Original Sinclair Building Holds Rich History

On Architecture by ROGER COFFEY, AIA

5TH AND MAIN: The original Tulsa Sinclair Building, built in 1919, sits at 6 E. 5th St. in downtown Tulsa. The building was built by oilman Harry Sinclair, president of Sinclair Oil and Gas Company.

ROSSY GILLE for GTR Newspapers

In the archives of Harweldon, the former Arts and Humanities Council headquarters, is a photo of me around age five playing in the fish pond adjacent to the garage. I was there along with other children of friends because the Harwell’s daughter, Margo, was my mother’s best friend. By my side was one of my favorite water toys, a large green plastic inflatable dinosaur named “Dino,” which was a promotional gift from a Sinclair gas station. The “Dino” character was a company trademark.

The Sinclair buildings are two of Tulsa’s legacies from the Sinclair Oil and Gas Company. The 1953 building is now the downtown home of Tulsa Community College. The original 1919 Sinclair Headquarters Building continues in use as an office building and has significant historic interest.

Tulsa’s early day oilmen always seem larger than life. They lived very colorful lives as they gambled in the oil patch, winning and losing large fortunes while they ruthlessly conducted business. Harry Sinclair was one of these men.

In the brief time that Harry Sinclair lived in Tulsa (1912-1916), he built his three-story mansion (now demolished) near the Council Oak Tree, the Sinclair Refinery west of the Arkansas River and the Sinclair Building at 6 E. 5th St. in downtown Tulsa. He was also one of the founders of The Exchange National Bank, now Bank of Oklahoma.

The most noticeable thing about this building is its shape. The center section is recessed above the ground floor, creating a U-shaped frontal façade. A second characteristic is the paired window placement. Pairs are butted together creating a strong horizontal masonry opening. A third characteristic is the palate of exterior building materials: dark tan granite encasing the first floor, a light tan brick skin for the upper six floors, and cream colored terra cotta for accent trim for the eighth floor and the ninth-floor penthouse. These colors make a notable contrast to many neighboring buildings featuring red brick and gray limestone accents.

At the eighth floor, terra cotta brackets between window openings support a massive fascia. And at the top of the central recess is a huge cartouche framed in acanthus leaves, featuring a large S. Obviously, Sinclair made no attempt at modesty. The cartouche is centered on the main entrance below. Where the center section recesses, a balustrade maintains the line of the first floor.

Sinclair incorporated a number of special features in the interior of his building. Ceilings were typically at 12 feet (very high even in a pre-air conditioning era when ceilings were normally high). Floors throughout were oak hardwood. One of the elevators had a trap door which led to a secret passageway to the penthouse, allowing Sinclair to enter and leave the building unseen. Pneumatic tubes connected offices around the building for inter-office communication. There were nine vaults in the building for a very security conscious company. Finally, basement radiators ensured that perimeter sidewalks would be free of ice and snow.

Harry Sinclair is probably best known for his involvement in the 1923 Teapot Dome scandal. During Warren G. Harding’s presidency, his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, was accused of receiving a bribe of $300,000 from the Sinclair Oil and Gas Company to provide non-competitive oil leases in Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The planning to secure the Teapot Dome leases is said to have occurred in the Sinclair Building Penthouse. The Washington D.C. District Court found Sinclair innocent of this charge even though the leases were obtained. He was convicted of jury tampering instead and served six months in a Washington D.C. jail. Soon afterwards, Fall resigned from the Harding administration and went to work for the Sinclair Oil and Gas Company.

Sinclair remained President of Sinclair Oil and Gas Company until 1949. He retired to Pasadena, California, and died in 1956.

Updated 03-01-2017

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