CLAREMORE, Okla. (AP) - The Ward boarding house opened in 1907, when residents still kept chamber pots under their beds or used an outhouse in the back alley.
Indoor plumbing didn’t come until the 1920s or possibly the ‘30s, sacrificing one of the tiny bedrooms to install a single toilet, sink and tub to be shared by a whole building full of renters. Eventually, the owners put a second toilet in what must have been a broom closet, barely wide enough to close the door without knocking your knees, the Tulsa World (https://bit.ly/1HxQoF8 ) reported.
And that’s how the Ward building remained for decades: a two-story, red-brick anachronism with a clientele slipping ever further down the economic ladder, from working class to underprivileged to one-step-from-homeless.
By 1985, it was the kind of hot-plate flop house that made downtown shoppers clutch their purses and look over their shoulders if they had to walk past it. And probably nobody in Claremore was upset when someone smoking in bed caused a fire in one of the rooms and the damage put the boarding house out of business.
That’s when the old Ward place could have faced the same fate as many other downtown buildings in small towns all across Oklahoma. Indeed, all across the country.
Most historic storefronts originally had offices or apartments upstairs. But over time, even if shops remained open on the ground floor, the upstairs were simply abandoned and left to rot, taken over by cobwebs and mice. Others fell victim to ambitious renovations that were started but never finished, leaving behind piles of crumbled plaster and broken two-by-fours.
Not the Ward building. After repairs, the upstairs found other uses for itself, housing a loan company for several years and then an antiques business, while the landlords continued to fix leaks in the roof and pay the utility bills.
In other words, they didn’t do what so many other landlords did. They didn’t neglect it. And they didn’t tear it apart with “updates.”
When Janice Whittaker and her husband bought the building in 2006 to open a bicycle shop on one side of the ground floor, the space upstairs gave her an excuse to open a bookstore as a kind of side project. Of course, she could have knocked down the walls to create one big open room for long rows of shelves, making her bookstore look like any other bookstore.
“People told me that’s what I should do,” Whittaker says.
But a bookstore like any other bookstore would not be a Route 66 tourist stop, with recent visitors from as far away as Houston and Seattle. A bookstore like any other would not be drawing customers from Tulsa, Bartlesville and even Joplin. And it would not be luring sightseers away from the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa, 20 minutes south.
Whittaker didn’t want a bookstore like any other bookstore. So she kept the upstairs just the way it was, with more than a dozen private rooms opening off a central hallway.
At Boarding House Books, 300 W. Will Rogers Blvd., the children’s section “lives” in one room and Westerns in another, with romances next door and mysteries across the hall. A central living room - which feels much bigger than it really is, thanks to a bright skylight and high ceiling - offers a place for customers to sit and read.
Meanwhile, up and down the rest of Will Rogers Boulevard, the upper floors look dark and lonely. The Ward building was lucky not to end up the same way.
“Over the years,” Whittaker says, “stupidity did not get a hold of it.”
Information from: Tulsa World, https://www.tulsaworld.com
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