Jeff Castleberry just happened to stop by E. Brady Street downtown, intrigued by the "For Lease" sign in the window.
"I saw tin ceilings, this old architecture downtown. Right there, the Cain's, the Brady Theater down the street," recalled Castleberry.
It was 1995. Castleberry's goal was to open a "little beer bar," he said, taking a chance with money he had saved following a successful stint working for hotel chain Marriott.
If he needed any convincing while scouting the location, the owners of the club next door were willing to provide it.
"They saw me looking out through the window and came over and said, 'We need more places down here,'" Castleberry said.
It may be hard to imagine now, but close to 20 years ago, the idea of a bar in the Brady Arts District really stood out, Castleberry said.
Ultimately, he leased the spot, which became Caz's Pub.
Business was slow. "We would catch some people because I think we were one of the only freestanding bars downtown," Castleberry said.
Maybe the Brady Arts District was destined to bloom, regardless of small-scale investors like Castleberry.
But he and a few other business owners made the move at a time long before the area became the hip hang-out it is today.
Peter Mayo purchased the Brady Theater from the city for $38,000, the lone bidder in a 1977 auction, he recalled.
"I mean, the whole neighborhood was a disaster," Mayo said. His purchase of the former Tulsa Convention Hall took the city by surprise with his intention to host concerts and theater events, Mayo said.
By that time, many of the buildings in the neighborhood and elsewhere downtown had been razed, he said.
"There was no concern by the city or by the developers of the Williams tower to preserve anything in the Brady area in terms of historic value," Mayo said, referring to what's now known as the BOK Tower on E. 2nd Street.
When it comes to neighborhood pioneers, he credited owners of Cain's Ballroom, including a friend, R.C. Bradley, who Mayo said was the first to begin booking rock acts at the ballroom in the 1970s, as well as subsequent owners Larry Schaeffer, Danny Finnerty and Jim Rodgers.
"When R.C. and I went into the area, it was scary. Where the tavern is now was a pint bottle shop that catered mainly to the homeless, and there was a flophouse up on top," Mayo recalled, adding, "the neighborhood itself was in horrible shape with the exception of a few industrial operations."
Mayo, who bought the theater while in his mid-20s, said he's poured money into the building, declining to estimate how much he's spent over the years.
He praised another real estate buyer, David Sharp, for buying into the Warehouse District just a couple of years later.
Along with Shaeffer, "they all had the same vision I had," Mayo said. "If we're going to have an old bricktown area in Tulsa, this and the blue dome area are the only two candidates."
Still, Mayo said the neighborhood didn't begin to really change into well into the 2000s, despite "cheerleading" efforts by himself and Sharp, in particular.
Castleberry rented his space for Caz's Pub from Sharp, who by that time owned several buildings in the neighborhood, as he still does today.
So it wasn't just the owners of the club next door -- Castleberry thinks it was called Xenophon -- who urged him to give the spot a try.
"I called the number up and eventually talked to Mr. Sharp and he said the same thing -- 'That's exactly what I'm looking for down here,'" Castleberry recalled.
Things have worked out well enough for Castleberry. When first asked how he chose the Brady Arts District, Castleberry said, "Dumb luck, maybe?"
But the soft-spoken Castleberry had a plan that he pursued with passion. His true long-term goal was always owning a restaurant, something he actively began pursuing by enrolling in culinary school.
As part of his studies, Castleberry developed a business plan.
"The base of my plan was that a restaurant would be in a downtown area near an entertainment district in an old building," Castleberry said, describing how he had traveled a bit and enjoyed the "warm feeling" of older buildings.
He's not the only person to share those thoughts about architecture, of course. While the area now has multiple dining options to choose from, one of the first places to open up as a sit-down dining experience was Spaghetti Warehouse, which opened in 1992.
The chain's business model lives up to its name.
Restaurant locations generally are old warehouse buildings, with most of those located in older parts of town.
Sometimes the move turns out to be a mistake. The chain has closed stores in Rochester, N.Y., Buffalo N.Y., and Marietta, Ga., among other cities.
"Some of them have closed because they've been in bad locations," said Kristin Ireton, general manager of Tulsa's Spaghetti Warehouse until mid-March.
She added: "After a certain amount of time, the developing area either got really well, or it got worse. Some of them have closed because the area got worse. And some of them have thrived because the area got better."
In Tulsa, the chain originally had scouted an area on E. 3rd Street, Ireton said. But a fire damaged the building and altered the company's plans.
Instead, the restaurant opened in a two-story structure in the Brady Arts District, and has become one of the more recognizable eateries in the neighborhood.
