Campus Corner is a compact slice of the Norman real estate business pie. Its scores of boutiques, eateries and service providers are confined to a few blocks on Boyd St., University Blvd., Buchanan Ave., White St., Asp Ave. and De Barr St. The Corner takes its name from riding the University of Oklahoma main campus’ northern border. Its history as a place of commerce traces back to the earliest days of the university. What has been constant is change, dependent of the needs of generations of patrons.
A 1940s era student would undoubtedly be puzzled by the 2015 OU IT store’s (329 W. Boyd St.) products and declaration on their door that “Checks and cash are not accepted.” More familiar would be any of several joints nearby where burgers and suds may still be purchased with folding money.
“Campus Corner is unique,” H. Rainey Powell said. “You can’t replicate it because of the varied architecture from the 1930s and 40s. The narrow streets are good news-bad news, which wouldn’t occur today.” Powell is a sales executive at Equity Realty and has been personally involved with the district’s good fortunes for decades.
“My father started Harold’s Stores Inc. on Campus Corner,” Powell said. “I wish that was still here.” The operation was a nationwide retail chain selling high-end apparel with a business run from 1948 to 2008. Their flagship store was on Campus Corner throughout. Today a diminutive section of shop space called “Harold’s Square” remains.
“Originally there was university housing around Campus Corner,” Powell said. “The commercial part included drug stores, cafes and retail services such as laundries.” A recent appearance in that tradition is the new CVS Pharmacy on Asp Ave. The quaint Los Doñas Apartments remain as one of the few instances of housing right on the Corner proper.
“There’s been a change in tenants and the vitality has improved. We’ve built a couple of new parking lots, increasing parking by about one hundred spaces,” Powell said. “There’s been a lot of private investment, rehabilitating and restoring some of the buildings.”
Campus Corner is home to much business office space with no more attractive example than Casa Blanca, 103 W. Boyd. It’s a free standing Mission Revival architecture style two-story building completed in 1925. Casa Blanca was added to the U.S. Dept. of the Interior’s National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places in 1990. The building has a smooth stucco finish and terra cotta tile roof intersecting behind a curvilinear parapet. A certified restoration of Casa Blanca was completed in 1988. Modifications were held to a minimum. Window alterations were made but only after conducting interviews with a few women who had actually lived there 1925-1928. No visit to Campus Corner would be complete without admiring this fine old structure.
Night life is in full swing most evenings at several Campus Corner establishments. Live music is the mainstay at The Deli, 309 White St. They pride themselves on presenting musical performances every night of the year and have for decades.
Many think of Campus Corner with only one thing on their mind and that’s a growling stomach. The dining choices are numerous. They range from good old American hot dogs to a steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho. Pizza is available in a half dozen different places. Upscale national chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill compete with Emilio Salinas’ mother Andocia’s recipes prepared at locally-owned Pepe Delgado’s Mexican Restaurant.
Keith Allen has operated Brothers Eatery and Pub, 563 Buchanan Ave. since 1983. They serve a well-under $10 burger, host occasional live music in the evening and serve as a traditional gathering spot on OU football game days.
“There are so many more restaurants and bars now than there used to be,” Allen said. “Campus Corner is a fun place because of the college kids’ energy and it’s a place for everybody to have a good time. When I started business here it was illegal to serve alcohol. We’d cut people’s names out the phone book and tape them to liquor bottles.” Now booze can lawfully be sold by the drink instead of “By the wink.” He has changed little else about his business in the past 30 years except expanding space when it became available.
Allen said he got evicted from his patio. “I had tried for years to get a long term lease on that patio because I had built it. Then someone else came along who wanted it.” He recognizes the fact that auto parking for patrons remains a critical issue. Oklahoma culture finds walking several blocks to a shopping or dining destination unacceptable.
“We’ve added 2,500 new restaurant seats and not a single additional parking place in the last ten years,” Allen said. “It’s frustrating because parking has been added for Main St. and University North Park area but not here. You can’t just run down to Campus Corner for lunch anymore because there’s no parking.”
Flying in the face of that issue, Allen still welcomes new businesses springing up on Campus Corner. None is more salient now than the structure rising at 315 White St. where Toto’s Italia Ristorante operated for decades. Coincidentally it will also be a pizza restaurant called Volare. Pete Wilson and Benvenuti’s Restaurant executive chef and manager Anthony Compagni are project partners. The construction is remarkable if for no other reason than its height. Only the nearby McFarland Memorial Methodist Church is taller.
“Volare is going to be a four story restaurant with great cocktails, wine and phenomenal pizza and appetizers geared towards Campus Corner,” Compagni said. “The high rise patio is to give our guests the feeling of what the OU campus is all about from a bird’s eye view.”
Volare’s opening will undoubtedly focus fresh attention on the ever-changing face of Campus Corner. It’s a part of Norman that can be intriguing both for visitors and long-time residents.