September 28, 2017

Tour Tulsa's Architectural Riches

  • By: Sophia Dembling
The exterior of Boston Avenue Methodist Church.

photo by: Sophia Dembling

When it was completed in 1929, the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church was the pinnacle of modern design.

The discovery of oil in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1901 set the city on the road to some serious riches. By 1909, the city directory listed 126 oil companies; by 1920, Tulsa was “Oil Capital of the World.”

So much oil money flowed through Tulsa, moguls built tunnels under the streets to safely transport their riches to the bank. They also built edifices worthy of their wealth, leaving a legacy of elegant Art Deco buildings.

The crash of 1929 slowed the city down, but it bounced back. Tulsa still has among the highest per capita concentrations of millionaires in the country, and the commitment to modern architecture continued through Midcentury Modern all the way to 2008’s Deco-inspired, but strongly contemporary, BOK Center, an imposing sweep of steel and glass designed by Cesar Pelli.

In 2006, a state historic tax credit added to federal tax credits was a preservation and economic boon. A study commissioned by the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture concluded that every dollar of tax credit has spurred $11.72 of economic activity. Entrepreneurs are moving in, and neglected historic buildings are being reborn as businesses, hotels, and residences.

VisitTulsa has a downloadable walking tour map, and TFA offers architecture walking tours the second Saturday of every month. TFA is currently restoring the Ponca City Savings and Loan building, a circa 1956 space-pod of a building. When it opens later this year, you’ll be able to stop in, pick up a map, sign up for tours, and view exhibits.

Wander Tulsa’s downtown streets, stopping into lobbies (on weekdays, as many are closed on weekends), and cruise through residential neighborhoods. However you tour, though, seek out these must-sees:


Atlas Life Building

Year: 1922

Architect: Rush, Endacott and Rush

Look for Tulsa marked with a star on the globe held by Atlas on the neon sign, a Tulsa icon. The building was nearly empty when it was purchased by SJS Hospitality in 2008. Now along with retail, the Tulsa Press Club, and a restaurant in the gleaming marble lobby, a Marriot Courtyard hotel occupies eleven floors. The untouched seventh floor hallway has been preserved, down to the Atlas doorknobs, and the offices converted to small guest rooms and one two-bedroom suite.


Boston Avenue United Methodist Church

Year: 1929

Architect: Bruce Goff for Rush, Endacott and Rush

Interested locals nearly come to fisticuffs over who actually designed this thoroughly of-its-time church. Was it University of Tulsa art teacher Adah Robinson? Or her student Bruce Goff? Some say she designed it and he just drafted it, others give him design credit. Either way, the church is an Art Deco extravaganza and still abundantly active. You’re free to visit and view the circular sanctuary any time it’s not in use (catching a Saturday without a wedding is hard); guided tours are offered Sundays at noon.


Tulsa Central Library

Year: 1965 and 2016

Architect: Charles Ward and Joseph Koberling and Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle

On June 30, 1965, NASA administrator James E. Webb called into the dedication to the new downtown library from Washington D.C., “through the modern-day miracle of the communications satellite” and pressed a button that sent a “special signal,” turning on the lights of the gleaming new building, with its flat roof, soaring star-topped columns, and interior glassed-in spaces.

But technology marched on and when the building became inadequate to the needs of the modern library, some people wanted it razed. Preservationists and a failed bond package prevailed. With a $55 million renovation, the building was gutted and updated inside while the exterior was restored to the original, except for a little-used balcony that was turned into glassed-in meeting/study rooms.

The campus of Oral Roberts University.

photo by: Sophia Dembling

Some people love and some loathe the Oral Roberts University campus, but its 1960s Space Age architecture reflects the era.

Oral Roberts University

Year: 1967

Architect: Frank Wallace

Love it or hate it, you’ll want to see the ORU campus for the space-age spectacle it is. Drive past the 60-foot bronze praying hands, placed by the entrance in 1999, into yesteryear’s idea of the future. It features a geodesic dome, soaring arches, gold-mirror exteriors, and the 196-foot-tall “Prayer Tower,” scorned at first but cited in 2013 by Tulsa World as one of Tulsa’s unsung gems of architecture.


Abundant Life Building

Year: 1957

Architect: Cecil Stanfield8

Before moving to campus, Oral Roberts Ministries headquartered in this stylish white-marble cube, built to accommodate a sound stage for Roberts’ weekly television broadcasts. After the ministry moved out, Southwestern Bell moved in for a while, but the building has been empty since the early 1980s while developers and preservations puzzle over what to do with a windowless building.


International Plaza

Year: 1957

Architect: Bruce Graham for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill

Originally the Warren Petroleum Building, this 12-story caged glass box is a smaller version of Chicago’s acclaimed Inland Steel Building, on which Graham also worked. The design was tweaked to contend with Oklahoma’s battering wind and sun; cantilevered floors to provide shade to the windows beneath; and an innovative polarized window system. A travertine, marble, and granite terrace leads to the building entrance.


The Mayo Hotel

Year: 1925

Architect: George Winkler

Built by brothers Cass A. and John D. Mayo, who made their fortune selling furniture, the Mayo Hotel hosted myriad celebrities from Eleanor Roosevelt to Madonna. Abandoned from the early 1980s, the building was derelict and threatened when John and ToriSnyder bought it for $250,000 in 2001. They first restored the lobby, completely rebuilding the grand staircase, and rented that out to fund continued restoration. The ballroom has also been returned to its original appearance, which required evicting roosting pigeons and fabricating much of the room’s plaster trim. Today, the building has 76 apartments and 102 hotel rooms. Across the street, the snazzy 1950 Mayo Motor Inn (Leon B. Senter & Associates), again provides hotel parking. (The nearby Mayo Building—1910, also by Winkler—was the brothers’ furniture-company headquarters and is now apartments.)
The exterior of Spotlight Theater.

photo by: Sophia Dembling

The circa-1928 Spotlight Theater, designed by Bruce Goff, was originally built as a house and music studio.

See also:

The Spotlight Theater (Bruce Goff, 1928), originally Riverside Studio, was built as both house and studio for music teacher Patti Adams Shriner. Now it is home to what claims to be the longest-running stage production in America, The Drunkard. The Fire Alarm Building (Frederick V. Kershner, 1931) will one day be The Tulsa Fire Museum, but for now it’s simply a lovely little Deco box, decorated with goats and ticker tape. Because why not? Downtown, be sure to peek into the elaborate lobbies of the Pythian Building (Edward W. Saunders, 1930) the Philtower (Edward Buehler Delk with Keene & Simpson, 1928), and the Philcade (Leon Senter, 1931).

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.

@sophiadembling

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