Art Deco Buildings Set Tulsa Apart
ON ARCHITECTURE By ROGER COFFEY, AIA
From the mid 1920s to the early 1940s, a period of less than 20 years, Tulsa’s population grew from 75,000 to just less than 150,000. During that time, more than 50 significant Art Deco structures were built, including nine residences. Although at least 25 percent of these structures have been demolished, those that remain are eye-catching and for many of us, pleasing to look at. They are a piece of our history, a slice of time well worth remembering. For those who grew up in Tulsa as I did, it is hard to imagine our city without them.
I have mentioned Art Deco in several of my earlier columns, but just what is this architectural style, and why were so many examples built in Tulsa?
Art Deco was an out-growth of a 1925 Exposition of the Decorative Arts held in Paris, France. The style quickly traveled to large cities in the United States and began to appear in the design of high-rise buildings (over 10 stories) of the day. The exterior emphasis in these skyscrapers was on the vertical. Art Deco in its first phase, nicknamed American Perpendicular or zigzag, was a perfect fit.
The term Art Deco was coined by a British historian in the 1960s. At the time, Art Deco was utilized as a building style merely to create buildings with a unique appearance. The average man on the street loved it. The intellectual establishment and architectural educators hated it.
Art Deco was a flamboyant, in-your-face style. It was not subtle. Color and ornamentation were generously applied both on exteriors and interiors (particularly building lobbies). There was something brash and theatrical about this look with its historical symbols and geometric patterns used in abundance. Favorite building materials were molded terra cotta, glazed tile, vitrolite, glass blocks and metals (particularly copper, zinc and brass).
There are three types of Art Deco: zigzag, streamline and . Zigzag was utilized to emphasize a vertical look. Windows were massed in a series of vertical stripes with the building skin becoming a wider stripe in between. Building bases and caps and sometimes spandrels were extensively ornamental. This style was the first to arrive in the U.S. and the hardest hit by the depression of the 1930s when it virtually ended.
Streamline began as zigzag ended. The elements used to create a vertical look were placed horizontally to emphasize length and horizontal movement. Exterior corners were frequently rounded to reinforce this sense of speed as if the building could be a ship or a train. Streamline was frequently used to remodel and “modernize” small buildings during the financially depressed 1930s. The last type involved the elements of the first two types and was used by governments (frequently by federal) in the design of public buildings. As the depression years dragged into the early years of World War II, these were virtually the only buildings being built. Thus this phase has been nicknamed .
Those that disliked Art Deco supported the International Style which arrived in the U.S. in the 1930s and was soon adopted by Walter Gropius, the architectural establishment and others. The philosophy of this group was “less is more.” By the end of World War II, building costs and a desire for a simpler, understated look helped develop an architectural style commonly call Mid-Century Modern.
As for Art Deco, it was considered old fashioned, a relic from an earlier time. Its era was over.
Art Deco had arrived in Tulsa by 1927. We were an oil rich, young town without much history other than our trading post roots. Many of our key citizen players were from the east coast with strong connections there. It was a perfect setting for the beginning of Tulsa Art Deco. It was said that over $1 million a week in construction occurred during those prosperous years. Naturally, many of those projects were done in the Art Deco style. My favorite Tulsa zigzag structures include the Boston Avenue Church, Philcade Building and Pythian Building (designed for a tower that was never built). The Security Federal Building (demolished), the Tulsa Monument Company Building and the City Veterinary Clinic Building are among my favorite Streamline structures. Finally, my favorite Tulsa structures are Webster High School, Will Rogers High School and the Union Depot.
Fortunately for Tulsa, a number of our Art Deco buildings and houses have survived. Thanks to the Junior League of Tulsa, which published “Tulsa Art Deco” in 1980, and The Tulsa Foundation for Architecture, which republished this work in 2001, we have a great pictorial archive of this short-lived but very important style. The book contains a list and location map of Tulsa’s most significant Art Deco structures. Take a day and drive or walk to see these buildings. They are an important part of our city.