Boston Ave. Church Architect Controversy Continues

On Architecture By ROGER COFFEY, AIA

ADAH ROBINSON: From a painting by Jo Beth Harris. It hangs in Bishops Hall at the church.

Periodically when it’s a slow news day and newspapers need filler material, an enterprising columnist will bring up the old unsolved issue of who designed The Boston Avenue United Methosist Church. This authorship has become important because the church is considered an art deco masterpiece and a Tulsa landmark by the design community.

Because my grandparents, the C.C. Cole’s, played a key role in the creation of this building, I think I have some special insight in this saga.

The Boston Avenue building would never have happened without the convergence of two separate individuals, One pair of individuals and a certain time in Tulsa’s history.

In the 1920’s, Tulsa’s population swelled from a modest 7,200 at statehood to 142,000 at the end of the decade. Tulsa was a young man’s oil boom town where anything was possible. The optimism in the community was almost palpable. In 1922, 60-year-old Dr. John A. Rice was assigned to Boston Avenue as its senior pastor. By 1925, it was obvious that the church had outgrown its Fifth Street and Boston Avenue building. In 1926, Rice appointed a 12 person building committee, chaired by C.C. Cole, a longtime church member and real estate investor.

Dr. Rice knew his career was drawing to a close. This was a chance to create a new kind of Methodist Church building before he retired. C.C. Cole’s wife Audrey was sensitive to design and networked with Tulsa’s art community. The Coles toured the United States looking for unique church design ideas. Rice and his wife travelled to Europe for the same purpose.

The committee received designs from interested architects, which they rejected for lack of originality. Audrey Cole knew of a local artist, a high school art teacher who could provide an idea. The committee gave her a shot. Based on a rough sketch of a circular worship space with a tall tower she was selected. The artist was Adah Robinson, a Quaker and teacher with no architectural training or experience. One of her prize pupils, a recent Central High School graduate who worked as a draftsman for a well-respected architectural firm, Rush, Endacott and Rush, was a person Robinson trusted to transform her designs into construction documents. The draftsman’s name was Bruce Goff. He had no formal architectural education.

The subsequent contracts were letters of agreement written by C. C. Cole. Rush, Endacott and Rush was to be the architect of record. The architects agreed to “cooperate with Robinson in all matters pertaining to the artistic features of the project.” Adah Robinson was to be in charge of design “all matters artistic both as to interior finish and outside design.” The project was soon fast tracked due to the pastor’s failing health. It was thought his eventual replacement might not be as sympathetic to the new church’s design. Construction was begun before drawings were completed.

Boston Avenue is a smorgasbord of unique design features; everything from light fixtures to its radiator grills are unique to the church. Many items such as the sanctuary balcony railing and the Great Hall’s wall sconces and wall and ceiling treatments had to be ripped out and changed. They were based on the architect’s drawings but did not agree with Robinson’s designs.

The problem began with Endacott, the architectural firm partner in charge of their part of the project. He was a notorious womanizer who hated being under the thumb of a woman.

As the project progressed, so did the animosity.

The architects and the artist had to hold all their meetings at Cole’s office, considered a neutral setting. Robinson’s contract fee was doubled due to her difficulty with the architects. The committee never once met or were introduced to Goff. Endacott constantly tried to undermine Robinson to Cole. Somehow he convinced Goff to end his close relationship with Robinson with a partnership in the firm at the end of the project as a carrot. By the middle of the project, Goff and Robinson were no longer speaking. By the end of the project in 1930, the architectural firm’s name was changed to Rush, Endacott, and Goff.

In later years, Goff claimed the design of this famous building, an important reference in his resume. Robinson, with Quaker reticence, refused to comment, which was amazing because she was never shy about vocally evaluating the work of her students.

Did Adah Robinson design the building or did Bruce Goff? Architects tend to support Goff as the designer. Rice supported Robinson as the designer. The C. C. Coles spent the rest of their lives defending her authorship. The administrative board of Boston Avenue mounted a plaque below a bronze bust of her head displayed in the church parlor. The plaque reads “Adah M. Robinson whose creative mind conceived this church, the design, significance, color, symbols, whose courage and patience carried through to completion.” The church never provided any recognition to Bruce Goff. All of the major players in this saga are long deceased. Readers, I think you know my opinion, but what is yours?

Updated 01-18-2019

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