Tulsa's Deco Gems

How an Oklahoma city fell in love with art deco and never really got over it

Copper, steel, and glass crown the skyscraper-like spire of the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, an instantly recognizable part of the Tulsa skyline.

Credit: Basil Childer

This is actually an example of Dutch expressionism," says Rex Ball as he strides up the walkway to the house at 1119 South Owasso Ave. in Tulsa. "And it has some of the formality of the Beaux-Arts, and a little bit of Wright. It's sort of a hybrid."

 I'll say. I'm lagging behind, still standing at the curb trying to figure out what I'm looking at. The house—tall and vertical and stubby and angular all at once—doesn't fit into this neighborhood of bungalows and Federal-style houses on the east side of town: Gleaming and white in the unblinking Oklahoma sunlight, it looks like an egg redesigned by a cubist after a few cocktails.

I finally catch up with Ball, an Oklahoma native and retired architect who heads the Tulsa Art Deco Society, founded in 2001 to preserve the city's early-20th-century architectural heritage. In the past two days I've learned that he can spot elements of art deco a block away and at 40 miles per hour.

 Inside, Ball points out the early stirrings of the deco era. The main room, an artist's studio, is a study in verticality, rising two stories with narrow leaded windows adorned with chevrons. Interior doorways throughout are clipped at the corners, another upward gesture, and a hanging chandelier features deco-ish floral elements. Upstairs, a fireplace is framed with a pointed ogee arch edged with river pebbles, like something from Aladdin's tales.

The place feels like a playhouse, something built without much adult supervision. Indeed, the house was designed chiefly by an architectural prodigy named Bruce Goff for his high school art teacher, Adah Robinson. Another of her students, Joseph Koberling, finished the house when Goff moved onto other projects. Coincidentally, both young men and their mentor would play key roles in Tulsa's deco boom.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Tulsa is one of the nation's premier centers of art deco architecture, putting it in the classy company of Miami Beach, New York, and Los Angeles. The style was hugely popular here from the outset and remained so through several evolutions—as the geometrically ornamented structures of the 1920s gave way to the simpler and more heroic public architecture of the Great Depression and then to the sleek streamline moderne of the later 1930s. Over the course of a four-day visit, I walked through downtown and drove along outlying streets, taking in the full range—from the brightly colored terra-cotta panels of the 1929 Warehouse Market to the curved glass-block corners of the 1942 City Veterinary Hospital.

If you need convincing of the power of this vogue, stop by one of the more breathtaking examples, the Philcade, a 13-story office block built in 1930 by oilman Waite Phillips. The lobby, lush with bronze tones and gilding, exhibits all the glitzy complexity of a Fabergé icon, its corridors edged with softly fluted pilasters and panels and intricate grillwork. Bold leaded windows entice the eye up, and along one corridor a vaulted ceiling's circles, arches, and accordion-like lines dance a complicated tango. Outside, the building's strong vertical form is broken up with a playful application of flora, fauna, and other natural phenomena captured on glazed terra cotta—including, Ball points out, a waterfall motif rendered on bas-relief panels that flank an entryway.

Oil built the Philcade—and the city itself. In 1901 drillers discovered oil at Red Fork, just across the Arkansas River from Tulsa, then a small frontier outpost. Four years later, speculators struck a gusher on a farm 15 miles south of town. Nearly 1,000 wells were drilled over the next two years, and derricks studded the landscape like dandelions after a spring rain. Tulsa quickly went from settlement to city, swelling from about 7,300 people in 1907 to 141,000 in 1930, and a profoundly horizontal landscape went vertical as downtown headed for the sky.

"You're looking at one of those rare confluences that don't happen in many towns," says Tulsa native Marty Newman, a  self-described "reformed car salesman" and now a real estate agent. (He also sits on the  board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.) "We were the oil capital of the world, doubling in size over and over—it was an astonishing boom. Most of the people who had most of the money in town had not been trained for that position. They were not old guard, old world. And so there was this exuberance, and the architecture shows it."

In building a new downtown, the oil barons clamored for a style that was current and fresh, eventually looking to France, long the leader in international design and fashion. At the turn of the century, France had popularized the serpentine decorative style known as art nouveau, but by 1925 the drive for the new asserted itself again. This took form most extravagantly at an international fair in Paris that celebrated what much later came to be called art deco.

 "It wasn't Gothic, it wasn't Roman, it wasn't Spanish, it ­wasn't this or that or any other damn thing," said Joseph Koberling in a television interview shortly before his death in 1991. "It was just something that was an expression of our time." And the "new style"—as it was first called—cropped up just about everywhere in Tulsa. "It was perfect for here," says Ball. Tulsa was in a hurry to become a world-class city.

Among the Tulsa architects influenced by the new style was the prolific Goff (1904–1982), who designed a remarkable 61 buildings in the city between 1927 and 1931, his most productive years. Goff's relationship with art deco might best be described as fluid. His Tulsa Club (1927) featured elaborate zigzag ornamentation on columns and light fixtures and a stern, sharp-featured Native American figure over the exterior door. Centered on a huge round window, his boxy Riverside Studio (1929)—a house and recital hall for a piano teacher—was perhaps his most purely geometric building. Goff's work, scattered throughout Oklahoma and beyond, displays an eclectic exuberance as hard to categorize as his Adah Robinson house.

