Urban Renewal Victim: The Buckhorn Saloon

I remember when I first learned of this thing called 'Urban Renewal' that left in its wake the slaughtered bodies of the past, that allowed what had been to be set on the wind, and overlaid the fine and historic with the smooth surface of asphalt for parking lots or high rise soulless mid century modern blocks inspired by prisons more than palaces.  It was when I first read Oklahoma history.
In the mid-to-late 1960's the government program misnamed Urban Renewal made possible the destruction of areas of cityscape in order to build new cityscapes.  It was a vast experiment in social engineering but it also coincided with an era seduced by the idea that the past was not something to be remembered unless it memorialized some mighty person, deed, or act.  The era of common history was only then emerging. That was a philosophy of history, archaeology, and anthropology that realized history is made by the person who was living it everyday and the rich, the well known and the lionized might not be the best expression of life in the past and that learning more about everyday life and common people might be valuable.
In 1968, a building was torn down to make way for the parking lots and new convention center to be known as the Myriad in Oklahoma City.  A starkly modern block building it epitomized the futuristic bent of the time period.  Old buildings, especially buildings from the wild and reckless and sometimes roguish childhood of the city could not stand in the way of Urban Renewal (insert dramatic echo here).
The Buckhorn Saloon, Sheridan and Santa Fe (now Gaylord), was one such building.  It was recognized as probably the first stone constructed building of the new city after the 1889 land run birth.  While all around were still the flapping tents and wood buildings, this one rose up and took a solid stand hinting at a future of similar construction.  Sheridan had been known first as Clark and then Grand Ave. before it became Sheridan.  Santa Fe had been Front, Santa Fe and then most recently Gaylord.
The problem was that the earliest buildings of the new city were often ones used for drinking, gambling, 'socializing', and similar rough entertainments. The early hotels were usually simple wooden structures or resembled Victorian homes.  The first 'grand' hotel was the Lee Hotel and it would be several years before the Skirvin was built as a competitor.
At 1972 meeting of the city Historical Preservation Commission, former mayor George Shirk said plans were made to remove the historic plaques from the razed buildings (placed there in the 1930's by the '89'ers', survivors of the original run) and set them in the sidewalks around the Myriad as a memorial and reminder. He said the building memorial should say: "On this corner was located one of the city's first permanent buildings. Erected in 1890, until statehood it housed many saloons and gambling houses of which one of the most famous was The Buckhorn." (Oklahoman, June 2, 1972, pg. 20).  Did this ever happen? 

According to contacts, the location of the markers have been identified. According to the fine people at the Visit OKC Office, the markers are located in Bicentennial Park (500 Couch Drive) in front of the Civic Center Music Hall. If you are standing on the steps of the Music Hall looking towards the park, they are on the right hand side about halfway down. All the monuments from bicentennial park are there and they include some of the history of OKC.  As this map shows, it is quite a distance from the building sites of old Hell's Half Acre. On foot from the old Santa Fe Depot and the current Amtrack depot it is about .7 miles or a brisk walk of about 15 minutes.
In the earliest newspaper and reports of the new city established at the location of the old 'Oklahoma Station' and settled by Land Run in 1889, there was the chorus of progress! Like a child rushing to those magical 'teenage' years or adulthood, OKC was not content to merely grow. It felt it had to 'catch up' to be just as grand, prosperous, cultured, and civilized as any city of substance in the country.  Instead of savoring its history, coming to appreciate what those old buildings meant, it sought to replace them with status symbols reflecting their personal and communal successes in ways competitive with Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, New York or San Francisco.  The struggles of the Dust Bowl no doubt compounded these feelings and by the 1960's OKC would claim its frontier heritage but only through the rough and distorted lens of cinema and television portrayals. When it was popular to remember the wild old days then OKC added stereotype representations of the old west in jails, saloons, and outhouses in its 'Frontier City' (these are now gone being replaced by a modern and wonderful theme amusement park), artificial cowboys, and plastic badges recalling the U.S. Marshalls who once rode the streets keeping peace.  Caricature understandings of early day OKC might imagine it as wooden sidewalks and false front stores (ala the movies) but solid wooden and stone buildings were rapidly laid out along wide streets with cement walk ways.  If wood came on the first trains to the new town...crystal lights, fine drapes and polished woods came next.  An early history of the community remarked OKC was "born grown".  In truth it was born as a rough teen who had to have some wild oats sown and get some splintered edges worn smooth.
History is remembering everything...not just the parts that make us look or feel good. That is what makes it so very fascinating.
[I am exploring, with some partners, the possibility of doing some historic tours of downtown OKC in the coming year.  Haunted By History Tours will hope to offer stories of those rowdy days and later even some haunted tours.]
Where 'Hell's Half Acre' stood the current Cox Business Center now sits (Corner of Sheridan and Gaylord)

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