Tulsa's Sacred Spaces: Idiosyncratic, Intriguing, and Impeccably Preserved

Posted on: October 22nd, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

The National Preservation Conference is this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Staff members from around the National Trust for Historic Preservation will be blogging from the conference and sharing their experiences. Last night, James H. Schwartz, editor of Preservation magazine, filed this report.

"Tulsa truly is the heart of the Bible Belt," the guide for the Sacred Spaces tour said Tuesday afternoon, and—perhaps appropriately, for a metropolitan area where well over 50,000 residents (!) attend services each week—the range of ecclesiastical architecture here is extraordinary.

We started our tour on Cathedral Square, inside the sprawling First Christian Church, a 1920 landmark that is both a preservation success (the building is in fine shape and retains a remarkable collection of stained glass windows) AND a cautionary tale: renovation efforts in 1966 stripped the sanctuary of much of the original, ornate plasterwork, as well as superb oak doors and carved furniture.

My favorite discovery? First Christian had one of the most innovative ventilation systems in pre-air conditioned Tulsa. A central panel in the 28-ft stained glass dome overhead opened to draw warm air out of the sanctuary, reducing interior temps by as much as 15 degrees on summer days. (No wonder attendance skyrocketed for decades.)

Just down the street First United Methodist presented another surprise—due primarily to the sheer enormity of the space. Gloriously gothic, crazily colorful (the stained glass is unbelievable) the 1927 building is clad in Tulsa limestone outside, and Philadelphia stone on the interior. The architect who designed this church moved here from Pennsylvania, and his choice of stone was a tribute to his home state. The interior has survived nearly intact: only the windows have suffered. Not from renovation or insensitivity, but from Oklahoma's vicious weather. As a result, protective exterior panes now cover the cherished stained glass, but in no way diminish its effect.

Back on the bus, we cruised past an incredibly varied collection of additional sanctuaries, from the 1927 Christ the King Catholic church, designed by a disciple (sorry) of Frank Lloyd Wright, to Temple Israel, home to a Reform Jewish congregation since 1955.

Our next stop, Christ the King, is an eclectic wonder. If I’d seen a picture of the wooden ceiling above the soaring stone reredos, I might have guessed 1920s or 1930s or 1940s or 1950s! The mosaics here are equally memorable, as are the stained glass depictions of Old and New Testament kings, later canonized by the church.

Not far away, contemporary Temple Israel is distinguished by two enormous concrete depictions of the 10 commandments outside the front doors. After seeing so much stained glass and elaborate mosaic work, this sanctuary seemed notable for its simplicity. The greatest surprise was the vivid wall behind the enclosure (or ark) where the Torah scrolls are stored. A bold and eye-opening red, the wall was intended by architect Percival Goodman to focus congregants' attention on the ark. And judging from the reactions in my group, Goodman succeeded.

We concluded the Sacred Spaces tour at Oral Roberts University, a 263-acre campus where more than 3,000 students study—and where the Jetsons seemingly would have felt quite at home. O.R.U. is one, big gilded surprise with elaborate iconography at ever turn, from the towering Praying Hands sculpture at the entrance, to the 200-foot prayer tower recalling the crown of thorns that dominates campus. Even the dorms here are shaped like Stars of David. And if all this geometry leaves you hungering for a generous curve or two, worry not: the 1975 Howard fine arts building fills a geodesic dome that Buckminster Fuller would have admired.

That’s just a taste of Tulsa’s phenomenal sacred architecture. Unusual, idiosyncratic, intriguing, and impeccably preserved, it leaves you hungry for more.

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2 Responses

  1. Kenny Standeford

    October 22, 2008

    I enjoyed your description of some of Tulsa’s Sacred Spaces.
    I am a member of The Chelsea Historical Society and am interested in the ways of preserving history. Chelsea is located about 60 miles northeast of Tulsa on old route 66.
    I have admired the historic architecture of Tulsa. I have taken many pictures there.

  2. Kimber Ogborn

    January 26, 2010

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