Pythian Building: An Art Deco Delight

On Architecture By ROGER COFFEY, AIA

CURB APPEAL: The 3-story Pythian Building, 423 S. Boulder Ave., was completed in 1930, with plans to add a 10-story hotel tower that were scrapped due to the start of the Great Depression. The building is a beautiful example of Art Deco architecture, featuring intricate terra cotta and ceramic tile colors, patterns, and detail, and a grand L-shaped lobby with chandeliers and unique tile designs.

ROSSY GILLE for GTR Newspapers

Some individuals wonder why Tulsa has so many excellent examples of Art Deco architecture. My theory is that the popularity of Art Deco coincided with the 1920 boom years in our town. Art Deco was a bright, brash, exciting, new architecture, the antithesis of previous conservative, traditional building styles. It was an excellent fit with a young, vibrant growing oil town. Although the period years of Art Deco’s popularity were short-lived (the style was virtually extinct by the end of World War II), Tulsa was left with dozens of significant Art Deco buildings. Of these buildings, my favorite is the Pythian Building, 423 S. Boulder Ave.

In late 1928, J. M. Gillette and Harry C. Tyrrell, both oil men and financiers, hired architect Eduardo W. Saunders to design an office facility for them at the northeast corner of 5th Street and Boulder Avenue. A small three-story office building (less than 50,000 square feet) was finished in 1930. Although a 10-story hotel tower above was planned, for an overall height of 13 stories, it was never built: a victim of the depression years of the ‘30s. The project was known as the Gillette-Tyrrell Building. The owners, hurt badly by the stock market crash, sold the building in 1931 to the Knights of Pythian. Henceforth, it was known as the Pythian Building. The Pythian’s intricate terra cotta and ceramic tile colors, patterns and detail are among the reasons I enjoy the design of the building.

The Pythian’s exterior has seven bays east-west and five bays north-south. The building appears to have the towering height of the 13 stories it was intended to have. Its verticality is articulated by a thin linear skin of cream colored terra cotta. Playing on the skyscraper theme, the façade is divided by a series of narrow vertical piers running without interruption to the top of the parapet. These are ornamented with back-to-back diamond patterns or zig-zags, a recurring theme throughout the building. Segmented blue terra cotta accents the spandrels that are articulated with vertical ribs. The roof line in colors of blue, burnt sienna and green terra cotta give the impression of rising without termination, consistent with the original design.

Both main facades originally had lighted projecting canopies. The canopy on Boulder Avenue is steel in a lace-like design. The 5th Street canopy is sadly missing but originally was steel clad in terra cotta, which gave it a massive appearance.

Above a narrow rusty red and gray granite base, between the exterior piers, are glass openings, strangely nonconforming Tudor arches. These glass arches are framed with steel in a bundled-reed design. Within them, the horizontal framing has an egg and diamond pattern.

At the interior, the L-shaped lobby continues to dazzle and delight the eye. The flooring tile repeats the exterior zig-zag design. The effect is like an Indian blanket pattern, almost reminiscent of a design from New Mexico. The tile extends to a high perimeter wainscot. The wainscot is articulated by lobby bays (four each arm of the L); the tile rises to simulate a pilaster below a painted plaster ceiling beam. The beams with flaired ends are also painted in the recurring triangle design as is a perimeter triangular patterned ceiling cornice. Each ceiling bay is coffered in three levels. Interior windows at the second floor overlook the lobby and are embellished with a sand-blasted pattern.

At the east end of the lobby, a graceful staircase rises to a balcony with a curved end. Below are tucked two elevators and access to the building basement. The ceiling above this section of the lobby appears to house a large skylight at the highest level of the coffered ceiling.

In reality, it is a light fixture whose lens is glass in a folded plate design. This was an extremely modern concept for its day.

Other lighting consists of eight tall slender chandeliers, each with four etched glass panels which terminate in a triangle design top and bottom. These were designed and fabricated by the Empire Chandelier Manufacturing Company of Sand Springs. The company president was W. J. Smiley whose fixtures in buildings and residences are highly prized by longtime Tulsans.

The Pythian is one of Tulsa’s building jewels. Drive by, and if time permits, take a walk inside and enjoy the sights.

Updated 10-26-2015

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