Unique Church Towers Bring Distinction to Tulsa

On Architecture By ROGER COFFEY, AIA

GTR Newspapers Photo

For a city of its moderate size, Tulsa has a large number of churches. Three of its medium-sized churches are particularly fine in their proportions and enhancements and share two major commonalities: they are all excellent examples of colonial revival architecture, and all include beautifully designed bell towers.

Most of us visualize colonial churches as simple white buildings with spires dominating the skyline of small New England towns. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this was often the case.

To trace this distinctive look, we can return to London, England, following the great fire of 1666. The damage caused by the disaster resulted in the building of over 60 churches in the neo-classical style of the day.

The prolific British architect Sir Christopher Wren was responsible for over 50 of these. Another notable architect was James Gibbs, the designer of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, a church that inspired imitation in southern cities such as Charleston, South Carolina. These British churches differed from their American counterparts in size and amount of ornamentation.

British bell towers, normally located at the main entrance, were taller (by at least 50 percent) and more massive in scale. In addition, these British ancestors were heavily festooned with classic columns, urns and swaged garlands. The American versions tend to be smaller and simpler.

Returning to the three Tulsa churches, the architecture of their exterior focal points – especially their bell towers – is worth discussing.

A church bell tower that penetrates a pitched roof begins with a large rectangular or octagonal element called a base. Seated on it is often an octagonal open chamber called a belfry. From that ascends a tall, slender shaft known as a spire.

Today, church towers are often built on steel frames, unlike their heavy timber forebears. Spires are usually clad in metal, often copper. Catalogue bell towers are available but lack the design quality of custom work. In Tulsa, few church towers have working bells, as they have been replaced with more easily maintained electronic carillons.

The oldest of the three bell towers of concern here belongs to Southminster Presbyterian Church at 3500 S. Peoria Ave. The sanctuary wing and bell tower were built in 1949, designed by architect Joe Koberling. Its tower is the largest of the three. The base is octagonal, while the belfry is an octagonal space enclosed by louvered arches, which are separated by columns. The spire rises from a low octagonal band above the belfry, which displays finial urns and terminates in a Latin cross.

The next tower is on the Sixth Church of Christ Scientist at 3620 S. Lewis Ave. It was built in 1954 and is attributed to architect Charles Faulkner. This is the most delicate of the three towers. Its base is a rectangle that terminates in an open steel railing. From the platform within this railing rises a tall, open-arched octagonal belfry. Above the belfry is a slender spire faced with metal and articulated with horizontal banding.

The last of the three towers is incorporated in the All Souls Unitarian Church at 2952 S. Peoria Ave. One of the largest Unitarian churches in America, the sanctuary wing and bell tower were designed by architect John Duncan Forsyth in 1957. This tower also has a rectangular base, augmented with a single round window on each side. A steel railing caps the base and surrounds an octagonal belfry with louvered panes at quarter points. Above is an arcaded octagonal drum from which rises a massive spire.

Although similar, each of these towers has its own personality and would be out of place in any other setting. There is a special quality to them that delights the eye and completes Tulsa’s residential landscape.

Updated 02-28-2018

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