The arts are pumping new life into the downtown of Tulsa, former ‘oil capital of the world’

Originally published June 2, 2013

TULSA - It really does help one’s self-image to have a song. I mean, where would we in Kansas City be without that crazy little tune, ah, “Kansas City”?

And every time I hear Garth Brooks’ oddly out-of-place anthem at the Royals’ ballpark - “Friends in Low Places” - I wonder what it has to do with baseball except to celebrate self-medication at the corner tavern and then, with all the cameras moving around the stadium and all the good people singing the lyrics (it is kind of a catchy melody), I find my cold heart softening in communion with the human connections being made and in the comfortable touch of a common identity’s warm embrace.

So there I was one chilly Saturday afternoon in this revitalizing boomtown (Garth Brooks’ turf, it so happens) listening to a bunch of Oklahoma musicians and special guests launch into - what else? - “Living on Tulsa Time.” At first I felt like an outsider, but then I got swept up in the movement and joy of the moment as the climactic verse unfurled - I had no business leavin’ and nobody would be grievin’/ If I went on back to Tulsa time - and the chorus came back around.

It helped make me a believer. And it was possible to imagine that just like no one in Kansas City really gets tired of Garth at the K or of any traveling band’s concert-stage rendition of “Kansas City, “ everyone here must love their anthem.

And maybe even more so now that Tulsa time has arrived again.

To hear the locals tell it, downtown Tulsa, known years ago as the “oil capital of the world, “ hit the skids when much of the oil business began migrating to Houston in the 1980s. And in recent years even a backwater like Oklahoma City emerged out of its cultural void and began to exert some urban muscle, much to some Tulsans’ envy. So Tulsa time needed a jolt, and a gaggle of movers, shakers and entrepreneurial spirits set about to make it so.

“I really feel the city is going through a transition right now,” says Lauren Ross, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philbrook Museum of Art. She’s a newcomer to Tulsa, arriving from Brooklyn two years ago just in time to watch her museum build a downtown annex.

As in Kansas City and elsewhere, Tulsa’s downtown revival, fueled at least in part by fortunes made in oil, has been driven largely by the arts and culture.

A $200 million city-owned, Cesar Pelli-designed arena, the BOK Center, opened to great acclaim on one end of downtown in 2008 (Paul McCartney was scheduled to play two shows there in late May). Two years later, a minor league baseball stadium opened less than a mile away. (Designed by Populous of Kansas City, its recessed field gives fans impressive skyline views.)

In between those two major projects, four distinct districts have been filling in downtown Tulsa’s many gaps with restaurants, music clubs, edgy retail and a formidable concentration of arts institutions.

“This has exploded beyond belief, “ says Teresa Lawson, a local architecture enthusiast who drove me around the downtown area one afternoon on my three-day visit.

Taking center stage at the moment is the Brady Arts District, a roughly 15-block area connected to the downtown core by a series of pedestrian and vehicular overpasses.

Though some parts of the Brady district have been in place a long time - Cain’s Ballroom has been a legendary rock palace for decades - this year represents a key upswing.

In April, the Woody Guthrie Center opened in a 12,000-square-foot building in the heart of the district. Across the street, the block-square Guthrie Green, a public festival space with a sophisticated stage, casual restaurant, fountain, sculptures and prime landscaping, sits above a geothermal field that heats and cools the Guthrie Center and adjacent buildings.

When its two-story space opens June 14, the Philbrook Downtown will feature contemporary art and selections from its vast holdings of Native American art.

The Philbrook joins several other arts institutions now up and running: the University of Tulsa’s Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education, which operates in one of four adjacent buildings that formerly housed a paper company; the Hardesty Art Center, a new Cor-Ten steel-wrapped building by the local firm of Selser Schaefer Architects that encompasses gallery space, artists’ studios and educational programs; three leasable rehearsal spaces, plus the offices of the Tulsa Symphony; and 108 Contemporary, a high-end art and craft gallery.

Surrounding that cluster of new and renovated buildings, most of them boosted in large ways by the $3.5 billion George Kaiser Family Foundation, are perhaps a dozen smaller galleries and art spaces that, along with bars, restaurants and a new hotel, collectively promote a First Friday crawl in the district.

The Kaiser foundation’s big-check involvement in the Brady district began about five years ago, when it teamed with the Philbrook and the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art to acquire the late Eugene B. Adkins’ significant collection of Native American and Southwestern art.

