Modernist Architect R. Duane Conner's Buildings in Oklahoma Withstand Test of Time

Article excerpt

They told him he was crazy. They told him the roof would never hold, that it would cave in on itself.

But R. Duane Conner, a modernist architect who loved to experiment with new materials and odd roof designs, stuck to the relatively new medium of thin shell concrete and built his dome. Fifty years later, the odd, egg-shaped roof of the First Christian Church on NW 36th Street and Walker Avenue in Oklahoma City still stands, a testament to his legacy. But Conner left more legacies around Oklahoma City and the state than the famous dome, each one an example of mid-century modernism, futurism and a style known as Googie.

Conner graduated from the Oklahoma State University (then Oklahoma A&M) architectural school in 1941 and worked as a designer and design engineer on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tenn., during World War II. He then returned to Oklahoma and started the architectural firm Conner & Pojezny with college friend Fred Pojezny. The firm designed various homes around Oklahoma City, a school and a shopping center. Then Conner & Pojezny began receiving recognition: A house was featured in House Beautiful magazine in 1952. Their Mid-Continent News Building - now torn down - was featured in several architectural magazines, including one in France.

The late 1940s and 1950s were busy years for the partnership. They began work with Edmond's University of Central Oklahoma, then known as Central State College, constructing the Y-Chapel of Song (now on the National Register of Historic Places), the Fine Arts building, and the former Student Union building - as well as different school buildings around Oklahoma City. But it was 1955 when the firm received its most ambitious assignment - from Conner and Pojezny's own church.

Church of tomorrow

"William Alexander, the minister, was ahead of his time by decades," Conner's granddaughter Lynne Rostochil, an amateur photographer who has made it a mission to photograph all of her grandfather's buildings, told The Journal Record. "(Alexander) was kind of charismatic, forward-looking. He wanted a church to symbolize the way church was going: the church of tomorrow."

Alexander enlisted the help of two of his members, Conner and Pojezny, to help him design his vision for a futuristic building. They came up with two designs, the second of which was readily accepted by the congregation. It called for an education building, a theater (now called the Jewel Box Theatre) and a cathedral sanctuary of harsh triangles and straight lines, something that looks straight out of Tomorrowland from its designs.

The sanctuary was accepted, then scrapped because of cost, sending the architects back to the drawing board. But during the time between the second and third designs, the Conner and Pojezny partnership dissolved.

"I surmise, though I don't really know, that during the time the church was being designed and built, (Conner) didn't know if he needed a partner anymore," said Rostochil, of Oklahoma City.

"It was always kept quiet," said architect Bill Fearnow, another member of First Christian Church who worked with the partnership one summer and returned to work with Pojezny after joining the Army. "Each just wanted to go his own way."

Both men started their own firms, with Conner continuing his experiments with modernism, and Pojezny getting into the practical side: designing shopping centers, school buildings and the like.

"Their personalities didn't mesh," Rostochil said. …