Built as a budget hotel just as Tulsa was plunging into the Great Depression, the Altamont saved money by having guests share bathrooms. And an elevator seemed like an unnecessary luxury, forcing people to haul their luggage up several flights of stairs, while the original architect gave no thought to wheelchair access.
By 2003, when the Altamont was looking for a new owner, the four-story building had fallen into disrepair and was housing a drug and alcohol rehab program. The location, 12 E. 12th St., offered spectacular views of the skyline from the south side of downtown, but the lack of amenities made the property look unattractive to potential buyers, except for Mental Health Association Oklahoma, which bought the four-story building to use as transitional housing.
Communal bathrooms didn’t seem so bad for residents who had been living on the streets.
“Still, we wanted to bring the building up to modern standards,” said Greg Shinn, the Mental Health Association’s chief housing officer. “Especially for wheelchair access, I wanted an elevator.”
Of course, it posed a significant design challenge for a building that was never intended to have one.
The first proposal would have added a brick-and-glass elevator tower to the front of the building, creating a new entrance and covering at least part of the public sidewalk. But it would have encroached on the city’s right of way, not to mention altering the historic appearance of the brick exterior.
After several revisions, the Mental Health Association settled on a final design with a new elevator shaft near the original staircase, carefully arranged to remove only two apartment units. With the flooring and wall trim designed to match the rest of the interior, visitors can hardly tell the elevator lobby wasn’t part of the original 1930 construction.
Meanwhile, a top-to-bottom renovation added small kitchens and bathrooms to all of the Altamont’s remaining units, creating 39 small but thoroughly modern one-bedroom apartments.
Finished last year, the $2.9 million project will receive the 2020 Audrey Nelson Community Development Award during the National Community Development Association’s meeting Friday in Washington, D.C.
The renovated apartments will become permanent, low-cost housing for residents who used to be chronically homeless and who have various disabling conditions, such as serious mental illness, officials said.
“The architecture is great, but the important thing is that this is part of a larger effort in Tulsa to eradicate chronic homelessness,” said Shinn, noting that the Mental Health Association owns 1,500 apartment units across the city. “Because of this building, people who were homeless will no longer be homeless.”
As well as private bathrooms, residents will enjoy new central heat and air, replacing old radiators and window units.
“It’s definitely a lot more comfortable now,” said 36-year-old Alex Schupp, who moved into the Altamont before the renovation began. “Some of the apartments got a bit smaller in size, but I think it’s worth it to have a sink in your room and your own bathroom.”
The Altamont used $972,403 of city of Tulsa HOME Investment Partnerships Program grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Other funding included nearly $1 million from the National Housing Trust Fund and another $1 million in private equity from the Mental Health Association.