The chain restaurant doesn't own the two-story structure it's housed in, with Ireton unsure about plans to seek out an upstairs tenant.
It's an example of some of the vacant or at least underutilized space that remains in the Brady Arts District.
Bradley Garcia, owner of Gypsy Coffeehouse and Sanctuary Salon, purchased the brick building that houses his businesses.
So he doesn't have a landlord, but he wouldn't necessarily mind becoming one.
"I'd like to develop the warehouse next door," Garcia said, referring to the adjacent property he purchased as part of a package deal back in 1998.
There was no "For Sale" sign to entice Garcia into the purchase.
"It wasn't even for sale. I approached the people that owned it at the right time," Garcia recalled. He said he remembered the building being for sale years earlier, and he offered them what had been the previous sales price. "It had been boarded up for almost 35 years. Evidently, the man that owned it had just passed. ... It was in probate."
Almost immediately after the deal was finalized, Garcia recalled wondering "what the hell I have gotten myself into."
He said it took him about 18 months to gut the building and renovate it, but his vision was clear in buying the brick structure, which he said is the former home of the Gypsy Oil Co. -- a business named after oilman J. Paul Getty's sailboat, Garcia said.
"I was wanting to preserve something of the old Tulsa," Garcia said.
He also knew that he wanted to serve coffee in a time when that type of business was rare throughout Tulsa.
"From day one, I knew what I wanted to use it for," Garcia said. Challenges included taking a building that was just a "hollow shell," with no gas, heat, or electricity, and turning it into a place people would want to visit. Part of the process involved removing several tons of plaster debris, Garcia said.
As far as renovations go, "when they say it takes twice as long and twice as much, they mean it," Garcia said.
He recalled how, for a two-block radius, pretty much every other structure was vacant, describing the neighborhood as "blighted."
But the nearby Spaghetti Warehouse provided some encouragement, he said, and, in 1999, he opened the coffee shop for business.
"The kids kept us alive the first few years," Garcia said. At the time, Gypsy Coffeehouse was one of only two such coffee businesses in Tulsa, he said. "They came from everywhere. We were a destination spot."
Garcia lives above the business, and also operates Sanctuary Salon in the same building.
He credited live music with being a draw. DJs and spinning were the main acts, though the coffee house quickly established an open mic night that Garcia proudly says has become the city's longest-running such venue for local musicians.
But making it financially wasn't always easy.
"There were several times I wanted to close the doors and walk away," Garcia said.
Castleberry at Caz's Pub said he never seriously considered closing, but acknowledged that times were lean to start.
The bar relied on downtown office workers to filter in after work.
"The first six months, maybe, that was the core of our business," Castleberry said. "By seven o'clock, we were pretty much done for business."
He credited bringing in live music as key to success, and recalled a party celebrating his graduation from culinary school as a turning point in the bar business.
"We noticed that by 10 o'clock, the people we had invited to the graduation party were leaving, and by ten-thirty, we had a full house, and those were people there to see the band," Castleberry said.
Once business really began to swing, "it tended to be that 20-something crowd who just wanted to come out and have fun," he said.
He described how the live music lured people down to the area, which "was still kind of unknown," apart from concerts at the Cain's Ballroom or the Brady Theater.
"It was a fun, kind of funky area. You could -- I'm not going to say get away with stuff, but it was a little more, a little more loose than some of the established areas," Castleberry said.
Garcia, describing the Gypsy Coffeehouse, spoke about establishing a hangout for "eccentric, eclectic" people.
After a short stint operating a nightclub next door, Castleberry's long-term dream came true when he opened Caz's Chowhouse, across the street from Caz's Pub, in 2004.
Though a few years had passed and now there were at least a few entertainment options, Castleberry said the image of the area still presented a bit of a burden for a new business.
"Even in '04, when we opened the restaurant, people were afraid to come down here. And really, there was nothing to be afraid of. We've never experienced any crime, really. There's a certain amount of homeless population here, but they've been harmless," Castleberry said. He added: "Honestly, that's probably been one of our biggest battles, is that people were just afraid of coming across the tracks. And some of that was valid in that it wasn't well lit, and you did see homeless people. But really, as far as crime, there was nothing to be worried about."
Some of the struggles with Caz's Chowhouse came down to managing crowds, which would surge during nights when there was a big show even when other weeknights customers would be so few that only one or two wait staff needed to be working. A lunch menu was quickly added, a departure from the original business plan.
