There was settlement on the flatlands east of the Arkansas River by the Lochapoka and Creek tribes as early as the 1820s. When Indian Territory was established by the United States government in 1890 there was nothing remarkable about Tulsey Town, as the Creek Indians called it. Tulsa was officially incorporated on January 18, 1898 and as Oklahoma chugged towards statehood there was nothing to suggest the town would expand much beyond the 1,390 people recorded to live there in the 1900 census.
Everything changed on June 25, 1901 when the state’s first commercially viable oil well came in across the river at Red Fork (soon incorporated in the city limits.) In 1905 an even bigger strike was made 15 miles to the south in what became known as Glenn Pool. Texaco built the first oil refinery here in 1910 and Tulsa was on its way to being the “Oil Capital of the World.”
The population was 18,000 by 1910, 72,000 by 1920 and 141,000 by 1930. When the Great Depression slowed the boom, Tulsa had more buildings of ten or more stories than any city of its size in the world. Most of the skyscrapers were raised in the flamboyant Art Deco style and in the 1950s Time magazine anointed Tulsa the title of “America’s Most Beautiful City.”
Tulsa has never been shy with the wrecking ball, embarking on the state’s first urban renewal plan in 1959. But even though the oil bust of the 1980s caused the town to relinquish its title of “Oil Capital of the World” to Houston and sent several of its iconic Art Deco buildings into vacancy, many were left standing for us to see as we start our walking tour in a small patch of elevated open space in the center of the Tulsa skyline...
Williams Center Green
Boston Avenue at 3rd Street
This skillfully landscaped open space of about 2.5 acres offers an unexpected benefit to nature lovers - migrating birds often get confused by the lights in the surrounding tall buildings and wind up stranded in the small park. Birders can spy a smorgasbord of warblers and thrushes and wrens and rails as they gather their bearings to continue their journeys. The bronze sculptures, including a 12-foot globe, are a $1 million gift from the Rotary Club of Tulsa that honors the organization’s 100-years of service coming in 2015.
THE TALL TOWER LOOMING OVER THE NORTH SIDE OF THE SQUARE IS...
Williams Tower/BOK (Bank of Oklahoma) Tower
101 East 2nd Street
When topped off in 1975 this 52-story tower was hailed as the “tallest building in any of the five Plains States.” The money man was John Williams, whose family had started building pipelines in Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1908 and moved to Tulsa in 1919. Williams admired the World Trade Center Towers in New York City and wanted to create a quartet of replica towers in Tulsa. Instead, he hired Twin Towers architect Minoru Yamasaki to build a single, half-size skyscraper in the image of the World Trade Center. The 667-foot BOK Tower remained the tallest building in Oklahoma until 2012 when the Devon Tower went almost 200 feet higher in Oklahoma City.
THE SQUARE BUILDING TO THE EAST OF BOK TOWER, YOUR RIGHT, IS...
175 East 2nd Street at northwest corner of Cincinnati Avenue
This glass box came online in 1969 as the home for the city government, culminating construction on the Tulsa Civic Center that had been on the drawing board since 1924. When hatched nearly a half-century earlier the “Tulsa Plan” called for a series of highly ornamented classical buildings but property acquisition and building clearing did not begin until 1952. So the plan was executed with a set of modernistic steel-and-glass boxes.
TURN AND FACE SOUTH, LOOKING DOWN BOSTON AVENUE. THE BUILDING ON YOUR RIGHT, THE WEST SIDE OF BOSTON AVENUE, IS...
Exchange National Bank of Tulsa Building/320 South Boston Building
320 South Boston Avenue at southwest corner of 3rd Street
Tulsa-based BOK Financial Corporation traces its roots back to 1910 and the formation of the Exchange National Bank of Tulsa by four investors picking over the scraps of the failed Farmer’s National Bank. It also sported Oklahoma’s tallest building for a spell when this ten-story tower erected in 1917 was beefed up to 400 feet in 1929. George Winkler added Art Deco accoutrements such as brass doors and fixtures to his Neoclassical design for the 22-story addition. The pinnacle atop the roof was a mooring for Zeppelins and the United States Navy tethered an airship here at least once. Until after World War II visitors could ride the only escalators in Oklahoma in the National Bank of Tulsa Building.
