By CHARLES CANTRELL
WATERING HOLE: Young people flock to Arnie’s Bar in the Brady District to take in the ambiance and after hour fun with friends. Arnie’s, one of the city’s oldest bars, was once located on Cherry Street (15th Street), but relocated to the Blue Dome to become one of the many go-to spots in Tulsa’s entertainment district.
DON SIBLEY, Tulsa Metro Chamber
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a multi-part series about the past, present and future growth of Greater Tulsa. In this series Newspapers will look back on the history, examine current developments and explore the possible future of various sectors of Tulsa and surrounding communities to give readers a better overall perspective of the many unique and vibrant parts that make up the whole of what we believe to be the greatest place in the world to live: Greater Tulsa.
Sitting side by side in downtown Tulsa are two very colorful pieces of the downtown puzzle aptly named The Blue Dome and Greenwood Districts. How they came to be, what’s happening now and what the future holds for this part of downtown provide more evidence that the place we like to call Greater Tulsa with its storied past and its indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit is getting greater everyday.
Possibly the most energetic area of downtown is The Blue Dome District named after the iconic gas station built in 1926 by Chastain Oil Company with its unmistakable Art Deco dome beaming blue on Tulsa’s skyline. It once attracted travelers along Route 66. Now it marks the gateway to the city’s growing downtown nightlife situated between Detroit to Greenwood Avenues and from the First Street railroad tracks to Third Street. Occupying other old red brick structures in the vicinity are newly renovated spaces offering gourmet brick oven pizza, cocktails, Irish pub fare, deli sandwiches, northern Mexican, Tex Mex and traditional diner food. Added to restaurants are taverns, pubs and bars featuring live music showcasing mostly local talent. With this year’s opening of Oneok Field more and more Tulsans are discovering what is becoming the city’s hottest entertainment district.
The history of the Blue Dome District is as colorful as its name implies. It was once full of “walk up hotels” accommodating the transient railroad and oilfield workers of yesteryear who were instrumental in helping build a small prairie town into the “Oil Capital of the World.” The second story rooming houses had names like May Rooms, Dixie Rooms, Bliss Hotel and the Oklahoma Hotel. Some of the hotels provided female services beyond the scope of normal hospitality catering to the predominantly male work force.
According to Michael Sager, unofficial historian of the district and one who has owned and restored many of the old buildings in this part of downtown, the Dilly Deli on the corner of Second Street and Elgin was once the Oklahoma Hotel. Up until 1933, Route 66 came through Tulsa from the east on Second Street, south on Detroit Avenue and out of town west on 11th Street. After 1933, the route into town from the east was changed to 11th Street. The “Mother Road” provided a steady stream of salesmen, businessmen, travelers and just plain old vagabonds through town.
Over time this bustling center of activity gave way to the southern migration of businesses and commerce until the mid-1950s found this once thriving district abandoned and in rapid decline. Fueling the flight south was the lingering perception of the adjacent Greenwood community that had never fully recovered from the devastation of the infamous Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and lay virtually fallow for decades.
Then came federally funded Urban Renewal bent on revitalizing inner city decay across America. Much of what now covers the Blue Dome and Greenwood districts was considered “blighted.” It was a term equivalent to a death penalty for some of the city’s oldest buildings like The Grand Old Opera House, The Lynch Building, the Bliss and Tulsa Hotels. Because of the coordinated efforts of city leaders and elected officials through the formation of one of the country’s first urban renewal authority, Tulsa was designated a Model City putting it on the fast track for federal funds to revitalize its urban core. This proved to be both a good and sometimes a bad thing. Good in the short term in that it gave the city a stunning new centerpiece in the towering Williams Center built in 1975, still the tallest building in the state. But a bad thing in that many of the older buildings suitable for renovation, restoration and historic preservation were demolished to make room for the shiny new tower that was to symbolized the inner city’s rebirth.
Along with Urban Renewal came the Inter Dispersal Loop (), part of the federally funded Interstate Highway System initiated by President Dwight Eisenhower, the north leg of which cut a swath through much of what remained of this forgotten part of the city and added yet another and even more formidable physical barrier (the first being the Frisco Railroad tracks running parallel to First Street) to the existing psychological barrier that long deprived the area of even a hint of economic development. It was low tide for this segment of downtown.
But where many see abandoned buildings in various states of decay, others see opportunity. Local real estate investors bought up what remained standing in and around the old part of downtown and began a long, determined effort to preserve and rekindle this part of Tulsa’s history. Slowly small businesses began to locate in the old red brick buildings and warehouses. There were many fits and starts. Some businesses made it while others failed. Then came the Oklahoma State University campus adjacent to and north of the , Vision 2025 funding for mixed-use development in the inner city, the Center, Oneok Field and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park and future Reconciliation Center. It all has created a critical mass that holds great promise for future development.
Promise indeed fills the air in both the Blue Dome and Greenwood Districts. Nowhere is that more evident than the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, located in the Greenwood District at 415 N. Detroit Avenue. The park is the centerpiece for what will become the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation. (See: www.jhfcenter.com) As stated on their website, the vision of the center is “to transform the bitterness and mistrust caused by years of racial division, even violence, into a hopeful future of reconciliation and cooperation for Tulsa and the nation.” Already the Center has hosted two symposiums on reconciliation. The first was held at the Greenwood Cultural Center, a facility that has become a significant gathering place for events of social, political and cultural importance.
Elsewhere in the Greenwood District, businesses are feeling the beneficial effects of Oneok Field. The ballpark is proving to be a major economic stimulus for both districts.
Concerted efforts are under way by the City of Tulsa Planning Department to facilitate the continued economic growth and vitality of these two important pieces of downtown’s rebirth through a comprehensive study of historic structures within the to determine how much of downtown complies with historic preservation requirements. The Brady District has already qualified with Greenwood and Blue Dome (aka: East Village) well along in the process. Achieving this status will enable property owners to qualify for low interest loans for further developing their properties. The designation also effectively stabilizes the districts thus minimizing risk and attracting additional investors.
On any given night in downtown Tulsa one can certainly experience that “new kind of energy” City Hall keeps talking about. Nowhere is that energy more obvious than in the Blue Dome and Greenwood Districts. Tulsans of all ages frequent the restaurants, taverns and sporting events. They walk around Greenwood. They stroll from restaurant to ball field. They park their cars and take in that new energy. But what is even more significant about our changing downtown, aside from the obvious economic benefits, is the emergence of a new spirit of reconciliation. Tulsa is reinventing itself and becoming one city rather than a house divided. It will take time, but it will happen and Greater Tulsa will be all the greater for it.
Elliot Nelson: Blue Dome Entrepreneuer
Taking the lead in developing the Blue Dome District is Elliot Nelson, entrepreneur, restaurant owner and downtown development guru who has cashed in big on the “new kind of energy” downtown. He now owns and operates McNellie’s Public House, El Guapo’s Cantina, Dilly Deli and Yokozuna. He is also co-owner of Fassler Hall, a German style beer hall. The soon to open Dust Bowl Lounge and Lanes is another idea of Nelson’s design to add a unique element to the mix of the Blue Dome’s entertainment venue. In addition Nelson, under the auspices of the McNellie’s Group, has acquired the space formerly occupied by Lola’s At the Bowery. Plans are to convert this location in the Brady District at Main and Brady into a tavern featuring “high end, rustic pub cuisine utilizing local and seasonal ingredients.” It will be called the Brady Tavern and based on Nelson’s other successes downtown, it should fast become another popular hangout for a growing band of downtowners.