Tulsa Civic Center Continues Public Service
In the world of architecture and city planning, design concepts develop trends which go in and out of favor with the growth of civilization. City planning in the 20th century was the era of the City Civic Center.
The civic center idea is based on logic. It makes sense to locate government buildings adjacent to each other to provide for public usage and efficiency and convenience for internal government functions. Tulsa’s Civic Center is no exception. It was designed and built with this idea in mind.
Tulsa’s heavy growth following World War I created a demand for an organized center of government. This culminated in the creation of the “Tulsa Planning Commission” which was established in 1922. Plans were begun for an ambitiously large civic center. The wheels of public improvement projects frequently move slowly. Before much progress was made on the civic center, the depression of the 1930’s and World War II intervened. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that planning began again. In 1954, a young 29-year-old city planner, Robert Lawton Jones, was hired by city fathers to oversee the civic center project. He was backed by a consortium of local architects who formed an “Architectural League.” A wide scope of architectural talent was deemed necessary for this highly political project.
Today’s civic center was built between 1955 and 1969. It was originally planned for the 4th Street and Denver Avenue area. But with the County Courthouse already in place at the northwest corner of 6th Street and Denver Avenue, the location was moved (at the suggestion of architect M. Murray McCune) to a four-block area (achieved by terminating 5th Street & Guthrie Avenue) from 4th to 6th Streets and Denver Avenue to Houston Avenues. Immediately north of 4th Street was the new Federal Courthouse and Post Office designed by Harold Stewart and Alan Whiteside.
The project involved six mid-century modern buildings each designed by a different architectural firm. As could be expected, there was no continuity of design among these six buildings. They were placed around an open plaza highlighted with a large reflecting pool and fountain. Below the concrete structured plaza were two levels of underground parking. The first building was the Tulsa County Courthouse designed by Black & West. Next was the Assembly Center designed by Edward Durrell Stone. Third was the Tulsa City-County Library designed by Charles Ward and Joseph Koberling. Fourth and 5th was Tulsa City Hall and City Council Room designed by Murray Jones Murray. Last to be built was the Police-Courts Building designed by Coleman-Irwin.
Today, 50 plus years later, the Civic Center has aged. The reflecting pool and fountain have had a series of maintenance issues. The concrete plaza structure shows concrete/rebar deterioration. The exposed aggregate plaza paving has deteriorated in a space seldom walked upon. The public buildings have become too small and not arranged for current needs. Tulsa has grown and so has its government. Each building has delt with expansion and improvement issues in a different way.
The County Courthouse has been remodeled internally and a two-story administration annex wing added to the south. The Assembly Center Building added the Cox Convention Center wing to the west and recently has completed a multi-million-dollar remodel to the original building. The Central Library was internally reconfigured and enlarged. Portions of its perimeter terrace have been enclosed for special meeting space. The City Hall and Council Room have been converted to private hotel use and the City Hall/Council Room moved offsite. Finally, the Police-Courts Building has added a major dispatch/call center addition. What further changes will happen in the future is unknown.
A few years ago, while archiving family history, I asked a Tulsa water/sewer staff person if there were records of Tulsa Water Department meetings from the 1920s. When our Spavinaw water system was under construction, my great grandfather, A.J. Rudd, served two terms as the city’s water commissioner.
Days later I got a call back that copies of several meetings that Rudd had chaired were found in the city dead file storage in the lowest level of the Civic Center. I was amazed. I guess one never knows about document sources until you ask.