FACING 3RD STREET, TURN LEFT TO EXIT WILLIAMS CENTER GREEN, HEADING EAST. CROSS CINCINNATI AVENUE AND CONTINUE TO DETROIT AVENUE.
301 East 3rd Street at northeast corner of Detroit Avenue
Somehow this modest three-story brick building, erected as a hotel in 1909, has held its corner for over 100 years as all its neighbors have been disappeared. Were you to walk around Tulsa before the 1920s you would have seen street after street filled with commercial structures much like this one but it is a rare souvenir of those times today.
TURN RIGHT ON DETROIT AVENUE.
Southwestern Bell Main Dial Building
424 Detroit Avenue at northwest corner of 5th Street
The first telephone calls in Indian Territory were placed in 1886 over a line run from Tahlequah to Muskogee by E.D. Hicks, one of the first telephone lines west of the Mississippi River. In Tulsa, Robert Hall, the son of a founder of the town, H.C. Hall, started the Indian Territory Telephone Company, in a family-owned building on the northwest corner of 1st and Main streets in 1903. The consolidated Southwestern Bell controlled the business by 1924 when dial service was introduced in Tulsa and a two-story, Gothic Revival structure was raised here to house the equipment. In 1930, at the height of the Art Deco craze, the brown brick building was expanded to its current ribbed form with pinnacles and generous helpings of stylized terra cotta tile.
TURN RIGHT ON 5TH STREET.
Trinity Episcopal Church
501 South Cincinnati Avenue at southeast corner of 5th Street
George Winkler designed this stand-out example of perpendicular Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. The congregation purchased this ground in 1905 for $800 and the first meetinghouse was completed the following year at a cost of $3500. Ground was broken in 1921 for this church building, and the dedication services took place in 1926. The collection of stained class gracing the sanctuary is considered some of the finest west of the Mississippi River.
115 East 5th Street at northwest corner of Cincinnati Avenue
The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce signed a 99-year lease on this property in 1922 with the intention of raising a three-story office building. Then the newly formed Tulsa Club bought a 60% stake in the project and plans expanded to 11 stories. Bruce Goff, who apprenticed with the architectural firm of Rush, Endacott and Rush when he was only 12 years old did the design work on this early Art Deco structure that was completed in 1927. Goff’s portfolio would grow to over 500 buildings, including Tulsa’s Boston Avenue Methodist Church that is one of the nation’s finest Art Deco creations. The Tulsa Club began with a $50 initiation fee and $19 monthly dues which was a small price to pay to get in on the million-dollar deals that would be sealed in the exclusive top floor Sky Terrace over the years. In addition to the Tulsa Club for the town’s most well-heeled moneymen, the building hosted numerous other community organizations. The Tulsa Club bought out the Chamber in 1952. The building has been vacant since 1994 and suffered a fire in 2010; its future is uncertain.
TURN RIGHT ON CINCINNATI AVENUE.
First Baptist Church
403 South Cincinnati Avenue at southeast corner of 4th Street
The Baptists organized in Tulsa in 1897 with a congregation of twelve in the mission of Reverend W.A. King. The flock grew swiftly and a proper church was erected the following year three blocks north on Cincinnati Avenue. There were more than 2,000 congregants when this sanctuary opened in 1926 and double that number when the adjoining education building was added in 1942.
TURN LEFT ON 4TH STREET.
Old Tulsa City Hall
124 East 4th Street at southwest corner of Cincinnati Avenue
In the first decades of the 20th century, America’s city planners were in the grip of the City Beautiful movement that encouraged government facilities to be constructed in the image of classical Greek and Roman buildings. Tulsa got its new municipal temple in 1917, replacing the town’s first city office building that had been constructed in 1906 to be a firehouse. The four-story structure was built to last with three-foot thick walls and housed the city government until 1969.
