The Tall, the Ornate, and the Sacred: Strolling Through Downtown Tulsa

Posted on: October 24th, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

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. Earlier today, Arnold Berke, executive editor of Preservation magazine, joined in a walking tour of downtown Tulsa.

Admiring the details of the Oklahoma Natural Gas Building.

Admiring the details of the Oklahoma Natural Gas Building.

Oil lubricated the way for Tulsa to become the world capital of black gold, and as fresh money sloshed into the city, the urge to show it off became impossible to deny. One happy result: the trophy buildings that sprouted downtown during the 1920s, raised by new tycoons to proclaim their muscle (and that of the city). Skyscrapers and their attendant structures—hotels, stores, civic buildings, churches—make any downtown delightful, and Tulsa built its share, as we learned on today’s downtown walking tour.

Tour leader Marilyn Inhofe-Tucker schlepped a dozen of us through the grid, imparting the richness of its heritage. She was energetic, enthusiastic, and above all, knowledgeable. We began at Holy Family Cathedral, a Gothic structure built in 1914 before the commercial temples to Mammon rose nearby. It’s the oldest standing of a group of churches at downtown’s edge. “One thing that’s helped keep downtown alive is the churches,” said Inhofe-Tucker, “which still have incredibly active congregations.”

Another downtown deco gem.

Another downtown deco gem.

Art deco, of course, decorated most of the tour, starting with the Oklahoma Natural Gas Building, the sort of place folks would trek to to pay their gas bills not so many decades ago. Like most of Tulsa deco palaces, aside from the over-the-top exterior frippery, the star is the lobby, and especially the elevator doorways and doors—confections of zig-zag, as first-period deco is known in this town. This medium-rise building, ripe for rebirth as either condos or flats, is one of three utility company headquarters that added their ornate designs to the skyline. So it wasn’t all financier-financed towers.

Nor was it all deco. To wit, the 1916 high school (Tulsa Central), a sober academic pile (English-y with red brick with sturdy stone embellishments) now filled with offices. And Trinity Episcopal Church, which the famous Bertram Goodhue helped design. Among its stranger doo-dads is Adolf Hitler’s face glowering in one of the stained-glass windows (“representing the personification of evil,” explained Inhofe-Tucker).

Nearby stands a major deco contender in peril, or perhaps death throes—the old Tulsa Club Building, a gem by Bruce Goff that has stood empty and decaying for far too long, its extra-height club space on the top floor, now only viewable in old photos, awaiting the touch of someone clever (two floors of flats? a super loft? a restaurant?). Forget it for the time being, though, since the owner isn’t interested in selling.

Now for the skyscrapers: The Mid-Continent Building, a 1918 symphony of terra cotta of modest height that was enlarged along the street and elongated into the sky in the early 1980s with a cantilevered wonder done up in exactly the same facade. Controversial at one time, but now much-appreciated, it’s connected to the Kennedy Building across the street by a tunnel lined with old photos of downtown. The once serene assembly of buildings showed in those images now bristles, of course, with modernist towers. “This was such a nice skyline before those awful boxes went up,” said Inhofe-Tucker, perhaps not realizing that the spirit of mid-century-modern preservation lurked among her audience. Another of the high-rises is the old Exchange National Bank Building, a vaguely Georgian structure that tapers elegantly as it, too, rises to the sky. The grandly fancy lobby and banking hall inside announce, as such spaces once routinely did, the (former?) glory and stability of the American financial system.

These and other great buildings line Boston Avenue, Tulsa’s version of the concrete canyon, the one place here where you feel you’re in a Big City. (Terminating the view down the street, rising precisely from the street’s center stripe, is the tower of the glorious Boston Avenue Methodist Church.) At the left are two more parts of the canyon wall, the Philtower Building, whose Tudor/Gothic travtertine lobby gets this viewer’s vote as among the most magnificent examples ever, and the Philcade Building, its lobby the city’s jewel in the crown of public interiors.

Many of Tulsa’s downtown landmarks have been razed, adding to the inventory of parking lots in a city that has more than its share, but still standing proud is the grand old, long-shuttered Hotel Mayo, which is in the midst of conversion back to a hotel (and apartments). We enjoyed a hard-hat tour of the place, starting with the airy, amazing former ballroom on the top floor. Stepping off the elevator brought a flood of gasps. “Oh my God, oh my gosh … oooooooh!” The space will live on as an events room. A few floors down is a former warren of fancy suites, once inhabited by such guests as Elvis and Bob Hope, slated for retooling as a restaurant or night club. It opens onto a huge balcony with a view of everything. Across the Arkansas River, in fact, we spotted a farm of oil refineries, the present-day expression of the industry that made Tulsa great in the first place.

-- Arnold Berke

Updated 10/29/08 to add photos.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.