University's Memorial Tower Remains Locked, Mostly Unused

Sunday, October 8th 2006, 2:03 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ At the top of Oklahoma City University's Gold Star Memorial Building _ almost 270 feet above the ground _ there's a door with names scrawled on it that leads to a small outdoor landing, from which one enjoys a breathtaking view of the metropolitan area.

The names are of some of those who have made the perilous climb through the tower's empty innards to the top. But their number isn't large _ perhaps a dozen _ and is not exactly growing by leaps and bounds.

That's because the building's unfinished upper floors have remained mostly locked and unused for more than five decades, a time capsule of sorts of a bygone era in the campus' history.

``It's sort of the quintessential ivory tower,'' said Lee Peoples, the associate director for research services at OCU's Law Library, which uses the building's lower three floors and basement.

In the 1940s, former OCU President C.Q. Smith had an idea to construct a building on the campus that would honor World War II dead from Oklahoma's United Methodist churches and serve as a location for the university's library, religion school and some faculty and administrative offices. The denomination's bishop in Oklahoma at the time, W. Angie Smith, led a fundraising drive for the building that netted $500,000.

Problems beset the project from the start. Construction began in late 1949, but in December 1950, money ran out, and the building's steel frame sat open for six months. Newspaper accounts from the period said it was often referred to during that time as an ``air-conditioned tower.''

The Methodist church and the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce raised more money to finish the project, which ended up costing about $1 million, and work resumed in June 1951. The building formally opened in September 1953, with a 200-pound gold star _ which measures 5 feet, 10 inches from tip to tip _ atop the tower, 286 feet above the ground.

Reports at the time said the building contained more than 1,000 tons of arc-welded steel and had the largest arc-welded steel framework in the U.S. It also contains 1,100 tons of brick and 1,200 tons of concrete, and the foundation has 36 tons of reinforcing steel and more than one million pounds of concrete.

Only the building's lower three floors and basement were inhabitable. Plans called for the remaining floors to be finished in later years for use as offices and for a set of chimes to be installed above the offices, but material and money shortages meant those plans never were realized.

The building's elevator only goes to the third floor, after which one must traverse a narrow concrete staircase to the 13th floor. OCU's current president, Tom McDaniel, said that the original plan was for the university president's office to be on one of the tower's top floors.

``Most of the presidents didn't want to climb it,'' said McDaniel, one of a few who have ventured inside the unused portion of the tower. ``I can understand that. It's higher than you think.''

The trip up the tower today is neither pleasant nor easy. The floors are dusty and dirty, with various amounts of trash, and the occasional dead bird or rat, strewn about. A discarded newspaper on one floor is from March 2001.

There are windows covered with blue shades _ one of the university's colors _ and when the tower's lights are turned on at night, as they are during the holidays, or sometimes after a win by one of OCU's athletic teams, the blue is reflected through the windows.

From the 13th floor _ where a lone plastic chair sits, as if to provide a resting spot _ the climb continues on sometimes-shaky metal stairs through the tower's dim interior until near the top. There, a ladder _ with a retaining barrier, fortunately _ gives visitors access to the door to the landing, from which OCU security officers occasionally conduct surveillance.

``You can see the whole campus from there,'' security chief Lyndel Harris said. ``It's really convenient.''

Access to the tower usually is limited to security and physical plant personnel, and even some of those people aren't keen about visiting too often.

``As a student, I always wanted to go up there,'' said security officer P.T. Solinski, a 2004 OCU graduate, who has made several trips to the top as part of his current job duties. ``After I got up there, I really don't need to go back.''

Solinski said that among students, legends about the tower abound. Some say it's haunted, while others insist the reason the elevator doesn't go past the third floor is because the tower is crooked.

Harris said the latter is definitely a myth: ``It was just that they ran out of money.''

OCU's Law School and Law Library moved into the building's lower floors in 1979, although the Law School since has moved to another building.

Peoples said that the Law Library used one of the unfinished floors for storage for a time and that the idea of finally finishing the upper floors has been broached, but that a study indicated it would be significantly less expensive to simply build a new building than to try to remodel the tower's interior and bring it up to 21st-century building standards.

OCU is planning to open a branch seminary, possibly by the fall of 2007, and McDaniel hopes that someday, the seminary could move into the Gold Star Building _ which has the words ``School of Religion'' on its facade.

``It was built to be used by the School of Religion,'' McDaniel said. ``That's what we'd like to do. That's the dream.''