Author Remembers His Mentor, Mary Caroline Cole

On Architecture By ROGER COFFEY, AIA

HOME OFFICE: Mary Caroline Cole in her long-time office near Veterans Park in Tulsa. The facility included a large elm tree and a fireplace in which she kept a fire burning year-round.

Most of us can identify a teacher or a friend or a relative who when growing up was key to our career choices. My mentor was my mother’s older sister, who was one of the main reasons I became an architect. She’s been gone for more than 25 years but this article is her story and some things I remember about her.

As a small child in 1915, she was running happily across the yard when her parents’ yard man/driver called out, “There goes a cute Tot!” Tot became her nickname used only by family and close friends. Her real name was Mary Caroline, (always Mary Caroline, never just Mary) she was the eldest of the three daughters of wealthy Tulsans Audrey and CC Cole.

Tot attended Lee Elementary School and as soon as it opened. Holland Hall, which at the time was a private girls school, located a block from her parent’s house at the northwest corner of 22nd and Main Streets across from Harweldan. Cole’s backyard extended a third of the way into what is now Veteran’s Park. Tot’s father taught her to play tennis and eventually built a backyard tennis court (one of Tulsa’s earliest) for his three daughters! Tot became an excellent tennis player regularly playing and winning in local tournaments such as the annual contest sponsored by the Tulsa Tribune newspaper.

As a young teenager, Tot regularly heard about the conflicts between the architectural firm of Rush Endicott and Rush and the artist Ada Robinson who was in charge of the design of the Cole’s church, Boston Avenue Methodist, where CC Cole chaired the Building Committee. The architects resented being under the authority of a female artist with no architectural credentials frequently using the catch line “She’s a mere woman.”

After high school graduation, Tot went by train to the east coast along with the accoutrement of a wealthy young lady to attend Smith College. Shortly after her first year, the Great Depression of the 1930’s began and the Cole’s lost all their money. Tot stayed at Smith by waiting tables and receiving help from scholarships. She earned a degree in “Ancient History” in four years and descended the outdoor steps at Smith in a toga as part of a line of graduates holding a long chain of ivy.

Returning to Tulsa and the home the Coles had lost but were permitted to occupy by their bank, times were tough. The Cole girls rented the tennis court to make spending money. Among frequent players were the Cameron brothers, the father and uncles to publisher Forrest Cameron. Forrest’s Uncle Babe Cameron eventually went on to become a member of the University of Tulsa Sports Hall of Fame as a tennis star.
Tot, with help from her parents, secured a summer intern job with the leading Tulsa architect, Donald McCormick. In the fall she enrolled in the School of Architecture of Oklahoma A&M, today called . The seed planted by the long ago discussions she overheard about Boston Avenue Methodist Church was starting to sprout.
At , on the first day of classes, her professor refused her admittance to his class, saying he wouldn’t lecture to a woman. Tot enlisted the help of the school dean to be seated, but was told not to open her mouth in class. A year later she won a full scholarship to the Cornell School of Architecture in Ithaca, New York, the only female student enrolled there. While at Cornell, her serious boyfriend was killed in a plane crash. She never got over his death and never married.
Tot frequently carpooled home to Tulsa with Buddy Barnard who became another well-known Tulsa architect. He was in her class and more importantly had a Model T Ford which for college students in the 1930’s was a very big deal.
Tot’s first job after graduation was as a designer for a carriage trade architectural firm in Kansas City. Tennis was popular among the men in the firm. Tot routinely won her games with stakes of dinner as the prize.

During the World War II years, Tot worked at the Ammunition Depot Plant in McAlister, Oklahoma followed by employment with Holway Engineering which was involved in the creation of Grand Lake and the Grand River Dam. By the end of the war and the return to normalcy in the late 1940’s she went to work for Tulsa architect Joe Koberling. She received her architectural license in 1945 becoming the first licensed female architect in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. She was quietly making plans to go in business for herself and hadn’t told her boss when Joe came by her desk to wish her luck and to say goodbye.

Tot’s first office was in the second floor garage apartment where she also lived at her parent’s Maple Ridge home. She eventually bought a bungalow on 21st street adjacent to Veterans Park. She added a vaulted glue-lam great room which enclosed a large elm tree in a bed of charcoal at its base and reaching outside using holes cut in the wood roof deck above for its branches. The room served as her office, living room and conference/dining room. At the north end was a huge fireplace where she kept a fire burning even on hot summer days.

Trees were almost a signature of a Tot Cole design. She could position a house on a lot and save almost every native tree. Not only were her designs appealing, but they frequently included barrier free access and her trademark wide Dutch doors. Tot’s idea of a contract was a handshake. She was known for her glib comments and never intentionally chased work (she considered this unprofessional). Most of her projects with only a few exceptions were residential. Female architects were still limited in corporate America. She did design several restaurants, a manufacturing plant and three Tulsa fire stations featuring butterfly roofs.

Because of her years promoting and producing barrier free design, Tot received designation, the highest acknowledgement the American Institute of Architects provides.

When I was in middle school, it was an exciting day when my aunt Tot pulled into the driveway. She always drove a large Oldsmobile convertible, usually with the top down. Hanging out the back would be one of a long line of her English bulldogs (over the years, their names included Honey Finn, Big John, Maggie, Beauregard, and Micky Finn). I would accompany her to a job site to help by holding on one end of a tape measure. A special treat would be a weekend with her at her cabin at the lake.
Early in the 1950’s Tot bought lakefront land from the Holways and built one of the first cabins on Grand Lake. My interesting aunt was like having your own personal Auntie Mame.

In the 1950’s bootleg era of Tulsa, Tot would make runs to Mexico with her close friend artist Claude Montgomery and return with a car trunk full of straw clad gallon jugs of rum, her preferred drink of choice. As a young boy she gave me my first tennis racket and lesson. Her ball control was so good that she could keep me running across the court while she barely moved.

When I was in college I met my longtime business partner Steve Olsen when he worked for Tot as a summer intern. In those days architectural students were required to work one summer for a licensed architect. Of course I was really proud when my time came to work for her as a summer intern. I think she was very pleased when Steve and I opened our partnership years later.

After several years of debilitating strokes which eventually left her bedfast, Tot died at the age of 78 in 1991. Whenever I drive by one of her handsome projects I remember her and her generous, colorful personality.

Updated 12-17-2018

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