321 South Boston Avenue at northeast corner of 4th Street
When Samuel Grant Kennedy and his brother James arrived in Tulsa in 1891 to practice frontier medicine the town boasted two supply stores, a simple hardware store, an apothecary and one hotel. In 1898 the Kennedy brothers erected the first brick building in Tulsa to serve as their offices. In 1907, when he was 42 years old, Kennedy put away his scalpel and devoted his energies to real estate and the oil game. In 1919 he purchased this property, which had been built in 1916 by a St. Louis developer, and tripled the size in a sympathetic addition that retained the Chicago Commercial Style appearance with restrained classical detailing. Tunnels run under the street from the Kennedy Building to the Mid-Continent Tower and the 320 Boston Building.
Cosden Building/Mid-Continent Tower
401 South Boston Avenue at southeast corner of 4th Street
Joshua Seney Cosden was a drugstore clerk in Baltimore before he left for the new state of Oklahoma to try the oil game. Before he was thirty, in 1910 he had set up a refinery in Bigheart. In 1913 he built one of the world’s largest refineries in West Tulsa and five years later raised the town’s first skyscraper here. Financial reversals and high living would cause Cosden to lose control of his company to the Mid-Continent Petroleum Company in 1925. He went to Fort Worth and made another multi-million dollar fortune drilling in West Texas. The Great Depression vaporized that money and when Cosden died of a heart attack in 1940 at the age of 59 it was said to be a week after the last of his assets had been auctioned off. A 20-story addition was engineered over the original 16-story Cosden Building in 1984. Although it appears to have been added to the top of the original, the new tower is actually supported by an addition wedded to the east side of the older building.
TURN LEFT ON BOSTON AVENUE.
Atlas Life Building
415 South Boston Avenue
Atlas Life Insurance Company began writing policies in 1918, the first insurance company headquartered in Tulsa. Success came quickly and by 1922 Atlas was ready to construct its own building. Insurance companies like impressive headquarters to display on their stationery and this 12-story Classical Revival tower, with Atlas himself perched on the edge of the roof holding up the world, fit the bill. The go-to Tulsa architectural firm of Arthur W. Rush (retired by this time), Asbury Endacott & Arthur E.A. Rush drew up the plans that were executed in red brick and white marble. Oil companies flocked to the eye-catching office building which contained the Atlas Life Insurance Company until it was purchased in 1991 and shuffled off to Georgia. The building has been converted to hotel space since but the iconic four-story neon sign, that was added in 1946, has been restored and remains draped down the center of the facade.
First National BanCorporation Tower/First Place Tower
412 South Boston Avenue
This 40-story tower was the tallest building in town when it was raised in 1973. In 2006 the property was acquired by Maurice Kanbar, one of 21 downtown buildings the San Francisco inventor and entrepreneur gobbled up for some $108 million. Kanbar holds as many as 36 patents and his first big consumer hit was the D-Fuzz-It comb for sweaters. When a New York movie theater he owned was struggling to find patrons he split it into four smaller screens and invented the multiplex. The 76-year old Kanbar came to Tulsa via an old friend and is said to have owned one-third of all the office space in town at one time.
