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Preservation Conference Comes to Tulsa: A Jewel on the Prairie 

12-09-2015 17:35

Early History

The oral tradition of the Lochapoka people, clan of the Creek Nation, tells of their forced emigration to Indian Territory, moving up the Arkansas River until they came to a place where the river made its great end to the west. They stopped and solemnly scattered the ashes of sacred fires under the branches of a mighty oak, lit a new fire, and exercised their oldest rituals and ceremonies that marked the end of their former life and the beginning of the new, thus providing their first council site. 1 This stately oak (now a National Historic Site) is known as the Council Oak Tree.

In 1882 railroads came through Indian Territory during the westward expansion, bringing westbound travelers to a crude depot at the end of the line called Tulsa (derived from a Creek word meaning “old town”).

The Creek tribal government was extremely liberal in its interpretation of “leasing arrangements” of land. No one held title to his or her land and every tent, cabin, business, and farm was owned collectively by the Creek Nation. Those who claimed to have Creek ancestry, as well as those married to Creeks, could claim every right of citizenship. This proved to be beneficial for many of Tulsa’s first citizens who had an eye on the best cattle country known to mankind. The buffalo were long gone, cattle ranches were built, and businesses began to thrive. Early business trade with whites was much less important than that with Indians and African Americans.2

Tulsa: Oil Capital of the World

Oil was discovered on the other side of the Arkansas River in Glenn Pool and Cushing, and soon a bridge was built over the river to Tulsa. The huge deposits of natural gas and “black gold” tapped made Tulsa the “Oil Capital of the World” for decades. Dirt-poor wildcatters like Tom “Dry Hole” Slick and Frank Wheeler became overnight millionaires, and others with more notable names like Phillips, Skelly, Sinclair, and Getty soon came to Tulsa to join in the oil boom and amass incredible wealth.

While the rest of the nation was experiencing the Great Depression, Tulsa’s oilmen were still enjoying a prosperous economy and shared this prosperity in the form of a building boom. Architects from all over the country were hired to design Gothic structures such as the Cosden Building (1918) and the Philtower Building (1928). Art Deco was just making its way on the scene, and this cutting-edge style was soon seen downtown with the Gillette-Tyrell Building (1930), the Philcade (1931), and many more to follow. Art Deco would continue to be the prevailing and popular style in all three of its related movements—Zigzag, Streamline, and Public Works Administration— through the 1950s. The jewel in the Art Deco crown is the Boston Avenue Methodist Church (1929), a National Historic Landmark, co-designed by prolific Oklahoma architect Bruce Goff.

A Tulsan on the executive committee of the American Association of State Highway Councils was instrumental in routing the celebrated Route 66 highway through the city (and past his own filling station) in the 1920s. This brought an economic boost to the city and state. Tulsa’s Art Deco 11th Street (Route 66) Bridge, completed in 1915 and used until 1972, channeled the westward movement across the country. Although Oklahoma’s portion of the “Mother Road” was completely bypassed by the interstate highway by the mid-1970s, communities along the famous route are now successfully reviving roadside motels, diners, and attractions from its heyday as tourist destinations.

The 1940s was a prosperous time for Tulsans, both pre– and post–World War II. Aviation and the adaptability of the oil-related industries to wartime needs made Tulsa the perfect location for defense plants. Many of the plants tooled for fabrication of oil equipment easily adapted to producing ammunition, weapons, and aircraft parts. Defense workers swarmed the city, creating an unparalleled need for housing.


Early neighborhoods in Tulsa reflected the wealth of the oil boom days. Maple Ridge, Swan Lake, Gillette, Tracy Park, Owen Park, Yorktown, and Brady Heights—all near downtown and among the most sought-after locations in which to live in Tulsa—led the way to enacting historic preservation zoning in 1988. The Tulsa Preservation Commission was established to enforce the guidelines created by each neighborhood and provide technical assistance to residents of neighborhoods with HP overlay zoning.

As a result, the elegant homes and charming bungalows of the early neighborhoods have endured (although teardowns are a growing problem). Tulsa now has 14 historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places, with several new district listings in the works. Five are also local historic districts with HP zoning and design review standards. To combat teardowns, many neighborhood associations are investigating the concept of conservation districts as a more palatable alternative to HP overlay zoning. Tulsa is finally updating its 1970s-era Comprehensive Plan with potential revisions to address this concern.

Tulsa experienced the exodus from the early neighborhoods and city center typical of the rest of the nation in the 1950s. New suburban neighborhoods established at mid-century include Ranch Acres, created in the 1950s, and Lortondale, in the ’60s. Both are still intact, and remarkably attractive to young couples who appreciate the “retro” design. Ranch Acres was recently added to the National Register and Lortondale is currently pursuing listing.

