A leather-clad man carried 1846 paraphernalia as he wove between tuxedos and evening gowns at the Oklahoma History Center’s opening gala last week.

While in character, David Johnson said he lives on the red banks of the Washita River near Fort Washita in 1846.

For his day job, the Pauls Valley man works at the refinery in Wynnewood. But he performs living history for the Oklahoma Historical Society in his spare time.

In the building’s curved, sweeping main hall, Johnson stepped past a wall of newspaper front pages.

One came from a 1907 edition of a German-language Enid newspaper. Another was an Oklahoman front page from several days ago.

Johnson had company, with numerous historical re-enactors in the audience that drank from open bars and grazed on petit fours arranged around cheese sculptures.

Dripping ice sculptures were shaped like the panhandle state juxtaposed with an “H,” a wagon, an oil derrick and even the center’s new building in which they stood.

After Leona Mitchell, an Enid opera singer, sang God Bless America, audience members faced Gov. Brad Henry.

The governor stood before a picture window view of the state Capitol dome in the center’s 80-foot glass atrium, beneath a full-scale replica of the Winnie Mae aircraft, which Wiley Post, Oklahoma pilot, flew around the world.

“I want to entice all Oklahomans,” Henry said, “to come, visit and experience this tremendous treasure of this state - and the sooner the better.”

Henry thanked state taxpayers and private sources for the $54 million spent in the center’s five years of construction.

Bob Blackburn, executive director of the society, said the project nearly faced delays when funding became uncertain. But theat said all Oklahomans can take pride in the finished product, an “architectural masterpiece a decade in the making.

“This is the story of the Oklahoma family,” Blackburn said.

Designed by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum of St. Louis and Beck Associates of Oklahoma City, the 215,000 square-foot history center combines the Oklahoma Historical Society’s offices from three locations.

The center will give a more permanent home to a growing collection of artifacts and genealogical records, said Michael Dean, spokesman for the society.

“We’re like Oklahoma’s attic,” Dean said - “the Smithsonian on a smaller scale.”

American Indian family records are more complete at the society than at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., an official affiliate, Dean said. But it will take several months for the library in the new center to be filled.

Nearly 40,000 square feet of exhibit space at the building includes an outdoor portion. An oil and gas park sits across the parking lot.

A miniature model of the Red River, symbolized with red marble chips, winds along the site’s south side with points of interest along the path.

Dean said the society drew inspiration from the Smithsonian, the Kansas History Center and the Minnesota History Center.

Its four main galleries hold permanent exhibits, but the center will keep them fresh by rotating the artifacts used to tell the stories of Oklahoma’s history. The society keeps hundreds of thousands of artifacts in storage.

A special events gallery will host temporary uses.

One of the main galleries shows radio and television history before moving on to other forms of entertainment.

It features wild west shows, motor racing, football and basketball history.

Charles “Bud” Wilkinson delivers his coaching philosophy on training films played in the exhibit. Dean said Wilkinson was a pioneer - coaching films were rare at the time.

Nearby, a transparent case protects the cap and jacket that Duncan native Ron Howard wore in “Far and Away.”

Each gallery displays double the number of artifacts that were on display in the old history museum, Dean said.

Events during the opening week included a dedication Tuesday for the governor, political and community leaders and others. Another dedication on Wednesday hosted donors, and on Thursday a third event was for academicians and researchers.

The center planned to offer a tour for members of the press on Friday. In all, more than 1,500 guests were expected.

Skylights showed the way to the building. Some roads near the Capitol circle were closed for fireworks.

Large-screen televisions throughout the building broadcast the program, and a large outdoor tent extended the main hall to the south to a rock fountain and musical stage.

A café will operate on the building’s third floor. Classroom space and archive reading equipment will accommodate education and research needs.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court plans a move into the society’s old digs at 2100 North Lincoln Boulevard.

Admission will cost $5 for adults with discounts for seniors, students, children and groups.

At 24th and Laird in northeast Oklahoma City, facing Lincoln Boulevard northeast of the Capitol, the center opens to the public Saturday with free admission through Sunday.

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