A Tour of Tulsa’s Blue Dome District

Going out for coffee is something that is a relatively new thing for me.  When my schedule at work changed to the afternoon/evening shift, I had to find something to do with my mornings that didn’t take me too far from home.  In that time, I have become more familiar with the staff and patrons at a popular shop downtown called ‘Dwelling Spaces’.  It sits in the heart of the Blue Dome District, named for the iconic domed structure at 2nd and Elgin Street, which is also the original 1926-1932 alignment of Route 66.  The area is a natural crossroads of my passions, and since I’ve starting hanging around I’ve met a lot of cool people.  Such an occasion occurred last week, when I struck up a conversation with two lovely ladies at the coffee bar. I learned that were involved with the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture & that they were hosting a tour of some nearby properties this weekend, including the Blue Dome itself.  That’s how I found myself back at Dwelling Spaces this morning, with about 100 other people, eager to learn more about a part of Tulsa that I dearly love.

Blue Dome Tour-12Once we were all sufficiently caffeined-up at Dwelling Spaces, the massive crowd split into several groups and branched out.  My group headed right down 2nd Street, the Mother Road, to the Blue Dome itself.  The Blue Dome began its life in the 1924 as the White Star Service Station.  The dome was allegedly inspired by Turkish architecture and the station represented a few firsts for Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma as a whole.  It was the first service station to feature a car wash bay, pressurized air, AND both hot and cold water.  The top of the dome originally consisted of living quarters for the attendant, as the station was open 24 hours a day and seven days a week.  Arnie’s Bar, a local favorite spot, actually occupies the former retail space of the station.  Much of the original station, though, is gone.  The current owners were on site and opened the inside of the building up for us to look around.  Samantha offered to hold my coffee while I bounded up the narrow, circular staircase to the second floor.  One of the owners opened a window that lead to the roof, where I was afforded a view of the dome I never expected to see.  I gleefully snapped photos as the rest of our tour group similarly discovered this rooftop oasis.  When I returned to the bottom level, I spent a few minutes talking to the owners about their plans for restoration and admiring a wall-sized layout of the Blue Dome Arts Festival, which was my very first (disastrous) display of my photography back in 2011.

RossOn a high from such an intimate view of one of my favorite Tulsa landmarks, I nearly skipped down 2nd Street to our second stop:  the new headquarters for the Ross Group.  They had recently renovated the International Harvester building, a historic brick structure that had been empty for the entire time I’d known it.  I wasn’t too sure about the work being done when it was under construction, but now that I’ve seen the finished product and learned more about their attention to detail…I’m a big fan.  The front of the building consists of several glassed-in conference rooms with decorations recalling the history of the building as an automobile showroom.  In the back, the main workspace made excellent use of the natural lighting. The original windows were upgraded to better materials with the utmost care in regards to preserving the look of the space.  We listened as several people involved with the build-out detailed the steps they took to ensure that their new headquarters didn’t lose the heritage of what had come before it.  I was highly impressed.

Blue Dome Tour-51Walking east, we moved off of 2nd Street and over to 1st, past the Hogan Assessment Building, the first new office building built in that part of town since…well, since I don’t know when.  We’ll come back to Hogan in a moment.  Our large group crossed the railroad tracks and stopped at a brick two-story building that many people didn’t even know existed, as it is tucked away in a part of downtown that sees very little traffic.  The Hooper Coffee building, ALSO built in 1924, served as a roasting and grinding facility for Hooper Coffee until 1961.  The placement of the building next to the railroad tracks was surely a tremendous benefit to the company, which was also rumored to be used for other purposes during prohibition.  The place is a private residence now, and when the building was listed on the historic register it still had an operable hydraulic water elevator inside.  Sadly, no tour inside today, but it was really great to get some more information on this building, which I only recently discovered myself.

Blue Dome Tour-36On our way back, we returned to the Hogan office building.  We took a different route back, which allowed us to see the building from all sides.  I was amazed to discover that all four sides of the building were markedly different.  One exterior wall was alternating opaque-and-clear glass panes.  Another side was brick.  Another side had a skewed balcony.  I was very impressed at how much care and attention was given to the unique design of this building, one I’d seen go up and had taken no notice of.  The inside was meticulously designed, too, and from the parking lot I could see all kinds of interesting decor within.  Our guide told us that the rooftop featured a significant green space and the building was partially powered by geothermal wells.  I was impressed.

Blue Dome Tour-83Our final stop is a building that Samantha had identified as her favorite in town some time ago.  I call it the Roy McCarty Building, as that name is still barely visible as a ghost sign on the front brick.  It’s an old warehouse that I never dreamed I’d get to see from the inside; today, I had that opportunity and was delighted with the results.  We were met by several others inside, where they told us about their hopes to restore the space to a state similar to a few other similar buildings on the same block.  While they spoke, I wandered the glut of machinery inside.  All manner of giant architectural jacks, lifts, and other industrial machinery gathered dust in the broken sunlight.  The roof was gloriously old wood and steel, crisscrossing in fascinating patterns beneath the Bird’s Nest windows.  In a side room, a small section of the wall was laid out with ‘TULSA’ stamped on each brick.  Even though the cluttered building was full of people, I felt like I was experiencing something secret.

Blue Dome Tour-79

I learned more as we walked the streets of the Blue Dome District, but that is for another time.  The Tulsa Foundation for Architecture hosts tours the 2nd Saturday of every month.  I’ve never had the opportunity to join one of these tours in the past, and now I cannot imagine missing one in the future.  I learned so much from my time with the TFA crew and fellow architectural gawkers, making several new friends in the process.  What do I want to do when I grow up?  I want to take people around my town, show them the wonders of what lies hidden in plain sight, and help them understand our history.

About rhysfunk

Rhys Martin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981. In 2009, he sold everything he owned and left the country, living out of a backpack for ten months. He discovered a passion for photography while traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. After returning home, he looked at his home town and Oklahoma heritage with fresh eyes. When he began to explore his home state, Rhys turned his attention to historic Route 66. As he became familiar with the iconic highway, he began to truly appreciate Oklahoma’s place along the Mother Road. He has traveled all 2,400 miles of Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. He has also driven many miles on rural Oklahoma highways to explore the fading Main Streets of our small towns. Rhys has a desire to find and share the unique qualities of the Sooner State with the rest of the world. Cloudless Lens Photography has been featured in several publications including This Land, Route 66 Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Inbound Asia Magazine, The Oklahoman, and the Tulsa World. Rhys loves to connect with people and share his experiences; ask him about enjoyable day trips from Tulsa, locations along Route 66, and good diners or burger joints along the way.
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