Architecture in Tulsa gets an A+ beginning with one of the country’s largest and most complete collections of Art Deco buildings. A tour of the town offers insights into the minds of Oklahoma’s early oil millionaires and an economic, social and architectural history of a good slice of the 20th century.
Tulsa in the 1920s was truly the Oil Capital of the World. All the big boys were here — Getty, Sinclair, Skelly, Phillips, Marland — plus businessmen who struck it rich supplying the oil industry. It was a glittering age, and in Paris, an exhibition of the latest designs at Le Musee des Arts Decoratifs inspired a new look. Traveling Tulsans wanted to make their city as cosmopolitan as possible and quickly incorporated new design elements into their office buildings.
Art Deco design is divided roughly into three phases. The first phase, called Zig-zag, was highly geometric and often adapting Egyptian or Aztec motifs. Boston Avenue Methodist Church (1929) was designed during this period. It is possibly the most iconic and most controversial Art Deco building in Tulsa.
The strong vertical lines of the church, use of terra cotta and the many geometric elements were ground-breaking. But it was more than a design choice that dictated many of the inclusions. Designer, artist Adah Robinson, made an extensive study of the history and theology of Methodism and incorporated a great deal of symbolism into the building. For example, the finials around the top of the building, 62 pairs of praying hands, are not closed, but open, to represent confidence in receiving the grace of God. Robinson dictated every detail from the great sculptures on the exterior to the colors in the interior.
The controversy comes over credit for the building. Robinson was an artist, not an engineer or architect, and had to choose one of these professionals to turn her designs into a structurally sound building. She chose a former pupil, Bruce Goff, who was employed as a draftsman at a local architectural firm. When the finished structure received international acclaim, the architectural firm tried to take credit. The building could not have been built without the expertise of his firm — they gave it a body. But Adah Robinson gave it a soul.
Waite Phillips’ Philcade (1930) is another excellent example of the Zig-zag style. Terra cotta trim tops the lower floor windows while other designs are worked in metal. Even the heat register grilles are artfully done. The north/south arcade, while lavishly covered with gold leaf, is more restrained in ornamentation than the east/west arcade, which features more use of color. Grand chandeliers designed by Empire Chandeliers of Sand Springs add elegance to the décor.
One of my favorite Zig-Zag examples is the 1930 Gillette-Tyrell Building (Pythian Building). The Depression hit before the building was completed. Only the first three floors were completed before the builders were forced to sell the building. The top 10 floors were never completed. The exterior consists of cream-colored terra cotta walls with granite bases and strong vertical zig-zag motifs. Bright blue tiles inset along the top of the building draw attention to the irregular roof line. The wildly colorful interior features a mosaic floor and fans, flowers and geometric shapes in many hues decorating the ceiling.
With the Depression, Art Deco entered its P.W.A. (Public Works Administration) phase. No soaring sky-scrapers here, the buildings became blockier and more solid-looking. Designs were chosen to emphasize strength and permanence. Ornamentation was less elaborate and often used themes of labor and the common man.
The Fairgrounds Pavilion was built during this period. Decorative terra cotta elements, farmers with cattle and horses, define the building’s main use.
An easily missed but classic example of a W.P.A. building is the Tulsa Fire Alarm Building. Above the entrance, a magnificent figure, flanked by two helmeted firemen, holds alarm tape in his hands. Fanciful fire hoses with dragons’ heads wind through the frieze around the top of the building.
By the 1940s, Streamline was all the rage. Glass blocks, curved corners and horizontal lines are classic Streamline. Buildings began to look more like ocean liners or modern autos. This was post-war optimism — the nation was moving forward.
Peoria has several Streamline buildings including The Brook Restaurant, once a movie theater. But my favorite is an easy-to-miss veterinarian clinic at 3550. This little building says it all and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Several classic Streamline homes can be found in the neighborhoods just south and east of Utica Square. The John Duncan Forsythe home on South Birmingham Place is a perfect example. The horizontal banding on the front of the house is definitive while the back features many areas with glass blocks.
A nice laminated brochure, Tulsa’s Art DecoGuide, is available from the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture. This organization also offers downtown Deco walking tours on the second Saturday of each month, leaving at 10 a.m. from the Topeca Coffee House on the first floor of the Mayo Hotel (115 W. 5th St.). The hour-long tour costs $10 per person. For more information, call Shane Hood at 918-810-7271 or go to www.tulsaarchitecture.com.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.