Oklahoma City rises again

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The first time I boarded an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Oklahoma City eight years ago, it was half empty and exclusively full of men, rugged faces mostly hidden behind dusty ten gallon hats. Each time I return this connecting flight seems to be an indication of what I am going to find there; in 2008 we nearly crash landed and had to fly through two storms, and the oil and gas industry was doing just the same. This Easter the flight was full to capacity with well-heeled professionals, denim clad field men, ladies in Manolos, and fancy booted dealmakers all buzzing with excitement. It felt like we were all on our way to meet the Wizard of Oz.

To someone like me who grew up watching spaghetti westerns, with my dad telling us bedtime stories about Lucky Luke and Indian Jo, this place has a dreamlike quality to it. This is the land where the buffalo roamed free across the open long grass prairies hunted only by the Wichita and the Osages 500 years before the Europeans first arrived in 1541. The land of real cowboys unique for its long and continuous presence of Native American People, where your word is your bond and you only wear a ten gallon hat if you rodeo.

In the 19th century, the US government made Oklahoma a resettlement zone – heartwrenchingly known as the “trail of tears” – and is now famous for its “Five Civilized Tribes” – Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole and Creek. You see these names everywhere – stamped on number plates of huge trucks and muscle cars – “Oklahoma” is a Choctaw Indian word and the state’s seal includes the insignias of these five Indian nations.

Luckily for me, I was meeting someone who is something of a legend in his own lifetime, D J Chernicky.  An independent oil and gas man, one part Slovak and the other Ukranian, his strong features tell a story of indigenous tenacity: he is a cowboy through and through. One of the rare few to weather the cataclysm of the ‘80s industry bust, he has built some of the country’s largest saltwater disposal wells. The fourth son of 10 children, his career had humble beginnings on the early morning paper rounds, but the regime stuck with him and this year he and his business partner successfully listed on the NYSE with an IPO for New Source Energy Partners.

A geologist, he understands the land and sees what wealth it still has to offer; but more importantly his vision to unlock its potential is one that reaches far into the future. In line with the great American tradition of philanthropy, he is a generous patron committed to reinvestment in infrastructure, architecture and the arts. Environmentally aware – something I was surprised to find in the context of drilling for black gold – his aim is to create a lasting legacy that mitigates the cyclically of boom and bust with something that stands the test of time.

In today’s present boom, Oklahoma City is one of the fasted growing cities in the United States, and with the benefit of hindsight has promoted on of the most exciting regenerations of a downtown area in the country. Its cityscape reads like a history lesson, where waves of period architecture that rise up on its expanding footprint during a boom, are then abandoned in the busts, and left languishing like old relics in a museum’s vaults.

They illustrate the epic and tragic cycles of prosperity and devastation this city has endured since it first came into existence under The Homestead Act, when those weary of taking on 160 acres of unbroken land opted for a lot in the town site instead. It was not until 1932 that the city had it’s first real boom thanks to the geographical genius of Dean McGee who unlocked the mystery of the formations below.

Coming regularly to Oklahoma City from Tulsa for business, Chernicky used to stay at the wonderfully renovated Colcord Hotel until he met the developer of Block 42 downtown. Walking into the top floor spanning 5,500 square feet with a 360 degree view of Oklahoma city – rising up around him with the derricks still in view and donkeys methodically nodding away in the distance – you can see why this man, who has made a life out of observing the land, had a coup de foudre. Although the developer had been keeping the top floor for himself, David bought it virtually on the spot and hired his architect, Dan Skaggs of HSE Architects, to turn the open space into a livable gallery.

The Penthouse was first described to me as all “shock n’ awe”, but in truth it is a work in progress where his expanding art collection is housed. The elevator that takes us to the top floor opens up right into the penthouse, his antique hardwood Buddha greeting you from the opposite wall, asking you to kindly leave your bad vibes at the door. There in the center of the entrance hall is a custom-made table in steel and glass by Tietsort Design found by Chernicky to emulate his childhood picnic table where he and his nine siblings ate all their meals. It is a symbol of what this place means to him, a place to be shared, where all his hard work and commitment to his ideals can finally be enjoyed.

What is doubly captivating about the 360 degree view of the city and land beyond is that the weather in Oklahoma can “turn on a dime”. Breathtaking sunrises are eclipsed by a charge of dark clouds gathering momentum on the horizon; dramatic vistas of clouds and storms are broken apart by miraculous sunsets. Apparently Oklahoma has an average of 53 tornadoes annually and storm watching is the states largest spectator sport, something I was soon to become acquainted with.

