Change in the Air

A major bond approval means 24 museums and sites around Oklahoma will receive much-needed renovations.

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The Overholser Mansion was allotted two and a half million dollars for renovations. Photo by Chantry Banks

Integral infrastructure updates are just around the corner for the 24 museums and sites owned by the Oklahoma Historical Society, and caretakers are practically giddy about it.

“The two and a half million dollars is going to go so far,” says Chantry Banks, executive director of Preservation Oklahoma, which manages the Henry and Anna Overholser Mansion. “Getting the roof repaired and replaced has been our No. 1 priority since I came on a couple of years ago,” says Banks, who was previously the development officer for Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. 

“It’s going to be such a huge boost for all the sites, not only mine,” seconds Ronny Brown, director of the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum in Pawnee. “There are so many of us that are on life support. It’s going to be wonderful.”

The sites will share the proceeds of a $46 million bond issue approved this year by the state legislature.

“When I came to the OHS last year, one of the things that I did was go around to all our museums and sites across the state,” says Trait Thompson, OHS executive director. “I saw many of the same issues that we had with the capitol. Roofs failing, building facades failing, parking lots, water infiltration issues, all those kinds of deferred maintenance issues.”

In addition to roof and window repair, the budget for the Overholser allocates $650,000 for interior cleaning, including the hand-painted canvas walls.

“Overholser Mansion is associated with one of Oklahoma City’s founding families,” Thompson says. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do there.”

The 15-room mansion is part of a diverse inventory of OHS properties, ranging from a sod house to a log cabin and frontier forts.

“It’s important for us to see what turn-of-the-century life was like for all Oklahomans,” says Banks. “It’s really interesting to see how wealthy individuals lived at the turn of the century, and how advanced things really were.”

The Overholser had bathrooms, electricity and running water when it was built in 1903, says Banks. 

Wild West entertainer Gordon William Lillie began his relationship with the Pawnee people when his family relocated to Kansas, and he became known as Pawnee Bill after moving to Indian Territory and working as an interpreter for a U.S. Indian agent.

“We are getting some assistance that’s long overdue,” says Brown, who has worked at the site for 41 years and became director in 2002. 

The $4.7 million budget will cover repairs to the blacksmith shop, mansion, log cabin, museum and the trail from which visitors can view bison, longhorn cattle and draft horses. The home was built in 1910 and became a museum in 1965.

A Look at the Timeline

The bill authorizing a $46 million bond issue for improvements at Oklahoma Historical Society properties takes effect Nov. 1, says Thompson.

A general contractor will be hired to manage all the work, and the bonds will be sold as needed.

“It will be the summer of 2023 before we are really ready to start any of these projects,” he says. “I’m guessing it will be four to five years to work our way through all the projects.”

The Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore received the largest allocation, $7 million, for new collections storage, enhanced exhibits and ADA accessibility. Thompson says the Will Rogers Memorial Foundation intends to work toward matching the award.  

The museum houses the largest collection of Will Rogers memorabilia in the world and features 12 galleries, a children’s museum, a theater and library.