957. The First National Bank & Trust Co. would add a pair, also. Construction of its 13-story parking garage on the north side of Main Street between Broadway and Robinson Avenues began in 1955 at which time First National also planned a modest 4-story addition on Park Avenue east of the existing location — but by November 1955, 10 more stories were added to that project. Called the First National Office Building at 120 Park Avenue, the 14-story addition opened in December 1957 with frontage on Park Avenue. Inside, an arcade connected the new and old buildings and its purpose was aptly shown by the advertised title, the “First National Arcade of Fine Shops.”
At some point after 1957, First National acquired the Auto Hotel built and owned by Reinhart & Donovan since 1927. On March 21, 1969, First National announced plans in the Daily Oklahoman for its next expansion which would include space occupied by the following properties: the Auto Hotel, a north-south alley separating that garage from the Medical Arts (100 Park Avenue) Building, and, on Broadway, the Egbert Hotel and Adair’s Cafeteria, the last three of which First National did not own. The half-block north-south alley was owned by Oklahoma City and the Broadway properties were owned by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority. Not so fast, said the owners of City National Bank located at the northwest corner of Main and Broadway. It, too, planned an expansion and new high rise on the north side of its existing property — furthermore, the alley First National proposed to acquire was used by City National’s drive-in bank customers for egress to Park Avenue. City National claimed that its competitor’s splashy Daily Oklahoman announcement was not only premature, it was downright bullying since closing of the alley was in the city’s jurisdiction and letting contracts for the Broadway properties was open to a bidding process with OCURA.
For several months the competitors fought over the issues in the press and before various governmental entities, but in the end First National prevailed and got the go-ahead for its expansion proposal which would include a new 14-story Park Avenue building abutting the Medical Arts Building and a new 14-story building on Broadway. In April 1970, construction contracts were let and the new buildings were completed in 1972. With the additional 356,000 square feet, First National’s space increased by 50%. A new basement tunnel with shops and restaurants connected eastward under Broadway with the underground tunnels being constructed there and which would come to be named the “Conncourse.” With the construction underway in 1971, the name, “First National Center” was born.
One last item and this survey of the construction history contained in the First National Center’s collection is done — the Main Street parking facility. First National’s 1956 13-story main street parking garage became part of the assets of Oklahoma City’s Urban Renewal Authority. On April 30, 1972, explosive devices demolished the garage and another, the present day 9-story Main Street Parking Garage completed in February 1973, took its place. Although the new parking facility was owned by the Oklahoma Industries Authority it was initially operated by First National Management Corp.