Once you have taken in the awesome panoramic view, it is the minutiae details that catch your eye. From the finishing touches to the thoughtful arrangement of space, everything has been meticulously designed. Each bathroom is a festival of mosaics on a different colour scheme, the ceilings are punctuated with custom lighting that highlight standout features in each room; even the utilities room is a masterpiece of functionality and design. Chernicky used Rick Phillips from Tulsa as his interior designer, Phillips worked with David Giasson of David Giasson Construction to achieve the level of detail and finish desired.

“I call Giasson the acupuncturist: walking the unfinished space with the lighting plan in hand, Giasson had drawn all of the trough lights on the concrete floor and with the approval of each location the lines were lacquered in placed then lasers used to pinpoint the fixtures in the ceiling.”

The kitchen is Poggenpohl with high-gloss pear wood cabinets. To unite the public spaces and create warmth and a sense of scale, Phillips designed pear wood panels in the living room, dining room and entry. ‘To make the space more comfortable, and visually appealing I paid attention to the volume of the spaces and to the scale. If you look closely, you’ll see that the straight edges and rectangular spaces of corridors and rooms are made hospitable and nurturing by the curves.’

In keeping with the theme of a living gallery all important table bases, like the steel picnic table, are works of art. The base of the bar is a Knut Hesterberg for Ronald Schmidt “Snake” Cocktail Table, the bedside tables are vintage Cardin. But it is the eclectic modern art collection that is most stand out, from local contemporary artists like Jose Pantoja recently exiled from Cuba, to a Dali bronze, The Surrealist Angel, that stands quietly on the sideboard for those who care to notice opposite a voluptuous woman in an apron by Tracey Harris through M A Doran Gallery Tulsa.

Another member of the Block 42 community is recently arrived director of the OKCMOA, not wanting to mix private with the personal he suggested I visit the museum and let the art speak for itself. The year 2002, saw the inauguration of the Donald W Reynolds Visual Arts Center with an exhibition of glass and drawings by Dale Chihuly. Bolstered by an overwhelming public response, the museum purchased the exhibition in its entirety some of which was anchored by the 55ft Eleanor Kirkpatrick Memorial Tower in the Museum’s atrium. Today OKCMOA is home to one of the most comprehensive collections of Chihuly glass in the world. Their translucence reminds me of sea flowers and underwater plants – like a tribute to all that swamp treasure that has given the state such wealth.

For millions of years Oklahoma lay under a shallow sea, then 300 million years ago vigorous tectonic shifts pushed mountains up forming water-filled basins in the surrounding regions – Arkoma to the East and Anadarko to the West and the Quachita.

These eventually filled up covering the remains of creatures and plants from the sea and swamps. Millions of years later these ancient basins provide Oklahoma with a treasure of black gold. “Finding, retrieving, processing and selling this treasure,” say Baird and Goble in the History of Oklahoma Chernicky gave me, “has determined the history of the state”.

There is something about the transformative power of Chihuly’s art that appeals deeply to a state that is so focused on processes of retrieval, and perhaps very reassuring about the creation of beautiful pieces that last for generations to come. “There is something about the endless variation and mutation in Chihuly’s work that gives it a tangible affinity with natural selection in the plant world,” says Tim Richardson, critic and historian.

Thursday evenings are special occasions on the Roof Terrace of OKCMOA where you can join downtown workers, the suburbs’ adventurous and the art crowd for Cocktails on the Skyline. They offer a “full bar, complimentary chips and sals and incomparable view of the Oklahoma City skyline” – unless you have been to Block 42. What you see is patronage on a grand scale, with each rising giant of industry competing with the rest to reinvest in the community that gave them the chance to become so big. The latest addition to the horizon is the Devon tower with 52 floors built to an exacting schedule of one floor a week. There is also a bar at the top where you might sip a dirty martini and look for the next bit of land ready for development.

Coming to Oklahoma – where cowboys and Indians still roam the prairies, not just as cardboard cutouts but in the heart and sole of its people – has ignited the spirit of my inner cowgirl, and given credence to my obsession with fancy boots. My new favourite expression is “I appreciate it” because when you really do, you start to reap the rewards. It’s all about the land, and what lies above it will eventually be compressed beneath it – so we had better make sure we surround ourselves with quality.

by Nico Kos Earle

The Roof Terrace opens at 5 pm on Thursday. Last call is at 8:30 p.m. and the roof and galleries close at 9 p.m.

For private parties and mini-breaks at The Penthouse contact: jennadeehodapp@gmail.com

Dale Chihuly is exhibiting at the Halcyon Gallery, London from February 8 – April 5, 2014.