History Center Makes Striking Appearance in OK

Wed January 29, 2003 - West Edition
Emilie Haulenbeek

Tim Horton said he knows that the hardest part is yet to come. When Horton, the Manhattan Construction Company project manager for the Oklahoma History Center, points to a plan of the building his company is constructing, it’s clear why they’ve been challenged by the project.

The new History Center, which will be located on 18 acres (7.3 ha) northeast of the Oklahoma capitol building, will house the Oklahoma Historical Society as well as a museum, research and storage facilities and offices for state programs. The center itself, to be constructed in two phases, will stand three stories and be approximately 216,000 sq. ft. (20,067 sq m). Manhattan Construction is responsible for completion of the $17-million first phase, including building the structure and landscape, by the end of March 2003.

The challenge, though, lies in the shape of the building itself. A half-moon segment backs up to a longer flattened S, joining in the center in what Horton called the Great Hall. The Great Hall is topped by an elliptical dome and capped with a glass oculus — all of which provides a spectacular view of the newly completed state capitol building.

The first test that Horton’s team faced was the curve of the two buildings.

“Nothing repeats itself. When you’re pouring concrete walls, a lot of times, you use metal forms. You bolt them up for a section and just move that section over,” Horton explained. “With everything turning at a radius, you don’t repeat that section, so it’s always, pull it down and modify a little bit, then go again.”

But the true challenge, he said, is still on the horizon. The dome on the Great Hall isn’t exactly typical.

“Picture a funnel in which the hole is offset. If you turned that upside down and set it across eight columns, that’s what the roof structure is going to look like. It’ll be steep on one side and flat on the other and it’s an ellipse,” he said. “That’s the challenge, because the bottom of this thing is 65 ft. above the first floor. The top of it is about 85 ft. from the floor.”

W&W Steel, Manhattan’s steel fabricator for the project, has come up with an intricate strategy for constructing the dome.

“Our fabricator, W&W Steel, came in and has already built this dome — mocked it up at their yard, bolted it all together to make sure it fits to the ring that sits on top of these columns,” Horton explained. “Then they marked it and took it back apart and panelized it, so that you’ll end up with four sections that are prefabricated. We’ll in-fill the other ones in the field, but they’ll be able to set it with four pieces and then lay in the rest.”

The plan, Horton said, is a good one because it will keep the structure rigid while maintaining accurate points of reference as the remaining panels are placed.

On the job since November 2001, Manhattan Construction and its subs have moved about 27,000 cu. yds. (20,643 cu m) earth to clear the site and prepare the basement, with approximately 80 men working at any given time. In mid-January, three cranes, including a Terex and two Americans, were onsite as the limestone walls were being placed.

Many features of the History Center were designed to make an eye-catching impression. Embedded into the limestone outer walls are 21 onyx panels, which will be backlit, and glow, after dark.

Creating a striking building was important, according to Bob Blackburn, executive director for the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“We represent the entire state: This is not an Oklahoma City museum, it’s an Oklahoma museum,” he said, adding that also was a reason the building was placed so near to the Capitol.

Blackburn noted that the History Center will have three major functions.

“One is a museum which will include exhibit space, meeting space, common space, storage and office space. That’s almost half the building. There will be a research component which will be another wing that will include books, manuscripts, photographs, films, oral history — anything that can be used to research Oklahoma history. That’s about a third of the building. The rest of the space is for the statewide programs office.”

Manhattan Construction also is responsible for the center’s landscape — which, like the rest of the project, isn’t just a simple lawn. Instead, it’s been designed to mimic the natural environment of the state itself. Along with interpretive displays, Western Lawns, Manhattan’s sub, will create a 1,000-ft. (305 m) long reproduction of the Red River Valley.

The construction of the building and the surrounding elements has brought a variety of equipment to the site. Manhattan rents most of its pieces, typically Ingersoll-Rand Bobcats and forklifts, from RSC Rentals.

The completion date of the center is uncertain. Manhattan will be finished with Phase I by the end of March 2003. But Phase II — which deals with the inside of the structure — is still in doubt. With Oklahoma’s state budget at a loss for cash for the basics, including schools, there’s some question whether there will be any funds left for Phase II.

Horton, though, is focusing on what’s at hand. He knows that the building envelope his team has created is one-of-a-kind.

After being with Manhattan for 16 years, he said he’s never seen anything like it. “I’m sure there’s some out there, but it’s not something you see in Oklahoma,” he said. “We feel that this project will be a landmark.”