By CHARLES CANTRELL
MCBIRNEY ON THE HILL: The majestic McBirney Mansion overlooks the Arkansas River in downtown Tulsa and represents the golden era when Tulsa was truly the Oil Capital of the World.
CHARLES CANTRELL for GTR Newspapers
The McBirney Mansion, overlooking the Arkansas River at 14th and Galveston, is reminiscent of those wonderful days when grand homes, lots of oil and big money defined our city. Changing times, economics and commercial development have taken a toll on the historic structures of the neighborhood around the Mansion. The area once hosted Tulsa’s wealthy elite. The Gothic Tudor style residence was built in 1928 and was the home of Tulsa banker James H. McBirney for many years. It was once one of many fine homes built during an era when oil and wealth were flowing and plush neighborhoods sprung up in the shadows of the city’s emerging skyline. Even the land on which the home was built is legendary.
On the grounds surrounding the mansion is a natural spring considered by some city historians to have contributed to the founding of the city. Its cool, clear water served as a refreshing stopover for trappers and explorers traveling along the salty, muddy Arkansas River. It is believed the famous writer, Washington Irving, drank from the stream in the 1830s before forging the river during his travels west in search of the great American frontier. Not far away stands the Council Oak, first meeting place of the exiled Lochapoka Creek Indians driven here from Alabama. Later the spring would serve as a stop over for train travelers. The earliest beginnings of Tulsey Town would come to be a very short distance from this fresh water spring that poured out of the sandstone outcrop on the banks of the Arkansas River.
Over the years, McBirney Mansion has survived the fate of many of the adjacent period homes in the neighborhood. To preserve the property, concerned Tulsans worked hard in order to have it placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. In addition, a former owner awarded the city and the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office a historic and open space easement of the property. The owner was compensated for giving the city the easements with a substantial tax break. This gave the Mayor’s Office, Tulsa City Council and the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office considerable jurisdiction over how the grounds and structure could be used. The historic easement protects the building exterior from alteration to its original look and feel. The open space easement puts restrictions in place that preclude building new structures on the grounds and ostensibly protects the fresh water spring.
In recent years commercial use of the property came only after the city and state agreed the proposed use complies with preservation mandates and would not be detrimental to the historic significance of the property. It has served as office space for attorneys, a healthcare treatment center and finally a bed and breakfast catering to weddings and other special occasions. But now a new idea has emerged on how to develop and preserve the property. As can be expected in such matters, it is meeting with mixed reviews.
A Tulsa based real estate development company, WSL Property, LLC has big plans for the McBirney Mansion property. Owners George Warde and Jim Seawright are proposing developing it into a boutique hotel complex of around 40 suites. Two story structures will cascade down the terrace grounds and include site parking, a restaurant accessible by the public and an event facility. The fresh water spring will be preserved and incorporated into the hotel’s amenities. The current price tag is $30 million in private funds and according to Ann Pollard, community liaison for WSL, “It is our intent to set the tone and provide a successful model for riverfront development in this part of the city.”
As for Tulsans concerned with preserving McBirney, Pollard offers this: “Preservation through progress is our motto. This project is the definition of adaptive reuse. It will use geo-thermal heating and air systems and other sustainable building examples, and our buildings will follow the curve of the topography and blend with the silhouette of the landscape. We believe our project is the best way to celebrate the importance of McBirney’s history. Because of the respect we have for this property, the Mansion will maintain its position as the keystone of the property.”
In order to begin the project, WSL will need to jump through a number of city and state legal hoops to undo the preservation mandates now applied to the McBirney. This would include the reimbursement of the estimated $2 million in tax credits paid by the city and state for the awarded easements. According to Pollard, the payback has been factored into the development costs and doesn’t constitute an insurmountable barrier.
Vicki Hilbert, current president of the Riverview Neighborhood Association, said the WSL plan was presented to the organization comprised of area residents. Although the Association has led the fight to preserve the McBirney over the last ten years, they were not able to reach a consensus regarding the WSL plan. A possible reason could be that preservation means different things to different people. According to Hilbert, “I’m practical by nature and consequently along with others in the association I’m a little more flexible regarding McBirney; but there are those in the organization and elsewhere who feel very strongly the property should be preserved as is.”
Whatever becomes of the McBirney Mansion in the years ahead, one thing is certain: the issues and controversy surrounding in-fill zoning and development in Tulsa will continue to be contentious as citizen factions skirmish over development issues. Many Tulsans want to preserve the historical essence of the city in its original state as much as possible. They cite other cities where investment in strict preservation of a city’s heritage produces net economic gains. Others believe the best way to preserve historical structures is to recycle them back into the economy as viable revenue producing entities. Still others, primarily some commercial developers, are not interested in preservation and want freedom from regulations that restrict them from demolishing older buildings and replacing them with new more economically viable structures. Zoning codes, preservation easements and other related laws and regulations are extremely difficult to understand, let alone enforce. And so the battles will continue.
Currently in the works is a possible aid to this ongoing zoning war. It is the City of Tulsa comprehensive plan update branded PLANitulsa to help guide future development. It is a work in progress the city revises every 15 to 20 years to create a vision of how the city should proceed to assure optimum economic development and quality of life for all its citizens. The process involves input and ideas from citizens (go to: www.cityoftulsa.org). Compilation and planning are done through collaboration among volunteer groups and city staff. Mayor Taylor has tasked the planning groups with completing the update during her tenure. One of the end results will be to hire a city plan consultant to begin implementing and overseeing the plan.