I don't remember the exact date, but I do remember the first time I beheld the Excalibur Building.
It was early 1973. My pre-driving-age buddies and I boarded a Greyhound in Oklahoma City for a trip across the Turner Turnpike to attend an Ice Oilers game at what was then known as the Assembly Center.
The capital didn't have a professional hockey franchise that season and we were craving some live action.
After the game, on our hike back to Tulsa's bus station, one of our puckheads asked that we drop by the Tulsa World to visit with his uncle, who served as the night front-desk security guard.
As we reached Third and Main, the Excalibur stood before us, a nine-story link to early 20th-century Oklahoma when Tulsa truly was emerging as the Oil Capital of the World.
It may sound weird, but as an early teen, I was fascinated with downtowns.
Maybe it was the magic (in my mind, at least) of Petula Clark's hit Downtown. Maybe it was a young fellow's dream that Tulsa could someday resemble bustling, high-energy urban centers like Chicago or St. Louis. Maybe it was simply an old-fashioned, romantic notion that downtowns reflected the heart of a city.
Six years later, as a young reporter for the old Tulsa Tribune, I renewed my acquaintance with the Excalibur, glimpsing the landmark almost every day -- and often several times a day -- as I scurried from the Trib's seventh-floor offices overlooking the Main Mall to the police station, City Hall and elsewhere in search of stories.
I don't often sit around and muse about old, decaying Oklahoma buildings. But Excalibur came to mind last week as I considered the sad state of several Sooner landmarks -- including the state Capitol and Oklahoma City's Gold Dome.
I'm not a trained architect or engineer. Nor do I pretend to be an expert in what makes a structure worthy of a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. But I have lived most of my life in Oklahoma. And as someone who loves this state, it grieves me to see how little regard we often seem to have for our history.
Take the Capitol, for example. It strikes a majestic pose in the capital skyline -- from a distance. But upon closer inspection, it's clearly a building that has been neglected far too long.
The façade is falling off, endangering visitors. The plumbing is so corroded you wouldn't want to drink the water. The wiring is so antiquated that you can't help but think about the possibility of fire.
This is the people's house. How we maintain it says a lot about us as a people.
It doesn't have to be the Taj Mahal, but it shouldn't be an eyesore, either.
The governor and state lawmakers this session began whittling away at the necessary repairs, estimated at $160 million and counting. But as dysfunctional as our Legislature is, it's hard to imagine the Capitol will receive the attention it needs and deserves any time soon.
The best news recently on the preservation front is that a deal was struck to save Oklahoma City's Gold Dome, a Route 66 landmark based on famed architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic design.
Even though the Dome is on the National Register of Historic Places -- and it is one of only five buildings in the world with a geodesic dome -- its future appeared dire as its condition deteriorated.
The developer who bought it out of bankruptcy last year even took steps to secure a demolition permit. But instead, an Edmond environmental engineering firm announced last week it would buy the building as its new headquarters, preserving an important piece of American architecture and Oklahoma history.
I fear Excalibur's future could be similarly dicey. Excalibur, of course, has been empty since late last year when an engineer's report raised doubts about its structural integrity -- pointing to damage the building suffered in a November 2011 earthquake.
I have seen first-hand what happens when a building sits empty long-term. It's incredible how quickly well-built structures can decline when no one inhabits or takes care of them. In fact, if they sit empty and unkempt long enough, they can become too expensive to repair.
Growing up in metropolitan Oklahoma City in the mid-'60s and early-'70s, I watched in horror as the Powers-That-Be embraced I.M. Pei's vision for urban renewal that resulted in the capital wiping away huge chunks of its center-city history.
In a case of adding insult to injury, Pei's dream mostly fizzled after the demolition work, leaving behind what seemed to be scores of empty lots and partially graded properties.
I've talked to many historians and architects over the years about Oklahoma's cavalier attitude about its historic structures. No one seems to have an ironclad theory for why Oklahoma often bids farewell to its landmarks while Boston, for example, seems better able to preserve them.
But I've often wondered if it has something to do with the fact we're still such a young state -- opened to non-Native settlement in about as untraditional a way as you can imagine: via a series of shotgun-start land runs, pioneers on horseback and in wagons racing to stake claims on choice property.
Oklahomans also have been something of a nomadic lot. Many moved here because things didn't work out elsewhere. When the Dust Bowl and Depression hammered the state, they moved again, leaving the farmhouse and barn to the rodents and other critters and, in many cases, eventual collapse.
Excalibur is an example of one of those structures we really can't afford to lose. It's not that it's an architectural marvel -- it's that it links us so tightly to our history, something we should know and savor.
Originally known as the Palace Building -- and long home to the bustling downtown Palace Cleaners -- Excalibur was built in stages between 1913 and 1917, giving us a glimpse into construction and architecture that pre-dated World War I.
It's also a prime location in the heart of downtown, an address that should become even more important as Tulsa's urban center continues its renaissance.
Yet, given Oklahoma's out-with-the-old proclivities, the fact that the Tulsa World-owned building sits empty is worrisome.
When the building was closed because of earthquake damage, the newspaper's execs emphasized there were no plans to raze it. But the World is no longer locally owned. Who knows whether out-of-state owners will look at anything but the bottom line?
The reality is, a prime corner in a resurgent downtown isn't going to be ignored by commercial developers forever. If the building stays unoccupied, it easily could deteriorate to a point where the lot is more valuable empty.
Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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