Yesterday, I had a wonderful opportunity to show off my home town to a couple of Route 66 travelers. These weren’t just any roadies, either; I would be hosting Willem and Monique Bor, the creators of the Route 66 Pictures group I’m a member of on Facebook. Their group served as my first window into Route 66 culture, which shaped my understanding of the road and outlined the places I needed to see on my own trips. It was an honor to not only meet them in person, but act as a de facto tour guide for the city I love. Oh, and they’re from the Netherlands. They flew to the United States just to spend some time on the Mother Road. Double honor!
I was thankful that a cool front moved through on Friday; when I arrived at their downtown hotel at about 10 in the morning, it was still relatively cool. I wasn’t sure how extensive they were looking for their Tulsa Tour to be, but I knew some downtown walking would be involved regardless. They were both ready to go when I arrived, eagerly waiting in the lobby for my arrival. As has been the pattern with people I meet on the road, we hit it off immediately. They’d been through Tulsa several times on past trips, but had never spent any time here. They wanted to see the Blue Dome (which sits on an old alignment of 66) but outside of that they left the itinerary up to me.
The first place I showed them is the Center of the Universe. It was only a few blocks from our starting point, and it’s one of those places that can be tough to find if you aren’t local. Right next to the old Union Train Station, there’s a little bridge that crosses over the tracks. If you stand in a specific place on the bridge and speak aloud, your voice echos perfectly back to you. Nobody else can hear that echo except you; take one step in any direction, and the echo stops. . It’s a really neat acoustic anomaly. Willem asked about the BOK Tower, which is perfectly framed at the end of the bridge. Until the Devon Tower in OKC was completed, it was the tallest building in the ‘Plains States’ (OK, KS, NE, ND, & SD) as well as MO, AR, and NM. It was built in 1975 by the same architect that designed the World Trade Center towers in New York City, and our building actually resembles a small-scale replica of the former towers.
Once everyone had a turn experiencing the echo for themselves, we walked back through the Brady District to their car. It’s one of the oldest sections of downtown, beginning life as a collection of railroad warehouse in the early 1900s. It has evolved into a vibrant arts district, with multiple museums and a lovely park. They were particularly impressed with the large mural on the side of the Woody Guthrie museum. When we got to their rented Jeep, Willem handed me the keys. Since I knew where I was going, he said I should be the one behind the wheel. Fine by me! As we hopped in and got ready to go, I noticed a familiar sight; Jerry Mcclanahan’s Route 66 EZ Guide was sitting on the dash. That made me smile; it had been my Most Valuable Passenger during my recent trip west.
I drove over to the Brady Theater and talked about the history of the building as well as the history of Tate Brady himself. Heading back to Main, I drove up to the Cain’s Ballroom and gave a similar basic lesson about the building and its history. The Bors love classic signs, and took great pleasure in taking some shots of their neon. Afterwards, we wove through the Greenwood district; I did not shy away from the history of the 1921 Race Riot or the ongoing impact it has on the city. There was a festival going on across from the Vernon Chapel AME Church, and we drove by slowly to take in some of the music and festivities.
Our next stop was the Blue Dome, namesake of another district and our first official Route 66 stop. Second Street was part of the original 1926 alignment of the route through Tulsa before it was moved south to 11th Street in 1932. The Blue Dome itself was once a Gulf service station, though now it only serves as a small office and storage. It’s a great place to get some shots of the downtown skyline, and I took that opportunity to talk a little bit about the Philtower and the 320 Boston building, what was originally constructed with the ability to dock dirigibles. Willem noticed the new Dilly Diner across the street and asked if I would like a cup of coffee. I love coffee, but I made a counter proposal. We walked a block up to Dwelling Spaces, where I got to show off my favorite shop in town AND enjoy some damn fine coffee. The three of us sat and talked about our individual journeys on 66, reminiscing about our favorite places and the people we’ve met along the way. Willem makes miniature models as a hobby and has made/donated several of them to museums along the road. They’re REALLY cool. He even made a model of the Commerce Hole In The Wall station, which is one of my all-time favorite stops. Check it out!! Can you believe that’s a miniature?