427 South Boston Avenue at northeast corner of 5th Street
In February 1905 Frank Phillips and his younger brother Lee Eldas, always called L.E., drilled their first oil well. They had spent the last two years tirelessly selling shares in the Anchor Oil & Gas Company to raise operating revenues. The Phillips’ first wildcatting venture was under way. And on June 23 they struck oil on that very first try. Their jubilation was short lived. There proved to be only a small pocket of oil and the well soon fizzled. Hole #2 came up dry; so did #3. Now there was barely enough money to try a fourth well. Well #4 was named Anna Anderson for the young Delaware Indian girl from whom the lease was obtained down in the juncture of the Big and Little Caney Rivers, some 3 1/2 miles north of Bartlesville. Phillips had no fancy geology reports to guide him; he selected Anna Anderson because it was the closest spot to a producing well he could find. On September 6, 1905 Anna Anderson gushed in - 250 barrels worth a day. The Phillips brothers embarked on a string of 81 consecutive producing wells that formed the basis for the Phillips Petroleum Company where Waite Phillips worked until he was 31 when he sold his interests to his older brothers. Phillips built a fully integrated oil operation that would last the better part of four decades. He also engaged in banking, bought a string of ranches across the Rocky Mountains and developed properties like this one in 1927. Designer Edward Buehler Delk tapped the Gothic Revival style for this iconic Art Deco tower where owner Phillips kept an office on the 20th floor - still preserved a half-century after his death.
511 South Boston Avenue at southeast corner of 5th Street
Waite Phillips had this building in mind as he was constructing the Philtower across the street. Intended as a complementary general office it was purposely designed to be less ornate and only slated to be six stories. It eventually rose to 13 stories and picked up an infusion of Egyptian Revival ornamentation but its builders were careful to insure that the tower did not compete visually with the Philtower, limiting most of the terra cotta enhancements to the ground floor, mezzanine and second floor arcade.
20 East Fifth Street at southwest corner of Boston Avenue
This beefy Beaux Arts office tower sprung from the drawing board of architect Arthur M. Atkinson in two stages. The first fifteen stories arrived in 1923 and five more floors were seamlessly added in 1929 to push the building to 215 feet with a penthouse cupola on its crown.
TURN LEFT ON 6TH STREET.
119 East 6th Street at northwest corner of Cincinnati Avenue
As the Art Deco movement was exhaling its last gasps in 1949, Leon B. Senter delivered this stylish expression of the form on land donated to the University of Tulsa by Waite Phillips. Senter fashioned one of Tulsa’s best entrances to link the two buildings constructed here. The space has served many masters through the years and has most recently been converted to condominiums.
Central High School/Public Service Company of Oklahoma
southeast corner of 6th Street and Cincinnati Avenue
Central High School was founded in 1906 as Tulsa High School and is the city’s second oldest high school. Classes moved here in 1917 and when the building was enlarged five years later it claimed to be the nation’s second largest high school. Students could use an indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool, an indoor running track, a multi-rank pipe organ and even soak in an extensive art collection. Enrollment passed the 5,000-student mark in the 1930s. After the school moved on in 1976 the property was acquired by Public Service Company of Oklahoma and renovated as its headquarters.
TURN RIGHT ON CINCINNATI AVENUE. TURN RIGHT ON 7TH STREET.
First Presbyterian Church
709 South Boston Avenue at southeast corner of 7th Street
James M. Hall, who co-founded what became Tulsa, started Presbyterianism in the town in 1885 by hosting services in his general store. Attendees were ministered to by circuit-riding preachers until a small clapboard meetinghouse was erected down Boston Avenue at 4th Street. In 1910, flush with oil money, the congregation moved into a Neoclassical house of worship on this corner, rendered in limestone and featuring a domed roof and Ionic porticos. That building yielded to the current Gothic Revival sanctuary in 1926 and was eventually demolished in the 1950s.
southwest corner of Boston Avenue and 7th Street
Harry Hamilton Mahler was a Chicago architect who came to Tulsa in mid-career in 1918 to work as an engineer for the Oklahoma Iron Works. In his twenty years in town this was one of his best works, designed for the Masons, the oldest and largest fraternal order in the world, in 1922. The building now does duty as a community center.
Oklahoma Natural Gas Company Building
624 South Boston Street at northwest corner of 7th Street
This was the second Zigzag Art Deco building raised in Tulsa, and the oldest still standing. Architect Arthur M. Atkinson and designer Frank V. Kershner created the ten-story headquarters for the Oklahoma Natural Gas Company that had carried its first gas in a transmission line from oil fields to Oklahoma City back in 1907. Atkinson and Kerschner would further hone their craft in the Art Deco style in the coming years. For this pioneering building they used buff-colored brick trimmed with Indiana limestone and decorated in the chevrons and geometrical shapes that would become hallmarks of the Art Deco movement.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET.