One thing became obvious to Castleberry in the early years of the restaurant: "We discovered quickly that the Brady District was not a destination. It was event driven."
John Hope Memorial
The George Kaiser Family Foundation entered into the Warehouse District looking for a place to house the Eugene Adkins collection of art, which was acquired by the Philbrook Museum of Art.
"We purchased the east half of Mathews warehouse," said Stanton Doyle, a senior program officer with the foundation, putting the purchase date at around 2007.
While he wasn't involved directly with that warehouse building purchase, he called it "a logical place to do it, to build density around the arts," noting plans by the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa to expand within the neighborhood.
Like others who took on the challenge of renovating an older warehouse building, the Kaiser foundation faced challenges, Doyle said. "It was filled with junk. Some people were sleeping in there, and there were stray cats," he said, adding that there wasn't a plan in place for rehabbing the structure. "I don't think there was a real good grasp on what it would take," he said.
He added: "We looked at an option to tear down part of the building," but instead the foundation was swayed in part by the idea of "retaining the character of the neighborhood."
The foundation soon had the vision of what would ultimately become Guthrie Green, the block of parkland with a pavilion and lots of amenities that opened in September.
"The foundation had the vision at the time of purchasing the building to have a green space across the street in the central freight lot and had the concept of connecting the Brady District better with the Blue Dome and the rest of downtown," Doyle said.
The park idea had its own gestation period while the foundation held "visioning" meetings to get feedback on the concept.
"We kind of put the design on hold while we did kind of the community outreach, so it really didn't start to solidify until mid-2010," Doyle said.
The foundation was also active as a landlord in the Brady Arts District, initially compelled to provide housing for young teachers involved in the foundation-supported Teach for America program. Around this time, a few other housing projects began to move from the drawing board into reality, adding more residents to the mix.
But along with ONEOK Field, which had a strong supporter in then-Mayor Kathy Taylor, the park and ballpark more than anything would go on to bring a new element to the edgy Brady Arts District: families.
When the ballpark came, "I think that really started the momentum," Garcia said.
Former Mayor Kathy Taylor said the location was chosen to spur further investment in the area.
She noted the site was selected in part because it "would be one of the most significant investments in that far north part of downtown that we've seen in decades."
The stadium opened in 2010, bolstered with $30 million in private funds but also with a stadium assessment fee paid by downtown property owners.
The assessment, which will continue for more than two decades, led to an unsuccessful legal challenge mounted by some property owners.
The Kaiser foundation supported the stadium, and was a donor to the project.
With so much development happening in the area at the time, Doyle said the foundation worked to hold meetings focused on developing a consensus vision for the area.
"Rather than have everybody off in their own world, we tried to bring people together," Doyle said, giving credit to the Brady Arts District Business Association, a coalition of businesses, among others for developing the vision, which ultimately resulted in a small-area plan adopted by the city.
Within the last three years, development has continued at a rapid pace.
"Every year, from opening day to opening day, it's amazing how much the neighborhood around us continues to evolve and change," said Mike Melega, general manager for the Drillers.
The Arts and Humanities Council in December opened its Hardesty Arts Center, with the project aided by money from the city's "third penny" sales tax to help fund capital improvement projects, said Ken Busby, executive director of the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa.But the development has brought with it the headache of construction.
New projects have included a headquarters building for Griffin Communications and the district's first hotel, a Fairfield Inn & Suites.
However, Castleberry said that the hotel site had previously been used by his customers for parking.
When construction took over the site, "that week, we took a 30 percent hit when we lost the parking lot next to us," Castleberry said.
Ireton, at the Spaghetti Warehouse, said she's been in Tulsa for about 17 months.
"When I first came down the street, there was so much construction, and now it's nice to see that it's all developing and bringing life into this area," she said.
In September, the Kaiser's Guthrie Green park and performance space opened to the public, bringing new visitors to the neighborhood.
"The park has already brought families down en masse," Garcia said.
He took some time to marvel at the transformation of the neighborhood.
"Back then, it was sort of a bohemian hideaway," Garcia said. With all the changes, big-business development "is encircling all around me," said -- quickly adding, "I'm not complaining about that."
Neither is Castleberry, describing how losing a next-door parking lot hasn't necessarily hurt his business in the long run.
"The whole goal was for it to be a park-and-walk type of neighborhood. And I think people now that the construction's finishing up and things are lit and there are things to see and shops to look in their windows, people don't mind," he said. "A block away now doesn't seem as far away as when there were construction barriers and those sorts of things going on because you're entertained during the whole walk."