The foundation bought two of the former Tulsa Paper Co. buildings (the city now owns the other two), and the projects began to snowball.

“This was an opportunity to create more critical mass, “ says Stanton Doyle, a senior program officer involved in the arts at the Kaiser foundation, “and we were following the principle that a great city needs a great arts district.”

When the opportunity to acquire the Woody Guthrie archives from the singer/songwriter’s family came up in 2011, Doyle says, “It was a no-brainer.”

A deco tour

If it weren’t for World War II, William Franklin’s grandmother would have been immortalized as the goddess of oil.

Franklin told me this story in the tiny room that serves as a retail shop and storage for the ad hoc Art Deco Museum, which for now operates as a series of window displays on the ground floor of the historic and gorgeously deco Philcade building. There she was, or some rendition of her, a sleek gold spike of a figure on a poster.

Franklin’s grandmother was a model and destined for a place on the Tulsa landscape as a sculpture, a nude flame-bearing prayer to the bounties of crude. The war interrupted that plan, and by the time the petrochemical folks got back to envisioning a monument to oil in the early 1950s, they wound up with the Golden Driller, a 76-foot-tall oil field worker, clothed, the figure’s hand atop a retired derrick.

Still, Franklin, who described himself as a third-generation artist, remains devoted to the racy image of his grandmother, mostly as a statement of art deco glory. For the last four years, Franklin has been working to establish the Art Deco Museum, taking baby steps with the elaborate lobby displays of artifacts, housewares, deco-era fashions and the like and trying to raise money, awareness and volunteers. His passion for the subject was palpable as he led me on a tour of landmarks in the downtown Art Deco District.

Beginning in the 1920s, Tulsa oil money built what might have been the largest concentration of art deco buildings on the planet. Sadly, Franklin pointed out the vast acreage of vacant lots where many of those buildings stood, a lasting vestige of urban renewal and middle-class flight to the suburbs.

Nevertheless, a significant collection of deco buildings remains. The Tulsa Preservation Commission lists 37 art deco structures all around town, from the beloved Boston Avenue United Methodist Church to several prominent houses to the Will Rogers High School.

Our tour began at the shimmery, near-eccentric Boston Avenue Methodist, built in 1929. With its striking verticality, gold adornments, glass-shard crown and rose-hued interior, the church earned a reputation as the first house of worship in the country built with American esthetics, Franklin says. He declined, however, to weigh in on the long-running controversy surrounding the building’s authorship.

Some partisans, including the church’s website, attribute the overall design to a high school art teacher named Adah Robinson. Others argue for one of her students, Bruce Goff, the Oklahoma visionary (born in Kansas) who designed other distinctive buildings and houses in Tulsa, Bartlesville, Okla., Kansas City and elsewhere. (Most likely teacher and student worked on the church project together, when Goff was employed at the local firm of Rush, Endacott & Rush.)

Franklin’s casual tour wound through the marbled radiance of the historic Mayo Hotel; the Pythian Building, whose terra-cotta features and jazzily tiled lobby only hint at what might have been had the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression not truncated the original builders’ tower dreams; two skyscrapers built by Phillips oil money, the Philtower and the Philcade; and even the deco-revival Tulsa bus station, built in 1999.

As an artist, Franklin said he appreciated the dynamic qualities of art deco’s various guises - streamline, zigzag and more.

“There’s a formality to it, “ Franklin says, “but there’s freedom, too.”

Franklin was grateful for a recent downtown preservation victory: Restaurateurs Jeramy and Libby Auld rescued a two-level, drive-up bank building dating to the late-1950s from likely demolition and transformed the midcentury modern space into the Vault, their second downtown dining spot.

Around the corner from that restaurant, Franklin operates a retail store, Decopolis, celebrating pop-culture futurism, deco and his own artworks and continuing to lay the groundwork for a deco museum.

“I’m a fan of Tulsa, “ he says, “and I want to see things happen. We’re trying to bring things back.”

Blue Dome origins

I spent a Saturday morning at the original Philbrook Museum of Art, the Italianate villa and gardens designed for oilman Waite Phillips by Kansas City architect Edward Buehler Delk (he of the Country Club Plaza) and S. Herbert Hare, the Kansas City-based landscape architect.

In the afternoon, I took a second look at the Woody Guthrie Center and spent a few hours listening to a tribute concert on the Guthrie Green, impressed by Jimmy LaFave’s band, by granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie’s voice, by a fine Oklahoma singer named Monica Taylor and by the Red Dirt Rangers.