One Main Plaza/Two Main Plaza
610 South Main Street
Exuberant Art Deco terra cotta designs, especially on Two Main Plaza, liven up these routine office buildings from 1940.
Public Service Building
600 South Main Street at southwest corner of 6th Street
Decades after the introduction of the electrical power grid power companies still had to hustle for business which was the case with the Public Service Building of Oklahoma. The large ground floor windows in this 1929 building were used to display appliances and other electricity-consuming merchandise in its retail store here. At night choreographed light displays would further promote the utility’s product - electricity. Arthur M. Atkinson, a Kansas City architect, designed the Gothic-flavored Art Deco building that is dressed in Bedford limestone from Indiana.
southeast corner of Main Street and 5th Street
Harry Ford Sinclair was born outside Wheeling, West Virginia, two days after the American Centennial on July 6, 1876. His family moved to Independence, Kansas where young Harry was schooled as a pharmacist and expected to join the family drug store. Instead, he started selling lumber for the derricks in the oil fields of southeastern Kansas, keeping his ear to the ground for leads to speculate in oil leases. In 1905 he heard tell of a new gusher at the farm of Ida Glenn south of Tulsa and hurried over to grab some choice Glenn Pool leases. By the time Sinclair was 30 he had made his first millions dollars. In 1910 Sinclair was part of the four-man consortium that bought the failed Farmers National Bank and he was named president of the new enterprise that would one day grow into the Bank of Oklahoma. Over the next decade, as one of the town’s leading money men, Sinclair embarked on numerous investment adventures. In 1914 he was one of the main financiers of the Federal League, a third major baseball league that was potent enough to force the American and National Leagues to pay a cash settlement to make it go away. In 1916 he founded Sinclair Oil that would become the largest oil company in the Midwest and seventh largest in America. And in 1919 he built this classically flavored office building. Sinclair’s most notorious financial adventure took place in the 1920s when he reportedly paid $200,000 to Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall for an oil lease on remote government land in Wyoming’s Teapot Dome region without competitive bidding. The scandal landed Sinclair in prison for six months in 1929 and Fall became the first Presidential cabinet member to do jail time for his actions in the Teapot Dome Scandal.
11 East 5th Street at northeast corner of Main Street
Robert M. McFarlin was a Texas farmer who came to Norman, Oklahoma when he was 26 in 1892 to run cattle. In 1906 he took a stab at oil drilling in the Glenn Pool District and his first try at wildcatting turned his Mc-Man Oil company, that he founded with his nephew James Chapman, into one of the largest production companies in the Midcontinent Oil Field. The company was sold for $39 million in pre-income tax 1916 and McFarlin came to Tulsa from Holdenville, which he had founded, and poured some of his profits into this building. The architectural firm of Thomas P. Barnett, John Ignatius Haynes, and George Dennis Barnett, leading designers from St. Louis, delivered a striking Florentine Revival office building with balconies and a wide, bracketed cornice.
420 South Main Street at northwest corner of 5th Street
John D. and Cass A. Mayo, brothers from a Randolph County, Missouri farm, came to Tulsa in their early twenties in 1903 to pursue their dream of opening a furniture store. It took the few dollars they had saved between them and seed money from a grandmother to get the business underway. Within five years the brothers were able to construct a five-story commercial building, one of the more substantial properties in town, on this corner. The Glenn Pool oil field had just been discovered and Tulsa was teeming with new oil companies that needed a temporary place to call an office while they chased oil so the Mayos added another five stories (you can look up and see the division) in 1917. This was the foundation of the Mayo real estate empire in Tulsa and the Mayo sign hangs over the corner of Main and 5th streets as a reminder.
TURN LEFT ON 5TH STREET.
