I couldn’t understand why downtown Tulsa was so devoid of people. Not deserted, exactly, but pretty darn empty for mid-morning on a regular Tuesday in Oklahoma’s second-largest city. That didn’t seem right—there are large hotels and huge office buildings here, plus municipal buildings, apartments and lofts, the performing arts center, and a college within walking distance. It seemed to me that a lot of people were missing out on something that should have lured them here in big numbers: Tulsa has the third-best collection of art deco architecture in the United States.
In 1900, Tulsa was a tiny town. Once oil was discovered, however, the population exploded from 1,300 to more than 140,000 in only 30 years. Its airport became the busiest in the country, beating out New York’s, and then in the world, surpassing London and Paris combined. The oil boom coincided with the art deco mania sweeping the nation. This newfound wealth and the termination of World War I restrictions enabled people and companies with money—lots of money—to spend barrels of cash on the fashionable style. The Deco District, concentrated in the heart of Tulsa’s downtown, remains a grand testimonial to this unique architectural style, and I spent a day appreciating it, making sure to leave time to step inside these treasures.
I began at the Philcade Building, a handsome 13-story edifice constructed in brick and terra cotta in 1931 in the zigzag art deco style, with birds and flora incorporated into the stone panels on the façade and an Egyptian motif for the main entrances. I was more interested in the inside, so I passed into the lavish lobby, awash in bronze, glass, mahogany, and terrazzo, and deliberately shaped like a T (for Tulsa). Bronze filigree chandeliers hang from the arched ceiling, trimmed with gold leaf and decorated in hand-painted blue, brown, green, purple, and red geometric designs. During the Jazz Age, the lobby housed numerous shops, but now they’ve been given over to the Art Deco Museum. Former window displays for those shops now contain such items as lamps, dresses, and teapots from the Roaring Twenties. There’s also abundant information about exactly what art deco is as well as its three recognized sub-types (zigzag, classic moderne, and streamline moderne). It was more than enough to put me in the mood to step into some spats, don a fedora, and dance the Charleston with a flapper.
Armed with newfound knowledge and primed to see what Tulsa had to offer, I headed to the old Gillette-Tyrell Building. Constructed in 1929, it was sold only two years later to the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization and secret society, which promptly renamed it the Pythian Building, the moniker it still retains. The three-story building never got its intended 10-story hotel atop it (thanks to the Great Depression). Thin vertical piers divide the façade into 12 bays. The façade’s cream-colored terra cotta receives more colorful treatment at the roofline, with blue, burnt sienna, and green. Tudor-style arches grace the ground level. I stepped inside the L-shaped lobby, granting access from two separate streets, and admired the colorful tiling that runs up the lower walls as a high wainscot as well as the equally colorful tiled floor that was modeled on a Native American blanket pattern. On the ceiling, bracketed beams decorated with seashell and triangle designs separate recessed panels, from which hang eight tall, slender chandeliers, each with four etched glass panels that terminate in a triangle design at both the top and bottom. A beautifully tiled staircase leads up to a second-floor mezzanine with handsome wrought-iron railings, the perfect spot to admire the large lighting fixture that passes itself off as a skylight, its glass lens designed to resemble a folded plate.
Other standouts around town include the Public Service of Oklahoma Building (1929), now lofts and apartments; the Oklahoma Natural Gas Company Building (1925), largely regarded as the usher of the art deco style into Tulsa; the old Tulsa Union Depot (1931), now the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame; and the Southwestern Bell Main Dial Building, which added four art deco stories in 1930 atop the existing two-story Gothic building from 1924. The astoundingly unattractive Tulsa Regional Chamber, built in 1951 as the Chamber of Commerce, falls far, and far short, from art deco glamour, but it’s noteworthy for the fantastic second-story art deco frieze that depicts images of local history and commerce, including a Native American on a buffalo hunt, agriculture, aviation, and oil production.
A terrific place to take a midday break (or to cap off your evening) is the Tulsa Club. Built in 1927 and serving as the social club of the city’s affluent oil barons until it closed in 1994, the Tulsa Club remained abandoned for two decades (and suffered four fires) before being resurrected as a hotel. Clad in limestone, the building’s vertical zigzag style includes vertical pylons reaching up to the top. Although many of the original interior details couldn’t be saved, a few survived, including terrazzo and hardwood floors, and a mosaic tile fireplace on the eighth floor. It still retains an art deco vibe that makes it the perfect place to pop in for a drink at the lobby bar, soak in the atmosphere, and imagine F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald dropping by, perhaps on their way to the rooftop terrace on the 11th floor.
A bit farther away stands the Fire Alarm Building, built in 1931 as the central reporting station for the Tulsa Fire Department. Now the home of the Tulsa Fire Museum, this small building still oozes art deco charm with a Mayan flair and abounds with terra cotta friezes, double-headed dragons, and fire-related motifs, like a male figure holding an alarm tape—a paper tape that was punched with the number of the fire alarm box making the call.
Also outside the boundaries of the Deco District, I found a much grander art deco treasure in the Boston Avenue Methodist Church. I headed out of downtown along Boston Avenue, drawn by the church, which rises like L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City in the near distance (excepting the green, of course), with nothing around it to obstruct the view. This limestone house of worship from 1929 was jointly designed by an architect and his female teacher—one of only a few art deco buildings in the world designed by a woman. The 15-story zigzag art deco tower, soaring up 255’, is topped by a wonderfully complicated confection. It features strong downward-moving lines in terra cotta, symbolizing the outpouring of God’s love on all those who pass underneath them, and stylized terra cotta statues and praying hands. Inside, I gaped at all the art deco details—the mosaics, the chandeliers, the brass banisters. I paused in the circular, sloping sanctuary with its dome ceiling and the jazzy abstract stained-glass windows that repeat the downward-flowing lines and combine them with two stylized flowers indigenous to Oklahoma: the coreopsis, which grows in the driest soil, representing the hardiness of the Christian faith, and the tritoma, with its powerful stems supporting downward blossoms, symbolizing the strength of the Church. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and named a National Historic Landmark in 1999, it remains one of the finest examples of ecclesiastical art deco architecture in the United States.
As I headed back downtown, I was feeling cheerful from having seen so many of examples of art deco beauty, yet, as always, it was tinged with a bit of regret that this woefully short-lived style lasted only about two decades. But I was treated to a wonderful surprise when I came upon the full-on art deco MTTA Downtown Transfer Center. This busy bus depot with a round tower features a swooping canopy that encircles the structure. Inside, a convex mural wrapping around the top of the ticket and information booth portrays Tulsa city life and includes many of the buildings I had just explored. The surprise was that this low-rise building was built not in the 1920s, but in 1998.
I ended my day at the Mayo Hotel (1925), where J. Paul Getty lived and where guests included John F. Kennedy, Bob Hope, Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, and Babe Ruth. After it was abandoned for 30 years, it reopened as a combination residence and hotel, whose newer guests included Fleetwood Mac, Lady Gaga, Josh Groban, and Bob Seger. The ground-floor lobby has been wonderfully restored, including the Boiler Room, the hotel’s restaurant with subtle art deco touches in the chandeliers and table edges. It’s the ideal setting to enjoy a fantastic dinner of stuffed risotto balls with fall cheeses and spicy sage butter, halibut over pea puree with toasted asparagus and cumin foam, and key lime pie, and to wrap up a day pretending that you’re in the 1920s instead of the 2020s.
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