Tulsa International Airport, Designed by Robert Lawton Jones and Inspired by Mies Van Der Rohe, is an Architectural Gem
Tulsa’s first airport, called McIntire Field, opened in 1919 on 50 acres of land at approximately Admiral Place and Sheridan Road. By 1928 it was considered the busiest airport in the world. The air traffic was generated by Tulsa’s booming oil economy and its central-midwest location which was convenient for long flight refueling.
By 1930, Tulsa outgrew its first airport and needed more space. A fundraising drive was mounted by our chamber of commerce to acquire 390 acres at Tulsa Internationals present site immediately north of McIntire Field. A photostatic copy of the “Subscription Agreement,” the famous stud horse note which hangs on a wall in my den, raised more than $380,000 to make the purchase possible. The drive was headed by William Skelly and Waite Philips. Forty-six men pledged amounts from $5,000 to $25,000 to make it happen. Signers prominent in Tulsa’s history included the names of: Herndon, Bradshaw, Vandiver, Harwell, Halliburton, Kistler, Abbott, Avery, Brown-Dunkin, Tallbott, Hurley, Clinton, Frates, Barnard, and my grandfather, C.C. Cole
In 1932 a new terminal building opened at the airport which had previously welcomed such notable pilots as Will Rogers, Charles Lindberg, and Amelia Earhart. The building was a streamlined art deco structure, masonry walled with curved corners. It was designed by Frederick V Kershner lead architect for Leon B Senter. Although only one story, it featured a tall central tower and was one of our first public buildings to have fully integrated passenger lobbies and restrooms.
Air traffic continued to increase as flying became an important part of transportation in America. By the mid 1950’s, although Tulsa’s airport was considered average for a midsized city, this second airport was far too small. Robert Lawton Jones, an architect and city planner who came to Tulsa to oversee design work on our Civic Center was selected to design the new terminal. The resulting project put Jones’ architectural firm, Murray Jones Murray on the map and today the terminal is considered one of Tulsa’s architectural icons.
The new building is a mid-century modern Mies Van Der Rohe inspired design with a finely detailed exposed steel and glass structure. Long east and west concourses extend on either side of a central lobby element. Arriving and departing passenger and baggage traffic is efficiently separated and handled. The new building at a cost of $4.2 million opened to much fanfare in 1961. It’s Miesian design became a repeated theme in later Murray Jones Murray work. The old terminal, conflicting with needed runway expansion space, was demolished in 1969. In 2000, Fritz-Bailey Architects added an 800-foot-long fabric canopy along the passenger pick up – drop off sidewalk which is very functional, but doesn’t try to compliment the Miesian design. Other additions have included a large below grade parking structure.
Writing this article brought back fond memories of my last design assignment in my 1967 senior year at OSU which was an airport of the future for planes called SST’s (supersonic transports in the vocabulary of the 1960’s). Airport design has certainly evolved in the years since.