423 South Boulder Avenue at northwest corner of 5th Street
There is a ten-story hotel missing from this three-story base which was constructed in 1930 before the Depression-era money ran out. What was constructed is some of Tulsa’s most ambitious Art Deco design in the interior with American Indian motifs expressed in wrought iron, mosaic tiles and elaborate plaster. Outside the white terra cotta boldly announces the verticality of the planned tower that never came.
420 South Boulder Avenue at northwest corner of 5th Street
This is another project of the Mayo brothers, John and Cass. Completed in 1921, its lack of ornamentation stands in stark contrast to many of the town’s flamboyant Art Deco structures that would dominate the Tulsa streetscape in the years to come. Its no-frills approach is also indicative of the need for office space in a hurry in Tulsa’s early go-go oil days.
115 West 5th Street at northwest corner of Cheyenne Avenue
Constructed in 1925, the Mayo Hotel was the type of guest house where heads of state, power brokers and celebrities all signed the register while in Tulsa. John and Cass Mayo modeled their hotel after the Plaza in New York City and it was the tallest building ever constructed in Oklahoma up to that time. Each of its 600 rooms boasted a ceiling fan and guest such as Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh and Mae West enjoyed Tulsa’s first running ice water in the Mayo. Architect George Winkler, who worked earlier on the Mayo Building for the brothers, returned to provide an elegant classical facade with columned arcades at the base and on the upper floors. The Mayo closed in the 1980s and sat vacant for two decades until it was purchased for $250,000 in 2001. An estimated $40 million in renovations later the Mayo is once again welcoming guests.
TURN RIGHT ON CHEYENNE AVENUE.
403 South Cheyenne Street at southeast corner of 4th Street
Isaiah S. Mincks began milking a herd of cows on a Missouri dairy farm when he was 14 years oldwhich led to a job at the legendary Tony Faust’s Oyster House and Restaurant in St. Louis. In 1920 the 34-year old Mincks came to Tulsa to open an eatery at the corner of Boston Avenue and Fourth Street. A second restaurant followed and then this thirteen-story hotel in 1927 which he hoped would draw customers from the 1928 International Petroleum Exposition. Mincks spent $800,000 on his hotel but by 1935 it was closed and disposed of in a liquidation sale to emerge again as the Adams Hotel. Its legacy survives, however, in the exuberant use of terra cotta on the facade. Drawing from Gothic and Baroque influences, the building is a tour-de-force in the use of the high-quality baked earthenware, fired by the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company of Chicago.
TURN RIGHT ON 4TH STREET.
406 South Boulder Avenue at southwest corner of 4th Street
This Renaissance Revival office building is another project financed by Waite Phillips, constructed in 1923. It took its name from a tower on the roof that shot a light into the night sky to help guide aircraft over Tulsa. The light tower, that was the symbol of the Beacon Life Insurance Company quartered here, was taken down in 1976. This eight-story high-rise has a stylistic twin one block away at the northeast corner of Main and 4th streets that was built earlier but took on the similar appearance in a 1925 makeover.
TURN LEFT ON BOULDER AVENUE.
315 South Boulder Avenue at southeast corner of 3rd Street
The first issues of Oklahoma’s second-most read newspaper hit the streets in 1905. Six years later Eugene Lorton, who was born in Missouri and cut his journalistic chops on newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, became the managing editor and in 1917 became sole owner of the World. It remains in the Lorton family to this day.
United States Post Office and Courthouse
224 South Boulder Avenue between 2nd and 3rd streets
The federal government announced its presence in Tulsa with this Classical Revival building in 1917, although it did not achieve its block-swallowing current form until a 1933 expansion. Sketched out in the office of James Wetmore, Supervising Architect of the United States Department of Treasury, the facade is highlighted by 22 full-height Corinthian columns crafted from limestone. Over its nearly 100 years of government service the building has done duty for the Post Office, the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Labor Relations Board and various courts.
TURN RIGHT ON 3RD STREET AND WALK TWO BLOCKS TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT WILLIAMS CENTER GREEN.