Shell Life–Home for architecture firm a $1.8 million resurrection of Tulsa Ice Company building
BY JAIME ADAME
The handsome bricks belong to an earlier time, when Tulsa Ice Company hummed with activity.
Never again will the cars pull up to the building on East 6th Street to be loaded with blocks of ice, as was common in 1930s Tulsa.
But the sleepy site just a few blocks east of South Utica Avenue now hums with activity, with work underway to transform the vacant structure into the new home for architecture firm Selser Schaefer.
Rebuilding Tulsa. Janet Selser and Bob Schaefer, principal architects of the fir Selser Schaefer.
“That building there is simply a shell,” said Bob Schaefer, one of the firm’s two founders. “It has no electricity, no heating and air conditioning.”
“No interior walls,” added his partner, Janet Selser.
“It has no doors,” continued Schaefer, with Selser laughing a bit. “No toilets,” he said.
Such a list might scare off others, but not the creators of what’s become an award-winning firm. The pair started out in 1993 with one employee and “no work,” as Schaefer put it.
Now, they design notable structures in Tulsa and elsewhere. Just recently, the firm designed the North Regional Health and Wellness Center, a major project for the Tulsa Health Department to integrate modern medicine with community rooms all in a park setting. The center on North Cincinnati Avenue opened in September. Even more visible will be the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa Hardesty Arts Center, an exhibit and community space in the Brady Arts District.
Schaefer and Selser are a husband and wife team who married shortly after founding their business. Their firm has always been housed close to downtown.
“We feel like it’s just a commitment to Tulsa,” Schaefer said. He added: “I just have always felt that way, that one should be in or near the central original central business district.”
Their current home is on the top floor of the International Plaza building. “The environment in our office now is good,” Schaefer said. “People have room to work. They have room to be creative and interact with each other and share thoughts and collaborate.” The firm now has 42 employees. Schaefer said the pair realized any growth would take away from that environment — so they began scouting for a new home.
“There’s some wonderful buildings in the Brady, but they’re currently, they’re just simply not for sale,” Schaefer said, referring to the Brady Arts District, which also includes another Selser Schaefer design, 200 East Brady, an award-winning transformation of an old warehouse into modern office space.
About to give up, the pair learned about the former Tulsa Ice Company building, which had last been used as an auto parts warehouse but had been sitting vacant for several years.
“It was really important to find a building with character, that had good bones, that had great day lighting in it,” Selser said. “And we wanted high ceilings.”
Their future home fulfills all of these wishes, Schaefer said — calling it “just breathtaking.”
“It has these enormous windows, they start at four feet off the floor and go to 16 feet off the floor,” Schaefer said. “They’re 12 feet tall, they’re 9 feet wide, they just completely surround the room.”
The property cost $900,000, and it’s a $1.8 million renovation project, but the pair plans to make few changes to the building’s exterior beyond turning a dock that runs alongside the building into an outdoor meeting space.
Inside, the focus will be on open space.
“We’ve always put our office together so basically everyone worked together,” Schaefer said. “It’s not a series of cubicles or closed off offices, everyone’s together sharing ideas. And this is going to allow that to happen better than it ever has, because we’ll be able to put virtually the entire office into that one room.”
Selser described how the location at South Xanthus Avenue — adjacent to the Urban Tulsa Weekly office — fits in with a commitment to central Tulsa.
“This is an extension of downtown, and I think that as development continues down here, it’s even going to become more of an extension of downtown, physically. Probably even a little bit emotionally as well,” she said.
Schaefer said the reuse of older buildings is catching on a bit.
“People talk about sustainability and green architecture and all that kind of stuff, and from a sustainability standpoint, it’s incredibly sustainable to reuse the building rather than create a new one or tear down the old one and create a new one,” Schaefer said.
In Tulsa, there are plenty more such potential projects, they said.
“There are quite a few buildings left to repurpose downtown, and hopefully that’s what will happen with most of them, because they are beautiful old buildings that deserve to be repurposed, that deserve to remain,” Selser said. “I think the fabric of the community will be much richer if they stay than if they get torn down.” Schaefer said he couldn’t fault property owners unwilling to sell quite yet. “It’s a very smart move on their part because the Brady is going to become a really important part of Tulsa,” he said. Selser added that while “we just wished it would go faster,” downtown is “going to be spectacular space.”
And they also see big potential for East 6th Street as well, with Selser and Schaefer pointing out several buildings that are ripe for renewal.
Some of the work has already happened. Marshall Brewing Company began operations after transforming an old warehouse on South Wheeling Avenue just a half-block south of East 6th Street. At the corner of East 6th Street and South Peoria Avenue, a warehouse is well on its way to conversion into The Phoenix Café, a project of local developer and City Councilor Blake Ewing. The business is set to open in about a month.
Such work can extend east to South Lewis Avenue, Schaefer said.
“Urban Tulsa and Selser Schaefer are right in the middle of that half-mile, and so, hopefully, between the two of us we’ll start something,” Schaefer said.
Their new home is two blocks east of the Pearl District, where some in the neighborhood have been pushing for adoption of a form-based code designed to reduce auto-centric development in favor of more pedestrian-friendly building designs. Some property owners have objected, however, with most citing concerns that such a code could keep them from altering their property the way they would like in the future.
Not surprisingly, the pair said the form-based code would work well in the neighborhood.
“I honestly do think that the form-based code is the correct way to approach this kind of stuff, especially in these kinds of areas. They place automobile in the right place, which is get them behind the building, don’t put them in front of the buildings,” Schaefer said, with the firm planning to install parking in the rear of their new home. They estimate the work will be finished by the end of January.
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