The Italian Renaissance mansion has been sitting on 30 acres of vistas and gardens since its opening on June 2, 1928, when guests were invited “to attend the opening party of The Refuge…The afternoon entertainment requires that you come attired in riding clothes.”
That alone indicated that this would not be an ordinary housewarming party. Indeed, the new home of Ernest Whitworth Marland and his second wife, Lydie (who also happened to be his niece [through marriage to his first wife] and his adopted daughter), wasn’t ordinary, either. Nicknamed the “Palace on the Prairie” and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, the mansion was one of the largest residences in the southwestern United States when it was built and still remains (at 43,561 square feet) the 80th largest house in the country.
I approached the stately home and was quickly captivated by how the 1 percent lived a century ago. Designed by a Tulsa architect and built on an abandoned stone quarry, the mansion features a façade of light-colored rusticated limestone blocks, a roof of red clay tiles, ornate balconets, and five stone chimneys with little red-tile caps. I walked around the entire mansion to get a better appreciation of its size and structure, and to inspect its three terraces, particularly the North Terrace. Mythological creatures carved into the self-supporting corbels, a cantilevered stone staircase leading up to the second-floor balcony, and an inscription in Latin that translates to “a man’s home is his castle” add unique flair to this outdoor space, from which I enjoyed a view of the lovely grounds, including the gazebo and the statue of Marland’s wife. The East Terrace features a frieze of seven panels with different animals, including a ram, bear, rooster, and a particularly plump turkey, while the South Terrace sports spiky red sconces, a balustrade, and lead gutters, drainpipes, and water boxes bearing the initial “M” and the year 1927 that funnel runoff through the mouth of a carved head of the Greek god Pan.
At the entrance to the E.W. Marland Estate at the porte cochere, I noted the sculptures of Marland’s four hunting dogs, lodged into the corners of the structure. I opened one of the custom-made 11-panel wood doors into a world of riches and luxury, and a house with 55 rooms, including 10 bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, and three kitchens, along with seven fireplaces. As indulgent as that seems, the Marlands’ life was not always one of privilege. After graduating college in 1893, Marland began his career as a lawyer and subsequently prospered in the oil business in West Virginia. He made a fortune and then lost it all in the 1907 panic. Broke, he relocated to Oklahoma, where he and his first wife lived in a hotel while he searched for oil. This time, his luck stretched much longer, and soon his Marland Oil Company was employing more than a third of Ponca City’s population. Marland controlled 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves — a luxury that allowed the couple to travel extensively, entertain lavishly, and build their $5.5 million estate. The first Mrs. Marland died before they could move in; it was the second Mrs. Marland who became the grand hostess of the mansion when they moved in in 1928 — a title that lasted for a shockingly short amount of time. In November of the same year, Marland resigned as president of his company, forced out in a hostile takeover by J.P. Morgan & Co.
Although Marland had spent freely on himself and his family, that ebbed by 1931, when he was no longer able to pay the utility bills in his own home (including electricity for its 861 light bulbs), so the couple moved into the small artist studio on the estate grounds, leaving the mansion unoccupied. He rebounded by being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1932 and then as the 10th governor of Oklahoma. His foray into politics didn’t provide enough income for the estate, however, and six months before he died in 1941, he sold it to the Carmelite Fathers for a mere $66,000 — almost a total loss — but retained the chauffeur’s cottage and surrounding land for his wife. The monks established a philosophy college at the mansion and remained cloistered there until 1948, when they sold it for even less ($50,000) to the Sisters of St. Felix. The Sisters renamed the estate Assumption Villa, operating it as a nunnery while living on the upper level of the mansion. They added a separate chapel, administration building, dormitory, and high school, all of which, save the latter, have since been removed. When the Sisters relocated to New Mexico, Continental Oil Company (better known as Conoco) offered to pony up half the price of the estate if the City of Ponca City would pay the other half. A one-cent sales tax proposed by the city to fund its 50 percent was supported by Lydie Marland herself. The proposal passed, and the sale for $1.4 million was completed in 1975. One year later, the E.W. Marland Estate opened as one of America’s great house museums.