Later, I took an evening walk about five blocks from my hotel in the Brady district to Detroit Avenue and Second Street. I’d heard that I’d be able to find a special Woody Guthrie T-shirt at Dwelling Spaces, a funky pop-culture gift and coffee shop. Mission accomplished, and I even got to chat with Mary Beth Babcock, the effusive and articulate red-haired proprietor who has been promoting Tulsa’s downtown and Oklahoma musicians for seven years.

“We celebrate Oklahoma, “ she says, “Hanson, the Flaming Lips, Woody Guthrie, Leon Russell.”

Babcock’s shop and its JoeBot’s coffee shop are in the Blue Dome District, which serves as a geographical connector between the Art Deco and Brady districts. The downtown renaissance began in the Blue Dome, most people say. The district is named for a landmark former gas station, a brick- and-stone structure featuring the eponymous cap.

The area is still evolving - a barbecue joint was under construction as I was passing through - and it presents a sometimes wild collision of urban desires: A porn shop stands tall across the street from Juniper, one of the city’s trendiest restaurants.

Elliot Nelson, a Blue Dome pioneer, opened his first restaurant in the district in 2004, then waited for something to happen, he says. When nothing did, he and his partners decided to keep on building. But he’d planted a seed.

The rehab that turned into James E. McNellie’s Public House was nice enough, he says, that “people my parents’ age felt comfortable coming and hanging out.” A lot of people - you’ve heard this in Kansas City and other urban places - were afraid to come downtown. But, Nelson notes, some 44,000 people work downtown and, to him, opportunity knocked.

Nelson’s company now owns eight restaurants in Tulsa, including the very successful Tavern in the Brady district. Because he thinks the dining and club scene has reached something of a critical mass, his next steps are to create more downtown housing and to help fill in some of the dead blocks that remain between Blue Dome and Brady.

After talking with Babcock, I made a mental note to return to her place for coffee the next morning to help fuel the four-hour drive back home, and then I walked through a side door of the space directly into Yokozuna, a pan-Asian restaurant and sushi bar. Sushi in Tulsa? Well, sort of.

I asked one of the knife-wielding chefs how often fresh fish arrived and learned it was two or three times a week, which explains the restaurant’s rather short list of raw-fish choices and the much longer list of colorful, ingredient-packed, creamed-cheese-reliant specialty rolls. Oh, well. But I couldn’t complain about the nice bites of yellowtail, or a spicy scallop dish, or, for that matter, my starter of steamed buns, one with braised pork shoulder, the other with chicken. Or the little-ish bottle of dry sake that I washed it all down with.

After dinner, I strolled over the Detroit Avenue bridge and headed to the ticket window at ONEOK Field. The baseball stadium anchors the Greenwood District, on the east edge of Brady. The district is named for Greenwood Avenue, which almost a century ago served as the bustling spine of black Tulsa and then embodied an aura of tragedy.

In 1921, a 24-hour period of brutal and fatal race riots inflamed and destroyed much of the area, and, if a photo exhibit I saw at the Hardesty Center was any indication, the horrific events still linger in the city’s consciousness. “That’s a sad part of our city’s history, “ Nelson says, “and we still haven’t gotten past it.” As recently as 2011, the Tulsa-based avant band Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey premiered and recorded a large work, the “Race Riot Suite, “ dedicated to the memory, good and bad, of Greenwood.

The ballpark, once envisioned for a suburban location, plus other new developments and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park - including sculptures by Kansas City, Kan., native Ed Dwight - are all seen as positive efforts to rebuild connections between rich and poor, white and black.

A $12 ticket got me a fifth-row seat at ONEOK Field, and the Tulsa Drillers were hosting the Royals’ Northwest Arkansas farm club. When I got there in the middle of the fourth inning, the Drillers were down 2-1. Later, with the score tied at 3-3, the locals had a chance to win in the bottom of the ninth. They loaded the bases and I’ve now forgotten which of the future stars failed to bring in the winning run by hitting into a nicely crafted, inning-ending double play. I failed to stick around to await the outcome. (The future Royals won it in the 10th.)

I had a little headache, though that didn’t stop me from heading back down Brady to the Tavern - yes, it is on a corner - and then, after that, to Valkyrie, a hipster cocktail hangout, where I sipped a nightcap and thought back on a very long but rather fun day in this waking-up town that oil built and the arts will save.

