Knock, knock. Who’s there?

The milk man doesn’t come here anymore.  The cabinet doors along the hallway have been nailed shut, and converted to shelf-like nooks within the interior of each studio apartment.  The residents used to place empty milk bottles along the shelves, and the cabinets into the hallway gave convenient access for replacements.  But now the doors are merely decorative; a reminder of an era long since gone.  Today such access would not be trusted, much less desired.  In an age where convenience is paramount, privacy and security trump.

The small apartment building where I lived in Oklahoma City was built about 100 years ago, and was renovated to preserve the historical character of the building while adding modern conveniences, such as installed A/C.  Walking in the front door revealed a long hallway (featuring cabinet-door access for the milkman to each apartment), and a staircase to the second floor.  Maggie loved to gallop down the hallway and slide on runner carpets placed there to muffle the sound of shoes on hardwood.  There were 2 apartments on each side of the hall, for a total of 8 apartments in the building.  Laundry facilities and shelter from occasional tornadoes were in the basement.

Each apartment had virtually identical studio layouts, except 2 which were expanded into 1-bedroom units.  The built-in shelf for home phones was a vestige of the past that even I remembered (home phones, not built-in phone shelves).  The apartments also had possibly the tiniest kitchen I’d ever used.  The sink, counter, stove, and fridge (none of which were full size), formed an “L” along two sides of the rectangular-shaped room; I would not be surprised if the total remaining floor space measured 3-4 feet by 7 feet.  That’s approximately the size of my couch.  My mom would call it a “one butt kitchen” because if more than 1 person tried to work in it, they would bump butts.  I managed to cook tacos, turkey spinach meatballs, baked chicken and veggies, turkey chili, and more in that kitchen, but it was tight.

After walking Maggie around the surrounding streets in the Mesta Park neighborhood a few times, I wrote to my landlady to inquire about my building.  I’d noticed that there were similar small-capacity apartment buildings in the area.  To my disappointment, she wasn’t sure what caused them to be built.  In my imagination, I thought they must have been boarding houses for a gold rush in the area.  Maybe workers to staff a manufacturing boom during a war?  Even though I tried to work the google machine, I still don’t know the answer.  The most likely reason I found was that the city was a railroad hub in the early 1900’s.  There must have been some impetus for the construction trend, but I may never know.

I chose to live in Mesta Park because it was close to downtown, near parks for jogging and playing with Maggie, and the area was recommended by a local.  I found that what I enjoyed most about the neighborhood was its wholesome charm.  Every time I walked the dog I got the same song in my head:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

The lyrics of this song seem much more negative than my actual impression of the area.  The neighborhood was completed in stages, mainly between 1906 and 1930, and most houses were built in the Prairie, Foursquare, and Craftsman styles.  There was a lot of brick and wood, and the city in general struck me as practical and planned.

How could the pervading architectural movements in my neighborhood influence my impression of the city as a whole?  Let’s break it down.

  • The Prairie style of architecture is marked by horizontal lines and blending/integrating design with the surrounding landscape. Windows are typically grouped in horizontal bands, and there is restraint from ornamentation.  Frank Lloyd Wright was a well-known proponent of the style, and it is called uniquely American.  This school of design is inspired by the Midwest’s broad, flat landscape.
  • Craftsman style homes feature low-pitched, gabled roofs with broad eaves, large front porches and simple decoration in the form of wooden structural elements, such as front porch supports. The style values the contribution of skilled labor and handwork in construction, and more expensive homes feature several structural elements which embellish the overall appearance.  This decoration, however, remains straightforward and clean-cut.
  • Foursquare homes are nearly square in shape and are often plain homes with modest woodworking detail. The boxy shape is mirrored in the interior, and the homes are usually 2-2.5 stories.  Both Craftsman and Prairie features are adapted into these designs.

See any commonalities?  The words “restraint,” “simple,” and “plain” stick out to me.  All three styles of architecture have clean, classic lines and are not heavily ornamented.  The song was always in my head because the houses looked very uniform and simple; however, they were very nice and well-built historical homes.  In addition, the three schools of design were within the “Arts and Crafts” movement, and were reactions to the fripperies of the Victorian Era.  They functioned to counterbalance the trend of “over-decoration.”  Interestingly, when OKC residents added ornamentation to spice it up, this only made the houses or lawns look cluttered.  It was as if the utilitarian design elements eschewed frivolity and individualism.

I feel the need to temper what may be perceived as the harsh tang of language, or perhaps judgment.  If something is eclectic and varied, one more curly-cue might not be amiss.  However, if one is looking at a clean slate or a simple design, a flourish or whirly-gig will seem out of place.  Is there anything intrinsically better in either scenario?  No, it is simply a matter of taste and propriety to a situation.  There is elegance in simplicity, and passion in eccentricity.

For example, there was a backlash from many architects when Henry Bacon won the bid to design the Lincoln Memorial in 1912 as a Grecian-inspired monument.  Believe it or not, they denounced his design as un-American!  The critics were mainly proponents of the (at the time) modern movements, such as Prairie-style.  As a side note, it appears from my meager investigation into the topic that the Prairie-style was never a true contender in the bid process for the memorial.  Nonetheless, the architects were seriously peeved!

