What Did I Know About Tulsa?

Photo by Lin Wang

A few years ago I noticed on Facebook that a former boss had moved from Philadelphia to Tulsa. I had recently relocated to Dallas from the Northeast. “That won’t last,” I thought. It didn’t.

Still, my assumptions about Tulsa turned out only to be my uninformed perceptions. What did I know about Tulsa? Not much.

I’ve been to this Oklahoma city three or four times now, but on most occasions only to the Philbrook Museum and maybe a restaurant. On this trip, we set out to explore more. Downtown Tulsa isn’t Manhattan, but it is filled with interesting buildings and seems to be coming alive with activity.

I had read somewhere that Tulsa was known for its Art Deco architecture. I’m not a huge fan of this style, but with a recent lecture on the Art Deco fresh on my mind, I thought that looking for some impressive buildings might be fun.

Interior of Art Deco Museum Lobby

“Google Art Deco buildings in Tulsa,” I requested. We came upon the Boston Avenue Methodist Church. Here, I imagine even the people who wrote the books on Art Deco would say “wow.” This is the kind of gorgeously frivolous building (it was 1929, after all) that is more often spent on more commercial pursuits. The church tower can be seen pretty well from vantage points around town. On other buildings there would be quotes about commerce cut into the stone, here there are phrases about worship.

We walked the perimeter of the building hoping to find a way inside. When we did, we were confronted with pink mosaic which gave a backdrop to green bronze lighting fixtures. Finally finding our way to the sanctuary, the design was much more staid, such as you might find in other Methodist halls of worship. Lucky for us, an organist was practicing, and we were able to take in a few minutes of a private concert.

Boston Ave United Methodist by Lin Wang
Boston Ave United Methodist by Lin Wang

From the Boston Avenue Church, you can see skyscrapers from the same period in Downtown Tulsa. We drove until we noticed a bookstore and some other retail and decided to park. As chance would have it, our spot was in front of the Tulsa Art Deco Museum. Located in the Philcade Building (also 1929), the displays line interior retail windows along the building’s main floor corridors. The Phillcade is located across the street from and connected by a tunnel to the Philtower Building. Both were built by renowned oilman and philanthropist Waite Phillips.

Atlas Life, Photo by Lin Wang
Atlas Life, Photo by Lin Wang

We found many other impressive buildings in Downtown Tulsa, some that pre-date the Art Deco period, including the Atlas Life Building (1922) and the Mayo Hotel (1925). The later looked like many other hotel buildings from the period and was pleasantly surprised to discover it still operated as a hotel. I was also delighted by the artisan coffee shop operating on the ground floor, Topeka Coffee.

If a city’s vitality can be measured by the number of independent coffee shops, Tulsa is doing pretty well. I spotted a handful on my short walk. No sign of a Starbucks.

As far as street activity, there weren’t many pedestrians, but there had to be enough to support a bookstore and restaurants in addition to the coffee shops.

From there we set out in search of the train station. Not that we wanted to take a train, just that I imagined a town like this must have, or have had a cool train station. On the way, Tulsa’s largest building struck me with an odd sense of familiarity. After some thought, I decided it reminded me of the original World Trade Center buildings.

BOK Building
BOK Building, Photo by Lin Wang

Sure enough, One Williams Center, now Bank of Oklahoma (BOK), was also designed by Minoru Yamasaki and is very similar to the ill-fated Big Apple landmarks. Where the New York buildings had Gothic details at the base, the building in Tulsa has Romanesque arches.

If Tulsa had train service, it would be conveniently located for One Williams Center tenants. Hidden in the shadow of the BOK, Tulsa Union Depot now houses a Jazz Museum, which was closed at the time for a private event.

From the depot, you can see a market area where there turned out to be a street festival going on. It didn’t look as if produce is available here; it was more of a nightclub destination. Regarding pedestrian activity, there was more here than in other parts of the city. The exception is a stream of people heading into a theater for a show about Motown. As in other parts of the city, there are some vacant lots around this part of town which detract from the urbanity. There did seem to be some newer apartment buildings, perhaps a sign of good things to come.

Philbrook Museum of ArtNext, we got back in the car and headed to the Philbrook Museum of Art, which is housed in the former home of Waite Phillips. According to Wikipedia, he moved to a penthouse atop the Phillcade after donating his home to be used to house art. The gardens at the Philbrook enhance the visitor experience and provide respite for those who are quick to experience art overload. There are also walking trails behind the garden. And if you think frogs are bordering on extinction, a visit to the pond at the Philbrook may change your mind.

In the neighborhoods surrounding the museum, there are some great examples of residential architecture. It would be nice to spend some time walking around this area. Residents there are also sure to enjoy the lush-looking Woodward Park. Tulsa seems to have it going on as far as nice urban parks go as well. A major park being called The Gathering Place is located West of the Philbrook, on the banks of the Arkansas River. While it was being advertised at the airport, I did not make it this trip. In fact, I am not sure I have seen the Arkansas River. It appears to be cut off from downtown by highways.

Bars in TulsaFrom here we headed back to the train station area, having learned the Philbrook housed a contemporary gallery there, along with other galleries and art spaces. All this driving back and forth and I couldn’t help but think this city could benefit from a light-rail or trolley system. I thought maybe one was in the works. But, while one is planned for Oklahoma City, I didn’t see mention of any discussion about it for Tulsa.

We finished up the day trying to find a restaurant we had enjoyed a few years back. While we weren’t able to find that one from the sketchy information, we did discover Smoke in the Midtown area. As a vegetarian, I am not likely to gravitate to a restaurant that sounds like it may be bar-be-que. They did offer vegetarian options including gnocchi, which had a nice smokey flavor.

Cafe in TulsaNow I know more about Tulsa. There is a lot to see, especially if you are an architecture buff. There is a lot to do, and more than its fair share of those things being cultural. While diversity is somewhat lacking compared to other major cities, I was struck with the notion this is a place the Democrats could win at some point in the not too distant future.

Finally, if you need an added reason to explore this city, the IPA from Marshall Brewing Company alone makes the trip worthwhile. Perhaps the next person I hear of moving here from the coasts will decide to stay.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me