Despite whatever was on the sound track above the crowd noise, I’m pretty sure my head was still reverberating with those lines from “Living on Tulsa Time.”


Downtown Tulsa attractions

Art Deco Museum, Philcade building, Fifth Street and Boston Avenue. Hours vary. For more about Tulsa’s art deco legacy, go to

BOK Center, 200 S. Denver.

Boston Avenue Methodist Church, 1301 Boston Ave.: Guided tours available after the 11 a.m. Sunday service or can be arranged by calling the church at 918-583-5181 or emailing Paula Gradney at Self-guided tours available when the church is open.

Center of the Universe, on the Boston Avenue pedestrian bridge near Archer and First. An oddly compelling spot with mysterious acoustical properties and inspiration for a new music festival scheduled for the Brady Arts District July 19-20.

ONEOK Field, 201 N. Elgin Ave. Home of the AA Tulsa Drillers and other events. 918-744-5998,

Philbrook Downtown, 116 E. Brady St. Opens June 14.

Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Second St. Downtown home of Tulsa Symphony, Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Opera and a Broadway series. 918-596-7122,

Woody Guthrie Center, 102 E. Brady St. Find a Star story about the Guthrie project and its opening at

Not far away

Gilcrease Museum, 1400 N. Gilcrease Museum Road, a five-minute drive from the Brady Arts District. Known for its Western and Native American collections, the museum is building a new research center.

The Philbrook Museum of Art, 2727 S. Rockford Road. A stunning Old World setting, with elaborate gardens and a very good collection of art. The Philbrook is one of six institutions chosen recently for a case study on what makes museums magnetic.

Where to stay

Fairfield Inn and Suites, 111 N. Main St. A comfortable and nicely appointed recent addition to the heart of the Brady Arts District. 918-879-1800

Mayo Hotel, 115 W. Fifth St. A 1925 Chicago School classic with a fabled celebrity history (J. Paul Getty once lived there). 918-582-6296,

Eat and drink

Dilly’s Deli, 402 E. Second St. Part of the McNellie’s Group of downtown Tulsa restaurants, this one is known for its sandwiches and weekend brunch. 918-938-6382,

JoeBot’s Coffee Bar, 119 S. Detroit. Inside the art-and-music Dwelling Places shop.

Juniper, 324 E. Third St. High on the list of most food adventurers with whom I checked, this small, stylish place has an ever-changing menu focused on fresh and local ingredients. It also serves some impressively creative craft cocktails.

Vegetarians would be very happy here. I made a dinner out of a couple of nightly specials: a cider gazpacho, with pickled walnuts and watermelon radish, and a plate of roasted morels over lentils. 918-794-1090,

Mexicali Border Cafe, 14 W. Brady St. Long lunchtime lines hint that this veteran Tex-Mex outpost in the Brady district is a local favorite. I liked Jose’s Verde Chimichanga, stuffed with carnitas, pico de gallo and jack cheese and topped with tomatillo and queso. 918-582-3383,

The Tavern, 201 N. Main (corner of Brady). Warm wood-and-brick bar and dining room with historic Tulsa building photos on the walls. Casual to fine-dining cuisine, including a first-rate burger and approachable beer and wine list.

Try the Coop F5 India Pale Ale from Oklahoma City, a refreshing, grapefruity beer, which a barkeep told me might qualify as the hoppiest beer on the planet. 918-949-9801,

Valkyrie, 13 E. Brady. The kids hang out late at this brick-walled, chalk-boarded cocktail haven.

I was a little put off when a barman didn’t know what to do with Fernet Branca and his computer seemed to offer no help either (so I sipped it straight). 918-295-2160.

The Vault, 620 S. Cincinnati Ave. American food and cocktails in a renovated bank building. Upstairs the former boardroom has more dining, a lounge and jazz on the patio. 918-948-6761,

Worth reading

“A Map of Tulsa, “ by Benjamin Lytal. This recently published debut novel finds a literate college student returning to his hometown with mixed feelings and, as it unfolds, a growing sense of self-awareness and love.

This Land. A large-format bi-weekly newspaper devoted to books, culture and more. This spring This Land Press published “Imaginary Oklahoma, “ an anthology of short fiction by a wide array of writers, including the likes of Jonathan Lethem, Wayne Koestenbaum, Aimee Bender and Ben Greenman.