Tom Wallace moved his office to the neighborhood about seven years ago, attracted by the architecture of a former warehouse building.
It took some time to revamp the building, but it was worth it: the office of Wallace Engineering has won design awards recognizing the effort Wallace took in keeping the industrial character of the structure.
Surveying the neighborhood, Wallace said he sees plenty of opportunity for similar projects.
For example, across from music venue Soundpony is a building known as the Continental Oil Company on N. Main Street that is being cleaned up for development, Wallace said. Several other structures could also be developed. Wallace cited the warehouse building with "True Turn" emblazoned near its roofline near N. Boulder Avenue and W. Easton Street.
Mayo said of a roughly 50,000-square-foot structure at South Main and Cameron streets, "it needs to be something cool."
Living Arts of Tulsa moved into 307 E. Brady St. in 2009, and now a warehouse building adajacent to that space is being advertised for lease.
One new piece of construction is the GreenArch apartment building at E. Archer Street and S. Greenwood Avenue, a mixed-use project in the Greenwood neighborhood.
Reuben Gant, president of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, said he wants to preserve the African-American heritage of this historic part of Tulsa.
In regards to the Brady Arts District, "I don't think there has been enough of a connection as there could be," he said.
But he said the arrival of the ballpark nearby has been positive for Greenwood.
"The ballpark, it's meant a lot to the district, Greenwood, in terms of creating awareness of the district," Gant said, noting the dramatic increase in people visiting the area.
With the GreenArch project, people should have more reason to visit Greenwood soon.
"We've talked to a few restaurateurs. We're actually on the brink of signing a letter of intent with one small restaurant, and we're looking for other like tenants to move into the space," Gant said. The project may be complete by August, he said.
There are things Garcia and others want to add to the vitality of the neighborhood, as well as other possibilities they'd rather not see.
"I don't want to see any big box store or McDonald's," Garcia said.
One development which has been discussed is the possibility of building the OKPOP Museum. Project proponents say they need more than $40 million in state funding for the museum to become a reality.
Doyle said the Kaiser foundation has pledged some money to the project. Though the Mathews building is partially open, with TU's Zarrow art center hosting galleries and events. However, work remains in getting it ready to house the Adkins collection.
Doyle said the foundation's Woody Guthrie center, devoted to the Oklahoma-born folk singer, is set to open in late April, with the Adkins collection set to open sometime around June.
Doyle noted the challenges the Kaiser foundation faced in building the Guthrie Green.
"The biggest challenge was probably the ancient infrastructure in the neighborhood: old sewer lines, water lines, stuff that hadn't been updated in a long time," Doyle said. New projects might face similar hurdles.
Doyle also noted, however, how residents talked about a desire to keep locally-owned businesses at the forefront of the neighborhood in small-area planning sessions for the district.
"The focus on local business was really prevalent in those sessions, kind of retaining that local authenticity rather than bringing in a lot of chain restaurants," Doyle said.
Castleberry spoke about how some older businesses may have been squeezed out of the neighborhood, but a strong sense of community remains.
"Everyone has their own niche down here. It's kind of grown organically. In any given storefront, you can walk in the door and the owner's going to be there. I think that's the neat part of it," he said. "So everybody has invested in the neighborhood, and they have an interest in seeing it develop, and all of us work together for that end."
Garcia said he'd like to see more retailers and a grocery store in the area, and perhaps more residential options, though he noted that "parking is an issue," especially with residents in the area.
Castleberry said the neighborhood continues to add on to its identity. "Ideally, in the next couple of years it will be the 24-hour community that everyone has foreseen happening," he said, noting an increase in activities geared toward children. "Now, a lot of artist groups are incorporating classes and making it more family friendly," he said.
Ireton acknowledged that, for established businesses, sometimes it's a challenge when new competition moves in.
"People forget that you're here," Ireton said. So far, while the restaurant is committed to maintaining a high standard -- "We need to make sure we stay on top of ourselves and make sure everything is good, clean, and well taken care of," she said -- adding that the sales numbers have seen double-digit increases.
"I wasn't here before all the construction, but with everything that is going on right now, the store has a lot of potential," Ireton said.
Even though Castleberry clearly had a vision of what could be, he admitted that the blooming of the Brady Arts District has surpassed anything he imagined happening.
"There were pipe dreams, and then there were over-the-rainbow dreams. I think we're seeing the over-the-rainbow dreams," Castleberry said.
As far as the future, Garcia said, "I think as long as you're keeping it creative in moving it forward, you can't go wrong."
COURTESY OF BORDENTULSA.COM
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