December 1, 2017

Who Really Designed Boston Avenue United Methodist Church?

  • By: Sophia Dembling

In one corner, Adah Robinson, a high school art teacher, painter, and printmaker. In the other, Bruce Goff, one of the twentieth century’s most original architects. The trophy: bragging rights for designing the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, an imposing and gloriously Art Deco edifice in Tulsa.

The grudge match has been going on since the 1930s, and it’s a touchy subject in Tulsa.

As the oil business boomed in Tulsa in the mid-1920s, the city’s skyline blossomed into an Art Deco wonderland. And the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, which was outgrowing its third building since the congregation formed in 1893, decided it was time for a new building fitting for exciting times. So a committee formed to start the process.

The chair of the committee, C.C. Cole, and his wife traveled Europe and the U.S., looking at churches for inspiration and feeling lukewarm about it all. “They were stuck at, ‘OK, here’s what churches have looked like. That’s not really what we want to do, but we’re not sure what to do,” says David Wiggs, senior pastor of the church, which stands officially and firmly on the side of Adah Robinson. A portrait of Robinson, who died in 1962, hangs in the church’s main lobby, to the eye-rolling exasperation of people on the Goff side of the debate.

The Coles turned to their artsy friend Adah Robinson for help shaking their thinking loose, and Robinson presented sketches to them of her unusual vision for the church. The Coles took these to the pastor, who needed persuasion before he and then the full committee approved the ideas.

But Robinson wasn’t an architect, so the project was beyond her capabilities.

Boston Avenue UMC exterior facade in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

photo by: Boston Avenue United Methodist Church

This nationally recognized historic landmark is known as one of the most significant examples of Art Deco architecture.

However, she suggested a former student named Bruce Goff, who was about 22 years old at the time, about half his teacher’s age. A child prodigy who started as an intern with the architectural firm Rush, Endacott and Rush when he was 12 years old, Goff had designed a home and studio for Robinson in 1923. She advised securing the services of the firm so she could work again with her former student.

On June 26, 1926, the church signed two contracts. One with Robinson said: “In addition to the services to be rendered by the above architects, we desire to secure your services, especially pertaining to all matters artistic, both as to interior finish and outside design, you to co-operate with the architects and represent us in all matters of this nature.”

The other, with Rush, Endacott and Rush, included the clause: “It is understood by the parties hereto that the services of Miss Adah Robinson have been secured and will be paid for by the owner. By reason of her contract, the church and the architects are to have the benefit of her services. The architects agree to co-operate with her in all matters pertaining to the artistic features of the project.”

All neat and tidy, until it went messy, as collaborations sometimes do.

Interior sanctuary dome at Boston Avenue UMC.

photo by: Hayley Wheeler

The dome at the top of the Boston Avenue sanctuary.

“I don’t know what happened, but it’s clear from the documents we have that there was great conflict and consternation during the process about who got to make final decisions about the interior design features in particular,” says Wigg. “Then it just grew over the years.”

In a letter dated November 21, 1932, three years after the church was completed, Goff, who died in 1982, wrote indignantly to the man who was principal of Tulsa High School when Goff studied under Robinson:

The program went off well and I was really enjoying myself when a young lady announced from the stage, "Oklahoma should be proud of Miss Adah Robinson who designed the Boston Avenue Methodist Church." Then I saw red. I do not know which "side" of this controversy you are on, but I believe you would want to be on the right one. The story back of all this confusion as to who did design this building is long and sorrowful and this is not the place to tell it. Suffice it to say in all honesty and sincerity, A.R. did not dream, vision, conceive or design this building. It is mine.

Adah Robinson also took a stand in 1945, resigning from the University of Tulsa, where she had developed the art program, when the school’s new president said he did not believe she designed the building.

And today, long after the deaths of the individuals involved, the two sides still squabble.

Sanctuary at Boston Avenue UMC.

photo by: Boston Avenue United Methodist Church

Light is highly emphasized throughout the sanctuary's architecture.

“Any realist knows that, all right, what did you do before? What did you do next?” says Zachary Matthews, a Tulsan who is on the board of Friends of Kebyar, which advocates for Goff’s work. “What looks alike? Where does your style carry on? What are your influences? And there was never anything from her."

“The church tells their story and then there’s the fact that everybody else knows,” he continues. “If you look at our skyline and the buildings in Tulsa that Bruce Goff gave us, and then you look at Boston Avenue Methodist Church, it’s just too obvious. I’ve seen sketches at the Art Institute of Chicago that are the initial sketches and they’re signed Goff. Nobody’s ever shown me any other plans or architectural sketches by her.”

Architectural sketches, no. Robinson wasn’t an architect. The church does have pastel drawings, dated 1925 and ’28, of decorative details and color pallets. And this is the argument that the church stands by.

“It’s always been the church’s position that Ms. Robinson was the one who came up with ideas for the design features—everything from the wood carvings in the sanctuary; to the stained glass windows; to the shape of the sanctuary which was very different for its time; to the murals in the hallways,” says Wiggs. “All of those were her ideas given to our building committee, and then once those were accepted, they went to look for the architect to draw the plans from an architectural perspective.”

He points out that Robinson, who was raised in the Quaker church, even researched Methodism to come up with the stylized statues of relevant historic figures on the church exterior. “Bruce Goff was a very young man and not involved with Methodism,” says Wiggs. “In my opinion, he would not have known the history of Methodism to even consider including those kind of figures in the design.”

Santuary and congregation at a Sunday service.

photo by: Hayley Wheeler

A photo of the Boston Avenue sanctuary and the congregation on a Sunday morning during worship.

But Matthews cannot, will not, be persuaded. “There’s one side of the fence I stand on. At what point are you going to keep being a denier? Show me what she’s done. There’s nothing else in the city that bears her name. Well, there’s one other building in this town that bears her name: The Adah Robinson studio, designed by Bruce Goff.”

So what we have here is the legacy of a mature woman and teacher versus that of a confident young man whose talent she helped nurture. Is it possible she influenced him as well as supporting him? That her young student, in the flush of early success, “forgot,” as Wiggs puts it, to credit her for her contributions? Or is that notion absurd because Goff went on to a successful career as an architect while Robinson continued her career as an educator?

It all depends on who you ask—or maybe, who you choose to believe.

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.

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