Now, before you can write Marland off as some poor little rich boy with unimaginable advantages who represents everything that’s wrong with the über rich, consider this: Marland paid the insurance for his oil company’s employees as well as their dental and eye care bills. He also built more than 400 homes for them. In addition, he funded a hospital, a children’s home, and churches. And he gifted the Pioneer Woman Statue to the state of Oklahoma and its citizens. That, at least, makes visiting his former home much more palatable — the man clearly was not concerned solely with his wallet.
I stepped into the grand entry and was greeted by a long, deep stairway down to the lower level as well as a pair of curved stairways heading up. To the left, I began my self-guided tour in the formal dining room, where guests would have been sure to appreciate the hand-cut wall panels of rare English Pollard Oak, cut from the royal forests of English with permission of the king; the oceanic-themed fireplace with stone carvings of seahorses, tridents, and seashells; and stained-glass windows imported from England.
Through the cozy octagon-shaped breakfast room, I entered the mansion’s service kitchen, where food prepared for the 20 guests in the dining room would be sent up via dumbwaiter from the main kitchen downstairs. State of the art in its time, it looks hopelessly dated today, right down to the pistachio-green walls and cabinet drawers and doors.
Up a small staircase, I headed to the North and South salons, both floored with black-and-white checkerboard terrazzo. The North Salon, with its coffered ceiling, nearly a dozen landscape paintings, and dearth of furniture, faces Lake Whitemarsh, named for Marland’s yacht and the only surviving lake of the five originally embellishing the grounds. The South Salon, also with a coffered ceiling, served as the living room, and the pair of lamps with aquamarine blue and emerald green glass panels looks like they came directly from a Turkish bazaar.
Between the salons, through a series of three archways, the loggia is noted for its Chinoiserie ceiling. Painted on canvas in the basement of the mansion and then applied to the groin vault ceiling above the entire length of the hallway, this work of art features Chinese figures, structures, flora, and fauna. Despite the curve of the ceiling, none of the images are distorted by the bend.
The loggia leads to the massive ballroom, which measures about three times the size of my own apartment. Twenty-four-karat gold leaf covers the coffered ceiling, from which hangs a pair of Waterford crystal chandeliers. Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Marland and their adopted son surround the fireplace. At the opposite end of the hallway, at the second-floor landing, I noted the Otis elevator (lined with buffalo leather), the fantastic mosaic domed ceiling with its angels and floral swags, and the somewhat creepy owls with glowing red eyes perched atop sculpted columns.
Upstairs, the generously sized bedrooms are tastefully furnished. Marland’s private bathroom, heavily tiled in green, includes allegedly the first electric sauna in the United States as well as a shower with 11 water spouts. His study features two indented seashells in the walls above the bookcases, patterned after those in the Oval Office in the White House.
I returned to the ground floor and then descended the Grand Stairway of about 30 steps to the Hall of Merriment, lined with oriental rugs from the Near East. In each upper corner of the hall, where the walls meet the hand-painted walnut ceiling, a carved wooden friar establishes the merriment theme: One eats a turkey leg, another guzzles from a stein, the third drinks from a flask, and the fourth takes a pinch of snuff.
The hall leads to the Inner Lounge, where Marland and his guests would assemble for breakfast before the morning fox hunt. The ceiling pulls attention from the lounge’s other features, such as its fireplace and the small hexagon tiles on the floor. Across the entire length of the painted ceiling and its concrete beams, the history of this area of Oklahoma plays out in vivid detail, stretching from pre-Columbian Indians and Plains Indians to the Oklahoma land runs, Ponca City in the 1920s, and the explosion of the oil industry. The adjacent kitchen sports the original gas range, topped by a hand-hammered solid copper hood; a fantastic hand-painted tile backsplash; hand-carved cabinets; and a marvelous tile floor of oranges, yellows, reds, greens, and blues. Off to the side, Marland and his guests would slip off into the secret Poker Room and the hidden Whiskey Room, both scenes of action during the days of Prohibition.
I stepped through the arched French doors into the Outer Lounge. With its beamed ceiling and stone walls, this lounge offered swimmers a respite between laps in the pool, where they would relax or play table games. Steps up to a small stage would have been reserved for a band to play when the lounge was utilized as an informal ballroom.
Clearly, Marland had spent his money well when he had it, not only on himself but on his fellow man, leaving behind an architectural and beneficent heritage that everyone can still enjoy today.