Tulsa, Oklahoma is having a moment, and the world has taken notice. From being honored as home to one of Time Magazine’s “World’s 100 Greatest Places” to the second round of Tulsa Remote opening to new applicants, the city is in the midst of a renaissance. But it’s the buildings of the past that have architecture lovers most excited. With some of the finest Art Deco designs in the country, a major push to restore long-neglected buildings, and the increased interest and participation of renowned architects, Tulsa is the place to be in 2021.
The last few decades have seen significant changes in the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.” Tulsa was among the first to change Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day” to recognize the critical role Native American tribes played — and continue to play — in shaping the city. And for over 20 years, the city has hosted massive celebrations for Juneteenth and Pride Day, embracing the diversity that makes this town unique.
But it’s the amazing architecture, restoration, and revitalization that’s drawing design lovers from around the world to this central U.S. city. Thanks to the oil boom of the 1920s, Tulsa became the wealthiest city in the world. Construction took off as tycoons rushed to leave their mark on the town. While myriad influences from many different styles can be found in buildings around the area, it was Art Deco that architects truly embraced. Today, Tulsa has one of the country’s largest collections of original Art Deco architecture.
So just how many Art Deco buildings are there in Tulsa? The Decopolis Tulsa Art Deco Museum lists 63 total, with another 24 buildings that were demolished over the years. So to say the city abounds with Art Deco is an understatement. Everywhere you look, in every neighborhood, elements of the style can be seen. And we cannot talk about Art Deco in Tulsa without looking at Bruce Goff, one of the most prolific architects of the style.
Boston Avenue Methodist Church
Perhaps the most recognizable of all the city’s Art Deco buildings, Boston Avenue Methodist Church was completed in 1929. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the church is carefully positioned at the end of Boston Avenue, making for a dramatic sight when viewed from the historic downtown business district. The 255-foot central tower is capped by four shards of deco glass, making it a striking focal point of the city’s skyline.
For many decades, Bruce Goff alone was credited with the church’s design. But records show that the plan was originally drawn by his mentor and instructor, Adah Robinson. Today, Robinson is credited with coming up with the original sketches that Goff then based the design off of.
Adah Robinson House
Early on, Goff worked closely with Robinson, who began her career as the first art teacher at Tulsa High School. Goff was one of her very first students, and perhaps this was how he became the designer of her own home. Working with Joseph A. Koberling, Jr, Goff designed the home in 1924. At first glance, it may be hard to see the Art Deco elements of the Robinson House, but they are there. Windows are geometric and elongated, there are terrazzo floors throughout, and the home is covered in stucco (a common material for Art Deco homes at that time).
Tulsa Club Hotel
The Tulsa Club Hotel is a prime example of the city’s modern revitalization. Built in 1927, the Tulsa Club was an upscale gathering place for the city’s elite. Designed by Bruce Goff, the 11-story building spent many years abandoned and neglected. Water damage from a leaky roof and fire hoses (the building experienced four fires in just one year) resulted in ceilings and walls beginning to rot. Luckily one developer saw potential in the building and set to work restoring it. Thanks to Ross Group, Tulsa Club Hotel is now a showcase for historic Art Deco elegance with a fun contemporary twist. Stepping into the lobby feels like a Great Gatsby party could break out at any moment.
After its construction in 1914, Brady Theater was remodeled by Bruce Goff in 1930. Adding plenty of Art Deco details, Goff designed everything from custom acoustical ceiling tiles to gilded air conditioning grilles. The new details effectively turned the simple barn-like convention hall into an elegant and breathtaking theater. It may have received some contemporary updates since then, but that amazing Art Deco ceiling is still there for all to admire.
Among all of Tulsa’s Art Deco designs, The Philcade Building truly stands out. Built in 1931, it was one of the many new structures lining Boston Avenue as oil tycoons sought to leave their mark on the city. Designed by architect Leon Senter, the Philcade was one of two towers commissioned by Waite Phillips. Located directly across the street from the already built Philtower, the Philcade represented Phillips’ dominance in the oil industry. Done in the Zigzag Art Deco style, the Philcade’s seemingly simple exterior belies the lavish interior, including the stunning lobby with an arched, hand-painted ceiling.
Tulsa’s countless Art Deco buildings aren’t the city’s only architectural style worth admiring. In the downtown area alone, visitors will spot a range of iconic styles from Gothic to Contemporary and everything in between.
Boston Avenue, running through the center of downtown, showcases some of the city’s most notable buildings, including the Kennedy Building, the Mid-Continent Tower, and the Philtower Building (connected to the Philcade through an underground tunnel), culminating at the BOK Tower at the “top” of Boston Avenue. Each building has its own unique look and its own story to tell. For architecture nerds, there are niche tours that have been built around these marvels.
The Tulsa Foundation for Architecture, formed in 1995, offers walking tours on the second Saturday of every month. Following a different theme each month, the tours center around everything from the impact of Route 66 on architecture to exploring the city’s hidden underground tunnels. It’s a unique chance to get an insider look at the architecture and designs that shaped the city for more than a century.
The city is also home to a one-of-a-kind César Pelli design. The BOK Center shows off Tulsa’s contemporary side and its love affair with art of all kinds. As a testament to how seriously this city takes its buildings, it rejected Pelli’s original (and admittedly boring) concept for the flagship arena. It wanted more than a basic rectangular box, so city planners demanded the world-renowned architect go back to the drawing board and come up with a more contemporary design. The result is the smooth, undulating silver swirl building that resembles a tornado when seen from above, a cheeky nod to Oklahoma’s wild weather.
Architecture not your thing? Don’t worry, Tulsa still has you covered. From music to ballet to street art, Tulsa is one seriously creative community. Museums abound, each offering a different tidbit on the area’s rich history. While not all of that history is something to be proud of (the Tulsa Race Massacre depicted in the opening scene for HBO’s Watchmen really happened), locals don’t shy away from any of it. A stop at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum is a must. It gives the full picture of how far this city has come after the devastating attack on Black Wall Street in 1921. From there, you have a variety of museums to choose from to get your art, history, or music fix.
If you consider food to be art, you’re in luck there, too. Incredible restaurants can be found in every corner of Tulsa. In 2018, the city took its food game up a notch with the opening of Mother Road Market. While it is dubbed a “food hall,” Mother Road Market is more of an experience, getting visitors up close and personal with local chefs, sampling unique cuisine, and socializing with fellow food lovers on the outdoor patio.
Speaking of the Mother Road, a stretch of Route 66 runs right through town, letting you get a healthy dose of nostalgia. From classic diners to the famous Golden Driller statue, you can get your fix of the vintage kitsch the road is known for. Be sure to check out Buck Atom’s Cosmic Curios for the true Route 66 experience.
Once you’ve had your fill of impressive architecture, endless art, delicious food, and a stroll through Gathering Place, be sure to stop at the Center of the Universe before leaving town. Yep, Tulsa has that, too.
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