Historic Tulsa Club Building to be Restored
By ROGER COFFEY, AIA
TULSA LANDMARK: The once great Tulsa Club Building, completed in 1927, housed the elite business people of Tulsa as well as the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce for many years. After deterioration beginning in the early 1990s, the building is set to be restored by Josh Barrett.
Photo by GALEN FRYSINGER
The slow deterioration of a once handsome building can be depressing and frequently puts a damper on nearby real estate development. So, it is very positive when this same building gets a chance at a second life; and so it is with the Tulsa Club Building at 115 East Fifth Street.
Tulsa, in the roaring twenties, was flush with successful businessmen and oil magnates. It was said that the Chamber of Commerce alone had more than 50 millionaires on its finance committee. It wasn’t long before a desire for a lunch/dinner meeting place morphed into a plan for a club building. In 1924, a group called the Tulsa Club and the Chamber of Commerce formed a partnership to build a building based on a 60 percent (Tulsa Club), 40 percent (Chamber) split. Rush Endicott and Rush was the selected architectural firm along with its designer Bruce Goff. In 1927, the 11-story, 92,000 sq. ft. building was completed.
The new building was state of the art for a downtown club with all the amenities provided by those in larger east coast facilities.
The exterior was clad in Bedford limestone in a vertical (zigzag) Art Deco style. The 11th floor was set back from the main façade to create a roof terrace on three sides. The downward slope of 5th Street to the east allowed street level entrances for both the first and second floors. Steel casement windows, which opened out, were aligned in a vertical stripe pattern between tall pylons of stone, a simple but very effective architectural composition.
One entered the Tulsa Club from 5th Street into a large second floor lobby. Except for this lobby, the first five floors were occupied by the Chamber of Commerce with the Tulsa Club having the upper six floors. After leaving your coat or briefcase with the concierge/receptionist desk, one of three passenger elevators plus an adjacent service elevator operated by club staff took you to your desired floor, and what floors they were. Starting with the peacock tail design on the elevator doors, the fixtures were impressive. Terrazzo floors and custom light fixtures enhanced and carried out the colorful, vibrant architectural theme.
The eleventh floor was called the Sky Terrace. Tall French doors allowed access to the adjacent roof terrace on the south, east and north. This was a welcome respite in the days before air conditioning. Directly below was the 10th floor ballroom, two stories in height with loges recessed between columns along the north and west walls. The ninth floor housed the main dining room and kitchen with equipment and dumb waiters providing food service throughout the building. On floors below were the Men’s Grill, a bar, a barbershop and hotel-type rooms for overnight guests. On the lowest club floors were a complete health club with four racquetball courts, a weight and equipment room, a jogging track, and large steam and sauna rooms. Every need for club members was provided.
Following World War II, in the late 1940s, as Tulsa returned to a peace-time economy, some major building changes were planned. By 1950, the Chamber of Commerce had sold its share in the building to the Tulsa Club and moved to a different location. Commercial office tenants filled the previous Chamber space. An elevator was added to the east end and the building was totally air-conditioned. Self-service elevators were installed and many of the Art Deco features were removed under the auspices of remodel upgrading. At the exterior, black marble and glass vitrolite tiles were installed at the street level and a large awning was added at the main entrance. But perhaps the most significant change was the addition of a sky bridge across the alley to the adjacent Philtower Building and a parking garage to the north with direct access to the Tulsa Club lobby.
The Tulsa Club appeared to prosper until the early 1990s when competition from other clubs and economics forced it to close. Fixtures and equipment were removed and auctioned off and the building was sold to an out-of-state investor. For more than 20 years the building sat forlorn and empty, the inside a shell of its former self. Vandals broke windows and removed copper wiring. Graffiti artists added to the squalor. Squatters started a fire inside the east end which was fortunately extinguished by the fire department and resulted in only minor damage. The unpaid tax bill mounted and eventually the City of Tulsa foreclosed and put the structure up for public auction.
The successful bidder was Josh Barrett. New to Tulsa, Barrett had only looked at the building for three days before making his bid. But it was enough to convince him the Tulsa building was worth saving. Although he has real estate development experience, he would be the first to tell you that he is new at historic building remodeling. But he is a cause-and-effect type of person, determined to create a viable project. Economically, federal and state historic preservation tax credits should help. Josh envisions apartments on the upper floors and office occupancy at the lower levels. He currently is assembling a group of like-minded investors and a design team to plan the project. So far, his steps have all been in the right direction. His goal, a profitable restored Tulsa building, will again be an asset to Tulsa.