Coffee thirst quenched, I took them down Boston Avenue. Considering their love of old neon, the Atlas Life sign was a must-see. They marveled at the architectural flourishes of the buildings as we passed, which made me smile…because we were en route to my favorite piece of architecture in Tulsa: the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church. We spent a few minutes walking around the outside, taking pictures and admiring the Art Deco masterpiece. Both Willem and Monique were both surprised that the town was remarkably quiet for a Saturday. That’s one of the things I love about Tulsa; we have some big-city excitement while keeping some of the small-town benefits.
Back on Route 66, our next stop was the Meadow Gold sign. I shared my personal story of how that sign was responsible for my drive to see the route while I still could. When the sign was dismantled at its original location on Lewis Ave, I thought it was gone forever. I lamented over the loss until I discovered they were reconstructing it on a dedicated pavilion a few miles away. Crisis averted, but point made; nothing lasts forever and you should take every opportunity to capture what you love while you can. Both Willem and Monique loved the grand old sign and took many photos while I stood by, grinning like a fool.
After a short drive down 66 to see some old motel signs (now appropriated by used car dealerships) and Tally’s Cafe, we went a mile south so I could showcase the Golden Driller. They’d never seen him before and were sufficiently amazed. A weekly flea market was going on, too, so there was a bustle of activity at the main fairgrounds pavilion that he guards. Lucky for us, there were a few classic cars parked outside that Willem took great pleasure in exploring and capturing with his camera along with the main attraction. Once again, it was nice to give a little depth to the area by providing a little bit of the history behind the Driller and tie that into Tulsa’s oil capital heritage.
Back to Route 66! I often forget that the University of Tulsa is also on the route, and although we didn’t stop I drove by the campus and showed off the library. By the time we made a quick stop in the Kendall-Whittier District to see the Circle Cinema (which is also on the 1926 alignment of the road) I was starting to get hungry. We still had a few places I wanted to stop, though my mind was already mulling locations for lunch. I took our little tour back through downtown (giving props to the BOK Center for being another spoke in the wheel of Tulsa’s renewal) and spent a little time at the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza. There’s a great statue there called ‘East Meets West’ that depicts one of the Mother Road architects, Cyrus Avery, and stands as a personified example of America’s westward expansion. Both of my friends enjoyed walking around the plaza while I told them about the planned Route 66 Experience Center, which hopefully breaks ground next year.
Our next stop, the Route 66 Village in Red Fork, greatly exceeded my expectations. The area is known for being where the first oil well was struck in Tulsa County, leading to Tulsa’s brief time as the Oil Capital of the World. The village has an oil derrick, a few old train cars from the Tulsa-Sapulpa Union Railroad, and a grand locomotive called ‘The Meteor’ from Frisco railway. A kind and informative gentleman was there in full train engineer garb, and he welcomed us to the roadside attraction. I’ve been out to the Route 66 Village dozens of times, but this was the first time I’d seen anyone officially with the village out there. We spent the better part of half an hour talking about the attraction as it was, as well as their expansion plans for the future. In addition to the aforementioned railroad artifacts, there are plans to build two replica service stations, a replica hangar (complete with bi-plane) and a depot. He was very excited to share this information, and we were excited to listen. I can’t wait for it all to be fully realized.
By now, Willem and Monique were starting to get a little hungry themselves. After a brief stop at the western Route 66 Gateway, I thought that we would all enjoy lunch at McNellie’s downtown. On the way back, we also stopped at Owen Park so I could point out the oldest house in Tulsa. The final place I took my friends was one of my favorite lookouts over the city, so that they could get a full view of the city center we had just explored together. They both loved McNellie’s and their vast selection of beer. When we parted ways at 3:00 PM, we were definitely Friends for Life, as the late Gary Turner would say. Overall, it was an amazing experience, and something different for me. I was surprised at how much I could talk about at most of our stops, and took mental notes on the things I didn’t know so I could continue to grown in my understanding. As time goes on, I hope to be able to give more visitors a similar experience and show them why Tulsa is such a special place.