Goff and Robinson both held sway over the city's most prominent art deco monument, the Boston Avenue Methodist Church. The congregation brought in Robinson as "artistic designer" and Goff as architect, sending a clear message that Tulsa would not be bound by the past. The church's dominant feature is a soaring spire—topped with a faceted metal-and-glass lantern—that towers over downtown like something from the land of Oz. The building is a catalog of deco effects, from its gothic-like attenuation to its adornments. On the south wall, three sharply chiseled circuit preachers sit astride their horses, and abstract interpretations of native plants appear in the stained-glass windows.

When the church opened in 1929, The New York Times hailed the design, noting that it was "architecturally expressive of Oklahoma and of America and … borrowed no structural ideas from other lands and other ages." But you need only walk around the church once to see that, while unique, it clearly arrived in Tulsa via Paris.

In that first walk you'll probably focus on the striking architecture. On the second you may notice that this landmark is surrounded by a sea of parking lots where houses and other buildings once stood. And from that may be coaxed a tale of a more modern Tulsa.

"The 1970s were a pretty dark decade," says Lee Anne Zeigler, executive director of the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture, a nonprofit devoted to historic preservation. Recent satellite imagery, she says, shows that some 52 percent of downtown Tulsa has been conscripted into duty as parking lots.

Zeigler estimates that demolition claimed about half of the city's deco buildings. Among the losses: the jewelbox-like Security Federal Savings and Loan, remodeled in 1937 with black Vitrolite and geometric shapes, and razed for parking in 1999. Grand theaters—such as the Delman, the Will Rogers, and the Palace (the latter artfully redesigned in 1935 by Koberling with a subtle zigzag styling)—came tumbling down. Tulsa Art Deco, first published by the Junior League in 1980 and republished by the foundation in 2001, is pocked with editor's notes that say "torn off" or "demolished."

Archivist Derek Lee, wearing white cotton gloves, flips through an unwieldy stack of blueprints in the basement of the downtown Kennedy Building, which serves as the foundation's headquarters and archives. Lee oversees a collection of some 35,000 architectural drawings and blueprints related to Tulsa. They've been gathered from retired architects and aging individuals around the city, sometimes rescued just as they were about to be thrown away. The plans are like Tulsa's DNA, the genetic material of pre-parking-lot days.

How did so much outstanding architecture come to be lost? "A lack of vision—and poor planning," says Zeigler. "It was out with the old and in with the new—the promise of something better taking its place."

When I put the same question to Rex Ball, he says, "You already know the answer: urban renewal." In some cases, he adds, deco wasn't just underappreciated but actively loathed—by ascendant modernists. Art deco embraced a slightly playful view of the past, borrowing from the Aztecs and the ancient Egyptians. Its proponents often preferred yesterday's materials, like stone and clay.

Modernism rejected yesterday and the stylistic quirks of art deco. Urban renewal was serious business, and fun had little role in the vision it embraced. "In order to establish its own place as the dominant style, modernism declared deco and streamline moderne the enemy," Ball says.

But within 20 years, modernism started to fall out of fashion and deco gradually came to be appreciated once again. The wave of downtown demolitions crested. Today, classic zigzag deco appears relatively secure. Zeigler says that public awareness is up, and more Tulsans come to the foundation to learn about what's in their back yards. Newman concurs. Today, "nobody in Tulsa would take down an art deco structure without thinking about it good and hard," he says. "There would be repercussions."

He should know, having saved a deco gem himself. The Tulsa Fire Alarm Building (1931) was designed for a prosaic purpose—to house the machinery used to alert fire stations when residents pulled alarms—but rather than installing it in a bland box, the city created a minor masterpiece, a stout structure wrapped with a terra-cotta frieze depicting dragons and fire hoses. Above the entrance stands a muscular man reviewing an alarm tape and flanked by four firemen; flames lick up behind them. The building was vacant for years until Newman purchased it and consulted on its restoration and conversion into office space.

Although classic deco has strong advocates like Newman, some preservationists fear that the streamline moderne buildings scattered around Tulsa may not be so secure. These include a half-dozen streamline homes, which, when I visited on a misty morning, looked like fragments of grand ocean liners run aground.

"Streamline moderne buildings are threatened," says Amanda J. DeCort, the City of Tulsa's preservation planner. "Many people don't even know what the style looks like, which presents a real preservation challenge. And Tulsa's creative young professionals have leapfrogged moderne and embraced midcentury modern homes instead."

That trend notwithstanding, architecture from the deco era has clearly edged back toward center stage. Tulsa realizes, perhaps belatedly, that art deco is vital not only to its past but also to its future. New buildings pay homage to the style. The Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority Terminal (1998) exhibits a decidedly deco-moderne sensibility, complete with a WPA-style mural inside depicting Tulsa history. At the state fairgrounds, home to a spectacular 1932 deco pavilion, construction finished recently on Central Park Hall, an exhibit facility with an art deco-themed exterior and lobby.

"There must be at least six new buildings today that clearly have deco influence," says Ball. "I went by the Sherwin-Willams paint store and it's a streamline deco design, and even the Harley Davidson dealership has gone deco."

Tulsa fell in love with deco and, after a brief estrangement, appears poised for a second honeymoon. "It means lively, it means young, it means different," says Ball, noting that it reflects the vibrancy of Tulsa's rebirth. "It's a spirit and a way of life that are coming back."   

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