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Art Deco architecture dominates downtown Tulsa

Art Deco architecture dominates downtown Tulsa


TULSA, Oklahoma -- When one thinks of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the first thing that comes to mind is oil. The next is maybe Route 66, which runs through town. Or cowboy/author/actor Will Rogers.

But one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the world, probably not.

When oil was discovered in the area in the early 1900s, the people of Tulsa found a way to show off their new-found wealth: They built skyscrapers that rivaled those in the major cities.

The Tulsa Art Deco Museum explains it this way: “Art Deco began as a style that exemplified luxury and the new notions of modernity and urban sophistication. Tulsa was rich and saw itself as a modern city.”

The Tulsa movers and shakers took that philosophy and ran with it, spending $1 million a month developing downtown into a showplace of their opulence and wealth.

The Deco District downtown features buildings designed in the Art Deco style in its many forms. However, that’s not the only place one can see the artistic influence. Scattered throughout the city are churches, schools, gas stations and even the Pavilion at Expo Square, the site of the Tulsa State Fair.

The Deco District is about a 30-square-block area that runs from First to Eighth streets and Cheyenne to Boston streets. You can easily walk from one end to the other, and will be left in awe.

Maps of the area are posted on many street corners, and the Deco District has guided and self-guided tours.

What I found intriguing was that nestled among the early-20th century buildings, most of which have been restored and/or adapted for new use, glass edifices rise above the skyline.

It’s a unique blend of new and old oil money, and 1900s architecture meshed with 21st-century design.

One place you shouldn't miss is the Philcade Building. Its lobby has been converted into the Tulsa Art Deco Museum. The shop windows in the lobby, which is shaped in a “T” for Tulsa, are filled with exhibits that tell the story of the Art Deco movement in Tulsa.

But it’s the ceiling that draws the eye. Gorgeous chandeliers hang from a ceiling covered with gold leaf and mosaic tile. The effect is stunning.

Another building that just blew me away was the Midcontinent, which was Tulsa’s first skyscraper. The 16-story building was built in 1918 and renovated in 1984. It was one of the nation’s first reinforced concrete structures and the tallest one west of the Mississippi River.

The façade is Venetian gothic terra cotta veneer, but it’s the extravagant lobby that takes your breath away — with marble columns, floors and walls and a gorgeous stained-glass wall showing the skyline of Tulsa. I felt like I’d been transported to New York or London.

So, Tulsa, mission accomplished.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7491 or


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