Heritage Hills is an historic neighborhood located in downtown Oklahoma City. It acquired that name when three of the city’s first residential areas were joined to create the first Historic Preservation District in the State of Oklahoma.
Located between NW 13th Street and NW 23rd Street, the story of Heritage Hills is one of community, rescue, and perseverance. What began as the most desirable place to live in the state eventually became a target for demolition by commercial developers and apathetic neglect by government policy. But the residents who remained, many still the original homeowners, fought to preserve this exceptional neighborhood with pioneer spirit.
Today, Oklahoma City’s downtown renaissance is the model of urban revitalization for the country. Waves of new housing, restaurants, shops and businesses are being built only minutes from Heritage Hills to capitalize on the attractions of urban life. And over 100 years later, Heritage Hills continues proudly as a small bedroom community only blocks from the cultural and economic center of the state.
In 1903, Henry Overholser built his grand mansion on a remote grassy hilltop with equal views of the State Capital and the bustling dirt roads of 10-year-old Oklahoma City. The location soon attracted other city and state leaders including Colcord, Hightower, and Hale to the area where they built their majestic homes.
Developers such as G.A. Nichols began buying the farmland around the stately mansions and built blocks of homes for the city’s elite during waves of economic boom. By 1925, most of the area was fully developed with paved roads, parks, and a new elementary school.
For many decades, the first families and their children remained in their homes which encouraged their preservation and inspired appreciation for the close-knit community and its unique heritage. But over time, the shear size of Oklahoma City’s growth left all of downtown neglected and derided. Businesses began encroaching on the neighborhood, culminating with the ultimate disgrace as the irreplaceable Colcord Mansion was demolished for a nondescript office building.
George Shirk became mayor of Oklahoma City in 1964 and encouraged the preservation of outstanding buildings, created the first Historic Preservation Commission, and directed the city staff towards preservation as well as development.
In 1966 Shirk asked the leaders of the West Highland Parked Neighborhood Association, the Harndale Association, and the Classen-Winans Association to meet with him to discuss the State Highway Department’s plans to build a wide boulevard along 16th street from Broadway to Classen – right through the heart of the neighborhoods. At a meeting attended by 40 neighborhood leaders, Shirk told them the only way to fight the highway was to organize and designate the entire neighborhood a city historic preservation district.
On March 7, 1967, the first Oklahoma City Historic Preservation Commission was appointed. The members were John B. Dudley, chairman, Joe McBride, Capt. Charles C. Coley, Mrs. John Cain, A.M “Bert” DeBolt, Mrs. Gordon E. Ferguson, Alan Lower, Tom Sorey, Sr., and Dr. O. Alton Watson. It was no accident that four of the nine lived in the area that would become Heritage Hills.
During the next two years, under the direction of the HP Commission, city staff worked on a historic preservation ordinance and conducted surveys of the housing stock from 10th to 23rd and from Broadway to Classen. On February 11, 1969, the ordinance was approved by the city council, giving the HP Commission strong zoning laws and the right to approve or disapprove changes to the exteriors of homes.
The impact of the historical designation was immediate. People in the neighborhood recognized that their investments would be protected, so the loss of longtime residents was slowed. HP status also attracted new home buyers who recognized that the ordinance would protect the unique quality of the neighborhood and likely raise property values.
The HP ordinance established the political framework of neighborhood preservation in the district, but the city government with its limited staff and resources was not capable of aggressively pursuing its enforcement. As Shirk had noted, and as the residents of the area had learned since the early 1940s, a strong, centralized organization led by concerned activists was needed to enforce standards created by the law.
On September 8, 1969, the leadership of the three neighborhoods met in the home of Capt. Coley to formalize an organization that could work with the HP Commission, and that night Historical Preservation, Inc was formed. The stated goals included four broad areas of action: to enforce the zoning regulations of the HP ordinance; to build an endowment fund to carry out long range goals; to encourage joint purchase of goods and services; and to preserve and enhance the quality of life in the neighborhood. Today these goals remain unchanged.
An annual house tour had begun in 1967 as a way to build pride in Oklahoma City’s historic homes. That first year, the public was invited to tour the homes of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Hightower, Mr. and Mrs. W. K. Veazey, Mr. and Mrs. O. Alton Watson, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick W. Hunzicker, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Ruffin, and Mr. and Mrs. Charles C. Coley. Approximately 500 people purchased $2 tickets and the event drew media attention and added to the prestige and historic significance of living in Heritage Hills.
Although the enforcement of HP codes was effective in most cases, enforcement alone was occasionally not enough. Some incompatible properties, such as boarding houses and commercial businesses, were completely legal under the grandfather clause of the HP ordinance. Faced with the limitation of the code enforcement, the founders of HPI needed the hands-on option of buying, rehabilitating, and controlling the sale of the property. By 1970 it was clear a war chest was needed. Membership dues would bring in about $2000 a year, while other activities such as the house tours would bring in an equal amount. But that was not enough. Some means of raising money—and raising it quickly—was needed. In 1971, the Board sold mineral rights donated by a fellow preservationist for well over $50,000. It was the first of several big bonuses and just the beginning of the oil and gas income that would ultimately endow HPI with the resources it needed to fight for preservation.
In 1972, HPI undertook one of its first large projects. It joined with the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Institute of Architects to match a federal grant for the purchase of the chateauesque home of city founder Henry Overholser. The mansion was then donated to the State of Oklahoma for preservation and protection.
The Overholser Mansion still contains all of the original furnishings and belongings of the Overholser family, making it one of the rarest house museums in the world. The silverware, dishes, drapes, carpets, furniture – even little Henry Ione Overholser’s doll collection and other toys remain with the home providing a rare snapshot of life at the turn of the 20th Century. Open to the public daily, it is currently managed by Preservation Oklahoma, the statewide non-profit corporation dedicated to preserving historic landmarks and promoting preservation education.
The financial security of HPI was important to fulfilling another of the original goals — the joint purchase of goods and services for the improvement of the neighborhood. To enhance the neighborhood as a “garden district” with its mature trees and landscaping, HPI gradually developed a program that dealt with preservation of trees, maintenance of public parkways, and reforestation. In 1970, the residents of Heritage Hills purchased more than 60 new trees, beginning a program that still exists today.
The same concept of joint purchase was extended to a District Marker program. By the summer of 1984, fifty steel and cement markers were in place, one on each end of each street in the neighborhood. This was followed by an ambitious street lighting program. Over ninety historically appropriate street lights shine on each block, adding to the distinctive appearance of the neighborhood.
In 2006, HPI was again a pioneer with its donation to the renovation and preservation of Wilson Arts Integration Elementary. The school’s fund-raising foundation, Wilson Arts Inc., received over $850,000 as HPI matched private and corporate donations to “Finish Wilson Right”. City residents had already voted resoundingly for the MAPS For Kids capital improvement campaign, renovating every school building in the Oklahoma City Public School District. But MAPS for Kids did not provide for the unique characteristics of Wilson as one of the oldest school buildings still in use in Oklahoma City and also the first arts integration specialty school in Oklahoma. With the support from HPI, Wilson will continue to be the only elementary in Oklahoma City with dedicated arts classrooms, a gymnasium, and a library while also maintaining the integrity of its 1919 Solomon Layton architecture.
Today, Heritage Hills is still home to city leaders and young families alike – just as it was 100 years ago. The tree-lined sidewalks and irreplaceable historic spaces offer a quality of life that only comes with age and history. The pioneer spirit continues – with an integral social community and strong alliances beyond its borders. While it embraces the practicality and progress offered by modern life, it continues to battle against the forces that would dissolve its character.