When building something from the ground up, there is a sense of possibility and untapped potential for businesses, the economic vitality of the region and for the people that will inhabit those spaces once complete. I’m always filled with pride being part of a team that creates something new where there once was a vacant place. But there’s another kind of pride entirely that comes from preserving a piece of our community’s history—to give it new life.
I want to tell you why I think preservation matters for the future of Oklahoma City.
May is dedicated to National Preservation Month celebrating our community’s heritage through historic places. This is a year-round endeavor but during this month, groups like the Oklahoma Historical Society (collecting, preserving, and sharing the rich history of our state since 1893) work to promote sites that exemplify historically important structures that instill public pride, encourage heritage tourism and show the social and economic benefits of historic preservation.
My take on preservation is unique. I work here in Oklahoma City in the office of JE Dunn Construction, a family and employee-owned commercial building contractor founded in 1924, with 24 offices across the U.S. Needless to say, we’ve seen a lot of preservation projects and have built structures that are now considered historical. So we have a deep appreciation for and understanding of how spaces become part of the fabric of a community. But historic spaces are not just about nostalgia and preserving the past. Done thoughtfully, the revitalization of pre-existing buildings can transform their utility and our relationship to them.
I was reminded of this in a powerful way a couple of years ago when our local team here had the honor of being a part of the Oklahoma Capitol Restoration Project, the $60 million exterior restoration of the state capitol building which took 5 years beginning to end. Being a part of protecting such a momentous part of our city’s and state’s history was incredibly significant to our city—and important to our team. Furthermore, the Oklahoma State Capitol building is the heart of our state’s democracy and community, so we knew this project would be special for all who call this place home.
One moment in the construction renovation process that stands out for me is when we unearthed a set of enormous steel doors as old as the Capitol itself, thought to have been constructed as a defense against potential attack. We couldn’t help but to consider how conflict has united us and all those who had passed through those doors since the building originally opened in 1917 and what access to these spaces means today.
It wasn’t until after the building renovation was completed that I fully understood what it meant to the people of Oklahoma City. Just in the past few weeks alone, seeing various groups gathering to rally and the Session of the Fifty-eighth Legislature being called to order—each reminding me of the way historic buildings push us forward as a people, shape the stories of our lives and give context to our common humanity and shared goals.
We center everything around how our work can enrich lives through inspired people and places. I would go so far as to say that the Oklahoma Capitol Restoration Project has brought the city closer together.
As we all continue the recovery from the pandemic and get our economy and lives back on track, I have a humble suggestion for you during National Preservation Month especially. Take a moment out of your day to share a piece of Oklahoma City history with a friend, colleague or just for yourself. Reflect on where we’ve been as a community and where we might go next.
You might just find out the same thing I did when rebuilding the Oklahoma Capitol from the inside out: our heritage as a country, our history here in Oklahoma City and our personal legacies can all be reimagined to serve.
Photography credit: David Cobb Photography