- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2017

DUNCAN, Okla. (AP) - Matt and Melody Setters’ cat, Leroy, jet black and uncompromisingly independent, roams the third floor of a century old building a block off Main Street in downtown Duncan, adding a small bit of irony to the story told of the place’s fading reputation as a local cathouse.

A couple of floors below, there’s new paint and artwork on the walls, clean windows, polished floors and a fresh feel in the air, definitely oriented more toward the present and future than the past. Tenants, like the Chisholm Trail Arts Council, the thriving Hodgson’s Studio of Music and Drama and the soon-to-expand Gillispie Counseling Service, have given new life to what used to be known locally as Town Plaza.

But it’s hard not to notice the historic feel, too, of the property, which includes three buildings on six city lots and over the past 100 years has been home to establishments ranging from a livery stable to a lingerie shop. For years, there was a Sears store. There also was a photographer’s studio, a mechanic’s garage and a soda pop business. When he was cleaning up part of the building that he’s since converted into his office, Setters said he uncovered an advertisement painted on a brick wall advising people to “Drink TruGrape.” Research revealed it had been there since at least the late 1920s.

Setters said many Duncan residents would probably remember the Ritz Theater at the site. According to the website cinematreasures.org - established to “celebrate and preserve the movie-going experience” and which includes many interesting old photos of theaters in Duncan and other towns from years ago - the Ritz was established originally in about 1928 at 828 W. Main. It relocated to 15 N. 8th, the site now owned by the Setters, in 1938. According to website contributor Joe Vogel, who cites the Feb. 2, 1952, issue of Box Office magazine, the Ritz included seating for 500 on the main floor and a small, “segregated” balcony. The theater also had a snack bar with counter and booth seating for 14 and offered a menu that included waffles and “soda fountain concoctions.” The Ritz “fell out of the Duncan telephone book” in 1963, the article states.

Setters said the old theater was torn down in the mid-1980s. Only remnants remain, including the part of the theater where tickets were sold and the stairwell leading to what used to be the balcony where black people had to sit to watch movies.

“It’s a reminder of things that were but that weren’t right,” Setters said.

Upstairs, and sharing a wall with that portion of the old theater, the Traveler’s Hotel was yet another establishment, one that Setters said had a reputation for attracting more than a few people of questionable character. Setters points out where a check-in desk used to be, where he said a “madame” sat to keep track of comings and goings. Up another flight of stairs, evidence remains of a half dozen hotel rooms, shadows of their thin walls still mark the floor. Setters has a collection of the rooms’ original doors.

The rooms included small sitting areas in the front and attached rooms with beds in the back. A common bathroom was at the end of a hall.

Setters, who’s lived in Stephens County for years, said he was aware when he bought the old Travelers of rumors of its checkered past. It goes that all kinds of men, from those who earned hard livings in the oilfield to those who made riches and even policemen and politicians knew about what went on there, and many wanted in on the action. Like the Ritz, the Traveler’s started out at a different location, a couple of blocks away on Main.

The longest-tenured tenant at Town Plaza, barber Leland Cadell, has been in his shop since 1993, when he took it over from his dad, Lloyd, who’d moved to Duncan after World War II. Cadell agreed with Setters that while Duncan has always been a good town for families and kids, being a “railroad town” and an oil town prone to booms and busts did give it a rough edge, making it a lure of sorts for some who liked fast living. The Traveler’s attracted such girls and the girls attracted such men. He said the hotel also brought in gamblers.

“They used to have big-time card games up there,” he said.

Setters, who arrived at Fort Sill by way of the Army in 1983 and whose wife is a longtime accountant at Halliburton, has been associated with Realtor Johnny Owens, handling commercial real estate mainly in the Duncan area for the past several years. When he first became aware of the old Town Plaza site, he said it was in terrible shape, with some ceilings collapsed, water damage, woefully outdated plumbing and wiring and other serious problems. There were old mattresses and even used syringes lying around, left by vagrants and drug users who had broken in. But, after talking with the local bank that owned the property and with people who might potentially be tenants, Setters eventually arrived at the conclusion that the 20,000 square feet represented a great investment. In turn, he and his wife decided not only to buy it and fix it up themselves but also to sell their home and move into it.

“We had started to fall in love with it and started to learn some of the history of it,” Setters said. “We’ve almost gone back to the bones, done more demo in turning it back to its original construction.”

It wasn’t just the property’s rich history, though; key to the decision to invest in it was Setters’ strong belief that Duncan is underdeveloped commercially and short on commercial real estate available to buy or lease. Noting that he knows of at least 130 commercial transactions that have taken place in Duncan in the last three years, and that property is getting more difficult to acquire for commercial investment on U.S. 81, he said the downtown district is growing more desirable.

“(Previous investment in U.S. 81 locations) started to drive the prices up, so that started moving investment downtown,” he said. “Plus, there’s the cool factor of being downtown. (Older buildings in the district) are very viable. Many towns are jealous of what we have here, and it’s just getting started. I’m not just into the building. I’m into the entire downtown, and I love it.”


Information from: The Lawton Constitution, https://www.swoknews.com

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