Banjos should be playing in Bricktown, an area near downtown oaklahoma City, in about 90 days as work wraps up on a $2 million renovation of a century-old warehouse at 9 E Sheridan Ave.
Johnny Baier, director of the American Banjo Museum, admits the journey so far has had its share of surprises, including a report by a surprised structural engineer that the building hadn’t collapsed long ago.
"The north and south walls were not attached to the building and apparently never were,” Baier said. "They were in danger of collapsing. It wasn’t until we took out the interior finish that the problem became clear. That meant about a $60,000 fix to attach these front and back walls.”
Baier credits industrialist Jack Canine for backing a "proper” renovation of the warehouse, which will include exhibits far more sophisticated than the do-it-yourself displays that were built by museum volunteers for its current home in Guthrie.
"For what we were able to accomplish there with no budget for building or exhibits, just enough to pay for a small staff, Mr. Canine saw what we were able to do and was impressed with what we did the past few years,” Baier said.
Being able to spend $350,000 on exhibits, Baier said the project "far exceeds” any dreams the museum board had when they started planning a move to Oklahoma City.
The warehouse’s makeover has been extensive: crews reopened bricked-in windows and painted the exterior red — a color more in keeping with the building’s history.
The entry steps were changed, as well, allowing people to walk straight into the museum instead of the old side steps. Those touring the inside can get a glimpse of where a replica of a Shakey’s restaurant — pizza parlors that sparked a revival in banjo music about 40 years ago — will be on display. The elevator is already in place to take visitors to the second floor, which will include more exhibits and a performance stage.
Construction crews are hoping to finish work by June 30 with staff moving into the building as early as mid-July.
Surprises in store
More surprises are expected with the grand opening, which Baier said is "set in stone” for Sept. 10-14. Even Baier doesn’t know who will show up, since the participation of big names, such as Earl Scruggs, will depend on whether they already have paying gigs that week.
"We’re not willing to pay what it costs ... we can’t,” Baier said. "But they’re all interested in being here.”
Baier said banjo enthusiasts nationwide visited Bricktown and toured the future museum home. Many were pleased with the museum’s new neighborhood, Baier said, and other guests were thrilled to encounter unexpected banjo performances in area restaurants and hotel lobbies.
Jim Cowan, director of the Bricktown Association, believes the museum, combined with the Academy of Contemporary Music opening across the street, will transform the district’s brand and image.
He and Baier look forward to what the two organizations might do together, and to music becoming a more integral part of everyday life in Bricktown.
"This is a dream for them to come in, buy this building and have such strong financial support that they can do the building right and pay tribute to its history,” Cowan said.
"It will mean a lot to have a museum in Bricktown, and the tourism and motor coaches it will bring to Bricktown is significant — the restaurants will love it. The museum really adds a new dynamic to Bricktown.”