Frank Lloyd Wright, in his usual blunt manner, said: “Depravity sees a Greek temple as a fitting memorial to Abraham Lincoln … Nothing is Greek about his life or work or thought.”  Wright’s mentor and fellow Prairie-style architect, Louis Sullivan, was also apparently having fits of despair, and pronounced: “Architecture, be it known, is dead.”

Notwithstanding this heavily-laced drama from grown men, today the Lincoln Memorial is just as iconic a symbol of America as the style whose architects denounced it.  Apparently, Henry Bacon was moved not only by his own stylistic predilections toward classicism, but also by an intent to do homage to the birthplace of democracy and the fallen president’s defense of that institution.  In sum: what people find attractive is all about their personal preferences as well as the tone of the particular place and time; in Oklahoma City, notwithstanding some variety among structures, the predominate style emphasized simplicity, utility and sturdiness.

One goal of my nomadic adventures is to discover what I love about an area.  Right off the bat, I was tickled by watching the weather on the local news: they reported on the entire state and not just OKC!  I have told many Texans of this phenomenon; it is simply not practical in Texas – the state is too big.  In Houston, we only see local weather for Houston and its surrounding counties unless a storm system threatens to invade the viewing area of the local news channels.  In addition, I visited and enjoyed a few different areas of OKC, such as a brewery in Bricktown (where beer on tap is disappointingly capped by state law at 4.0%), and took a chance on the banjo museum.  There were about 20 minutes when I was convinced that I wanted to learn and play the banjo.  That’s 20 minutes more than I’ve ever had such an inclination.  Maggie and I jogged along Lake Hefner for about 2 miles.  She likes to lie down and gaze at the world during runs.  It’s not always appreciated.  I also spent one of the few gorgeous weekend afternoons meandering through the Myriad Botanical Gardens and stumbled upon a Garden Fest where I perused various plants and homemade items for sale (ok, I admit it: on impulse, I bought a small handmade dream-catcher).  I also enjoyed sweating through the humid beauty of the Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory.  All of which I highly recommend.

My most profound experience, by far, was when I visited the memorial for the Oklahoma City bombing.  I passed through one of the Gates of Time, and into an area of profound silence.  The city beyond the Gates and the Survivors’ Wall vanished in a second, as if the solemnity of the space swallowed the sound.  What is truly admirable to me is how much the memorial conveys to its visitors: the space is commemorative of the pain of the city as well as each of the 168 individuals who were lost, and enjoins the community to remember and celebrate the victims.  This was not a feat of architecture or imposition of grandeur as was the Lincoln Memorial, but rather utilization of urban design to lead people through an open space where a building once stood, and use their progression and journey through that void to tell a story of loss, love and remembrance.  The tragedy occurred on April 19, 1995, but the hole it left in the city and in the country, remains.  The memorial is a singularly beautiful space.

As part of my mission in my own journey, I tried to explore Oklahoma City and get to know her more.  I faced a few hurdles in this task.  First, I drastically underestimated the weather, which was constantly changing and often much colder than suggested by the monthly averages on the internet.  Second, the Mexican food left a lot to be desired.  I already lambasted the tacos in another post, so I will not beat a dead horse here.  Third, like a good southern city, people greeted each other in a friendly and open manner on the street; however, the city is surprisingly shy.  Perhaps shy is the wrong word.  Withdrawn is too negative.  Home-body.  Oklahoma City is a home-body.  I am accustomed to cities being bustling and lively.  The most people I saw in OKC at one time were at professional conferences and at yoga classes.  I talked to a few locals about this, and they agreed: outside of Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening, people generally don’t go hang out around town unless there’s some kind of event, activity or function.  I liked this aspect of the city the least.

To my knowledge, the milkman doesn’t exist in any part of the United States.  Over time, a new milkman has developed: Amazon, grocery delivery services, and meal delivery services.  As we shut our doors to the milkman, we started to screen the deliverymen through internet notifications and locked doors.  Were we seeking privacy and security, and did the convenience of delivery simply result in isolation from the world?  I have no idea if this is the phenomenon at work in Oklahoma City, and what other factors are at play.  But every time I passed the milkman’s cabinet door in my apartment hallway, I thought about how it was nailed shut; an act that resulted in both exclusion and seclusion.  And I looked around the neighborhood, and saw the styles of “restraint,” “simple,” and “plain.”  Those architectural features didn’t convey a sense of isolation until I went out to bars, restaurants and other places, and almost no one was there.

I’ve attempted to avoid negativity about the city, but honestly, OKC was not my favorite place to live.  It was not my jam; not my cup of tea; not the tootsie roll in my lollipop.  I see a lot of value in living there (I didn’t necessarily dislike it), but it does not suit my lifestyle or temperament.  I will very likely return, and when I do, I will continue to search for things to love about it.  But, my door is more open than many doors in that city, so I will continue to another location to knock around and see who’s there.

– Your huckleberry

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