Downtown Muskogee has a range of architectural styles and typologies dating back from before statehood to the present day. There are excellent examples of buildings from the Territorial Era, the Classical Revival, the Mid-Century Modern Period, and Post-Modern Kitsch. What follows is a quick survey of some of the salient features of these styles and how they may inform recommendations or guidelines for the downtown plan.
The Territorial Era
Commercial buildings built before statehood belong to the Territorial Era, but many commercial buildings built after statehood and before World War II share the same characteristics. Territorial Era buildings tend to have simple prismatic geometries. Their primary typology is the ancient form of the insula. Some were designed by architects like Joseph Foucart, but most were conceived by craftsmen and builders. The preponderance ranges from one to three stories, but there are a few mid-rise examples like the Manhattan Building and the Surety Building. The majority of the multi-story structures are mixed-use with offices or apartments above storefronts. Most are built to the property line with no setback, but there are some, like the Severs Block, that are freestanding. Load bearing masonry is the predominant construction type with a variety of materials, including wood, steel, concrete and structural clay tiles used for floors and roofs. Commercial buildings generally had flat roofs, while long-span buildings like churches had pitches for rafters or trusses. The brick and stone facades are divided into base, capital, and shaft sections with more elaborate buildings having ornamented parapets or overhanging cornices at the second story and roof levels. Architects and builders at the time often used regulating lines, diagonal lines that insure good proportions, resulting in a visual balance between horizontal and vertical emphasis. Large display windows made from plate glass, at that time a major innovation, dominate the ground floor street level wall. Awnings and canopies were often added for shade and protection from the elements. Ground floor heights were often twelve to fifteen feet with clerestory windows to provide light and ventilation deep into the interior space. The recently restored Hoopes Hardware and Pinon Creek Storefronts are excellent examples of this pattern.
Territorial Style buildings are largely vernacular construction with a modest scale. Civic and religious structures built during the time are more monumental and formal. In Muskogee’s case, most of these are from the Classical Revival. These buildings use classical orders from Ancient Greece and Rome hewn from cut stone to convey a message of authority and timeless perfection. Two religious temples in the city are noteworthy for their porticoes. The First Baptist Church is an excellent example of the Ionic Order, while the Masonic Temple is a more severe Doric Order. The Civic Buildings are no less impressive. The County Courthouse has a two-story height colonnade, also in the Ionic Order. The Federal Courthouse is more imposing with a heavy Composite Order colonnade of its own. The Municipal Building is less ostentatious with a Tuscan colonnade superimposed on a brick building. Interestingly, none of these grand structures are associated with a major urban space or a viewing axis commonly found in conjunction with landmarks, instead they respect the street grid and their impact is minimized.
A Note about Art Deco
Another popular style in the 1920’s and 1930’s was Art Deco. Named for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925, it combined themes from Cubism, Fauvism, and Jazz Music with exotic influences from Mayan and Asian Architecture. It also incorporated new materials like terra cotta, chrome, steel, and glass into curved and streamlined forms. While extremely prevalent in the architecture of nearby Tulsa, Muskogee has few examples. There are a few buildings with blonde brick, a popular alternative to red brick for Art Deco Buildings, and a couple with black, Vitrolite glass tiles. The building at 6th Street and Court Street, a former car dealership, is a good example of a façade with both materials.
Mid-Century Modern Period
After World War II, architecture in America changed dramatically. Many of the leading European Architects fleeing the war brought modern architecture to the leading universities in the United States, including Walter Gropius at Harvard and Mies van de Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They trained a generation of American Architects and changed many aspects of design and planning. Modernism was far from the unified movement it is often portrayed as by critics and Muskogee has many buildings influenced by several of the modern styles. Some of the best examples are civic buildings. Schools, like the Sadler Arts Academy and the current Headstart Building, show influences from the German Bauhaus and the Dutch De Stijl. These building are asymmetrical forms based on their functional programs, literally factories of learning. They are freestanding objects designed to be viewed from a variety of angles. Stripped of ornament, their blonde brick forms emphasize surface, line, and shadow. The simple, industrial aesthetic was also sold to owners of existing buildings along Broadway as a way to update their aging structures. Many were covered with windowless brick or metal curtain walls. Expressionism emerged as a reaction to the functional approach with more sculptural forms rendered in concrete and glass. The Antioch Church fits this profile and may have been influenced by the sculptural forms of Pietro Belluschi’s spiritual architecture. Even more severe, the Brutalists used brick, cast-in-place, and precast concrete to create heavy, raw, monumental forms. Popular for public buildings in the 1960’s and 1970’s, The Muskogee Civic Center and Public Library, have brutalist tendencies. Late in this period, architect Victor Gruen used the megastructure concept and high-tech architecture to interiorize Main Street in the enclosed shopping mall. The Arrowhead Mall with its huge air-conditioned footprint and tensile roof is a prototypical case.
Buildings built in the last few decades still use many of the techniques common to the modern movement. Many are conceived using functional design principles and are detached from their surroundings. These methods fit nicely into the predominant suburban development pattern of isolated land uses surrounded by off-street parking and extensive landscaping. However, the restrictions on ornament and the use of stark materials, has given way to a commercial architecture obsessed with branding, themes, and market segmentation. Post-Modern architects rediscovered historical traditions and exotic precedents that could be combined in creative, if sometimes shallow ways, with new, thin materials and inexpensive construction techniques. Much of Muskogee’s recent construction has been on its suburban fringe along the bypasses, but there are examples downtown with a few branch banks and some strip shopping centers along North Main Street as notable instances. These buildings often have thin brick veneer or exterior insulation and finish system exterior walls on light steel frames. Some use elements of kitsch, for instance arches or quoins made from Styrofoam. Others seek to eschew monumentality and struggle to emulate the scale and informality of residential architecture.
Like most settlements with a long history, the architecture of Downtown Muskogee is a palimpsest of many layers of building and rebuilding. In our plan, I think we should not seek to emphasize one style, especially considering how the post-modernists have shown us how difficult it is to capture the essence and craft of the historical periods. However, we can look for desirable patterns, the continuous street edge along Broadway that needs to be reinforced, a predominant building height or cornice line, or empty spaces and parking lots that might be filled with new buildings of their own time.