Utica Square a Beloved Tulsa Destination

On Architecture By ROGER COFFEY, AIA

BEAUTIFUL CENTER: Midtown Tulsa’s Utica Square was opened in 1952 by two real estate developers. However, the shopping center owes its enduring success and ample trees to Walter Helmerich III, who bought the square in 1964.

EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers

In 1952, Don Nix and Dale Carter, two real estate developers, opened Tulsa’s first suburban shopping center near the southeast corner of 21st Street and Utica Avenue and called it Utica Square. It marked the beginning of the move of retail from downtown Tulsa.

The center was a build-out at almost 30 acres of a series of simple mid-century modern, flat roofed buildings showcasing glass fronted shops. Light steel structural frames were enclosed with salmon colored brick and Arkansas Ledge Stone. Among the original tenants were a bowling alley, a grocery, a dance studio, a barbershop, an optometrist and a luggage shop. The square was on its way to becoming a well-located but average center.

Then, something amazing happened. In 1964, local oilman Walter Helmerich , utilizing his company Helmerich and Payne, bought the square. Walt, who had a reputation for excellence in all things, spent the rest of his life improving the square. Little by little, it became one of the leading shopping centers in Tulsa and perhaps even the Midwest.

The first thing Walt did was plant more than 300 trees. More and more were added over the years. Walt, who loved trees, frequently inspected his sweet gums, elms and oaks. Woe be the prospective tenant who submitted a shop front elevation drawing that did not include a depiction of adjacent trees.

But, the identity of Utica Square is about more than trees. Although store fronts vary, each building has a distinctive green stepped fascia. Curbs are painted green to match. Sidewalk concrete is stamped “Utica Square” at frequent intervals.
Parking and walkways are unobtrusively but well lighted. Signage is low key and frequently non-lit. Bedding plants from tulips to mums to pansies are installed each season and maintained by the square’s seven-person landscape staff. A 24-person security crew is on duty 24/7.

And then there are the special events. Lights On in the trees of Utica Square marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Tulsa. Another festival is Art in the Square – a sidewalk art fair featuring local artists’ work. Finally, there Summer’s Fifth Night free concert series.

Despite all of this activity, the grounds of the square remain clean and free from debris. All members of the Helmerich and Payne Utica Square staff are involved in policing and picking up trash.

Over the years, some major changes have been made to the square. Some of these include two upscale restaurants that replaced a medical arts building at the southeast corner, a new retail building at the southwest corner and a row of shops along the east side of the square.

Today, Utica Square has 57 tenants. Among these are 10 of Tulsa’s leading restaurants. Two of the original occupants, the optometrist and the luggage shop, remain 62 years after the square opened. Utica Square does not market available space; there is usually a waiting list of interested prospective tenants.

On a misty morning with dew glistening on the leaves of the trees in Utica Square, if one squints, it might be possible to still see Walt Helmerich with his specters inspecting his trees while walking the grounds of the square that blossomed under his care.

Updated 02-16-2015

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