When Steve and Susie Holcombe returned to his hometown of Pawhuska in 2013, he quickly immersed himself in carrying out his family’s tradition of contributing to the community and is currently an active member on the City Council.
Much like his late mother, Janet Theis Holcombe, Steve Holcombe is a lover of history and preservation.
In spite of the outstanding renovations occurring in downtown Pawhuska, there are a number of historic buildings that have been either been destroyed by fire or are deteriorating at an alarming rate.
One of those structures that survives and is now under renovation is located just north of the historic district at 700 Kihekah Ave.
Built in 1925, this cut-corner building has served as home for the Pawhuska Journal-Capital newspaper. Like so many of its counterparts, the building was showing signs of neglect. That came to an abrupt halt in March when the Holcombes purchased the building from Gatehouse Media and immediately began the arduous task of bringing new life to this unique piece of Pawhuska’s history.
“We are well into phase one of our renovation efforts,” Steve Holcombe said. “As we began removing drywall and insulation, we uncovered massive double-paned windows framing the west and south sides of the cut-corner entrance. The large windows facing Kihekah are in perfect condition.
“Unfortunately, the south windows have cracks and a large bullet hole,” he said. “Rumor has it that back in the 1930s some bad guys ran into the J-C Building while being shot at by the law,who were positioned over at the old Arcade Building on the other side of Kihekah Avenue. The bullet hole could be the result of that shootout. Additional windows remain uncovered in the back of the building, which may yet reveal more surprises.”
The 16-foot ceilings and extensive transom windows on the south and west were used to provide a cooling and ventilation system for newspaper staff during the summers. They appear to have been intact and uncovered until the 1950s.
“We are restoring the transoms and adding interior windows to allow light to filter throughout the building since the north side is virtually windowless,” Holcombe said. “The north wall is actually a party wall, built to accommodate an adjoining building to the north that was never constructed.”
The original two-door vestibule will complement the building’s original design. Hanging in front of the vestibule will be a vintage chandelier that will be clearly visible from the street.
“We found a gas/electric chandelier from the 1910s at Campbell’s in Dewey,” Holcombe said. “It’s from the period where the owners wanted the bulbs to be seen — not covered up with a globe. They wanted everyone to know they had electricity.”
As an historic reference to its newspaper roots, what is presumed to be one of the original-printing presses will be on display in the reception area.
“This press was abandoned to us by the prior owners. I am very curious about the history of this press and would love to hear from someone who knows more about it,” Holcombe said. “We believe that it remains a viable printing press but operators really have to know what they are doing in using it. The press was constructed well before today’s workplace safety laws.”
Holcombe’s offices will be located in the west half of the building, facing Kihekah Avenue. The east half of the building will be later rehabbed for third-party tenants.
Stairs on the south side lead to a small mezzanine, flanked by original brickwork.
“We currently do not have plans for the mezzanine area,” Holcombe said. “For the time being, we will most likely continue to use it for storage.”
Remarkably, the original tin ceiling tiles are in very good shape throughout the building. A cable lighting stretching from wall to wall will eliminate or reduce the need to punch additional holes in the vintage tin ceiling tiles. What appears to be a former equipment entrance that was uncovered in the middle of the south wall. Holcombe said they plan to make it a side entry to accommodate clients who choose to utilize parking to the southeast of the building.
The building’s purchase netted the Holcombes a number of interesting and historic items, including a massive, antique Herring-Hall-Marvin safe that a locksmith got back in working order. Holcombe also rescued assorted darkroom equipment. He requested that anyone interested in this type of equipment for actual use or parts get in touch with him. Additionally included in the newspaper treasures are hundreds of zinc printing plates, many of which are works of art.
“We recently had these plates rolled onto paper by an Oklahoma specialty printing company,” Holcombe said. “We are in the process of imaging and digitizing these printings for a myriad of possible uses.”
The acquisition also left the Holcombes with volumes of bound newspapers that were stored in the backroom and in the small upstairs mezzanine. Appreciating their historical value, Holcombe contacted Osage County Historical Society Museum President Joyce Lyons. Because the Historical Museum has limited storage, Lyons reached out to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Initially, the OHS showed no interest. Persistence paid off when Chad Williams, OHS research director, came to Pawhuska in March and combed through the massive newspaper piles with Steve Holcombe. Although the OHS also has limited storage, Williams agreed to image all pre-1923 publications of the Osage County News and the Osage Journal along with other later publications the OHS did not have.
The couple recently visited with Chad Williams and Sara Biller at the OHS’s facilities and learned the imaging is proceeding at a good pace. OHS will return the historic documents to the Holcombes once the imaging process is complete.
“After making sure imaged copies were already with the OHS, and with much regret, newspapers from the 1980s forward were destroyed,” Holcombe said. “There were just too many.
“A lot of my family’s history is in these old newspapers papers, including my great-grandfather M.L. Holcombe who came here to practice law in 1917, and my grandfather, Virgil E. Theis, who graduated from Pawhuska High School in 1920 and later served for 33 years as Pawhuska’s last justice of the peace,” Steve Holcombe said.
“Susie and I would like to thank Pawhuska Journal-Capital Publisher Matt Tranquill for his cooperation and help in our purchase of the J.C. Building and in preserving Pawhuska’s history through these publications.
“We believe in our community. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but we believe in using local tradesmen,” Holcombe said. “Frank Lorenzo has done an outstanding job as our architect. Julian Moody and his crew just completed the rough framing. Bill Joe Sweeden will handle the HVAC system work. Mike Walker is doing the plumbing. Danny Ferguson at American Heritage Bank is handling the financing. Susie and I formed Kihekah Properties, LLC to own the building. I will be renting from the LLC.”
The Holcombes are targeting phase one completion in September for the front half of the 3,000 square foot building. Phase two will encompass the back 1,500 square feet of the building. The couple plans to tailor this area for commercial rental for possibly one or two tenants.
“This will also be a great space with high ceilings, lots of light from large south windows and easy access to parking,” Steve Holcombe said. He said the ideal tenant would be someone who appreciates Pawhuska’s history, maybe someone connected to the printing industry, design or architecture.
“We will sooner or later replace the metal roof that is covering the remarkable Gothic cornice. Although the current roof protects the building, it does cover up the roof line in a manner that does a disservice to the aesthetics of the building and to that part of downtown as well,” Holcombe said.