Other areas, however, have not been as fortunate. The Greenwood District (also known as the “Black Wall Street of America”) had a population of 11,000 and flourished until May 31, 1921, when a false accusation of assault by a white woman against a black man sparked the war between “the two Tulsas.” Armed white gangs shot, robbed, and burned their way across 35 square blocks of the district and rounded up 6,000 blacks, sending them to internment camps. More than one thousand homes were burned to the ground and death estimates range from 55 to over three hundred. 3

Though offers to help rebuild came from numerous outside agencies, Tulsa officials turned them down and the Greenwood District was left to build itself up from the ashes, literally. Help came in the early ’70s, thanks to federal funds, with the addition of the Greenwood Cultural Center and a revitalized historic commercial district where all Tulsans gather to promote the arts, especially jazz music, and culture.

Several fine examples of mid-century commercial architecture exist in the downtown area including the Tulsa County Courthouse (1955), Warren Petroleum Club Headquarters designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill (1956), Tulsa Assembly Center (1962), Tulsa City-County Central Library (1965), and Bank of Oklahoma Tower (1975) and Performing Arts Center (1977), both designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center.

Downtown Revitalization and Preservation Efforts

Urban renewal forces resulted in the loss of all the historic movie palaces and several early Tulsa hotels. Retail merchants also fled to the suburbs along with their customers.

As a solution to the decline of the city center, one of the early feats of the Architectural League of Tulsa was to aid in the planning for the Tulsa Civic Center Complex in 1955.

In 1959 the City of Tulsa hired one of modernism’s most important architects, Richard J. Neutra, to conduct the Tulsa Central Business District Master Plan survey. A proposed master plan for 12 downtown city blocks was not enacted, but an experimental pedestrian “Main Mall” similar in concept to a portion of the Neutra plan was implemented much later (in the 1970s). Ultimately, it was not successful and recently has been “reversed.”

Residential developments in the ’60s, such as Center Tower, catered to the market for efficiency apartments downtown. The majority of the residential developments occurred just outside the city center with 2300 Riverside, Liberty Towers, and University Club Tower.

From the Architectural League of Tulsa and the subsequent chartering of the Eastern Oklahoma Chapter of the AIA in 1961 (spun off from the state’s AIA chapter), preservation efforts have continued in Tulsa. As a result of research for the original Tulsa Art Deco book 4, the Tulsa Junior League became aware of the loss of Tulsa’s beautiful building stock and the potential for even more loss unless something was done. That something was the formation of Preservation Tulsa in the 1980s, a group that lasted but a few years, but began a serious dialogue about badly needed historic preservation efforts on an organized level. (Tulsa Art Deco, an expanded edition of the original, was published by the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture in 2001. See page 5.)

In 1995 a downtown landmark Art Deco building, the Warehouse Market, was threatened when Home Depot purchased the building and adjacent land with plans to raze the beautiful structure for surface parking. Members of AIA Eastern Oklahoma soon founded the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture (TFA) whose mission it is to be a resource that recognizes, records, and encourages preservation of the built environment and to advocate quality future development that enhances Tulsa’s livability. Saving the Warehouse Market and countless other initiatives, programs, and preservation “wins” over the past 13 years have solidified one of the primary goals of the organization: to be the credible voice for historic preservation in the city of Tulsa.

Come See Tulsa's "Preservation in Progress"

The National Preservation Conference, October 21–25, provides an opportunity to see what has been accomplished thus far. Tulsa preservationists look forward to sharing their revitalized entertainment districts, charming neighborhoods, stellar Art Deco and mid-century architecture, world-class museums and art collections, and a city center on the cusp of finding its energetic future.

“Preservation in Progress” is an apt title for this conference—Tulsans are poised for positive change in many ways and understand that preservation is key. The National Trust has contributed $20,000 toward a downtown survey currently underway. Several buildings in the Central Business District are receiving a new lease on life. For example, the Atlas Life Building, designed by Rush, Endacott & Rush in 1922, will be transformed into a Courtyard by Marriott through a careful rehabilitation effort shepherded by GH2 Architects. The Mayo Hotel and Mayo Building are undergoing similar rehabilitations joining the pioneers in these efforts, the Philtower Lofts and Tribune Lofts. The energy, desire, and expertise are in place for moving forward with a vision for a revitalized urban center.

When an ice storm in December 2007 devastated thousands of mature trees and left the city without electricity for days that turned into weeks for many, the city government and a local nonprofit organization immediately planned for the “re-greening” of Tulsa by pledging to plant 20,000 trees by 2010. By the way, the sacred Council Oak Tree that marked the beginning of Tulsa did not lose a single limb to the ice storm. It’s a sign that Tulsa’s story as a city has a strong future.


1 Danney Goble, Tulsa! Biography of the American City (Tulsa, Okla.: Council Oak Books, 1998) 16-17.
2 Goble 33-37.
3 Goble 127.
4 Carol Newton Johnson, Tulsa Art Deco: An Architectural Era, 1925-1942 (Tulsa, Okla.: Junior League of Tulsa Publications, 1980).

Publication Date: September/October 2008


Author(s):Lee Anne Zeigler

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