Saturday morning, I awoke early and approached my window with a mixture of excitement and dread. The weatherman had predicted snow overnight and through the morning, though accumulation totals were all over the board. I was planning on attending a tour hosted by the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture and worried that bad weather would dampen the experience or even outright cancel it. When I parted the blinds and saw the fat, white flakes tumbling towards the snow-covered ground I had a moment of despair. When I noticed the street was clear, though, my despair evolved into hope. I threw on some basic clothes, told Sam I was going to go check driving conditions, and went out into the elements to see if the roads were as good as they looked.
Happily, the roads were just fine. I drove up to the Tulsa Fairgrounds and stopped at the Golden Driller, taking an opportunity to snap a few wintry photos of the big guy. I returned home quickly and started getting ready. Samantha felt like staying home, so I found myself at Foolish Things Coffee Company at about 9:45 AM on my own. I wasn’t on my own, thoughh; the place was PACKED! With the snow, I figured the crowd would be pretty light. All told, over 140 folks came out for the tour! This month, TFA was showcasing four houses of worship in the Cathedral District of Tulsa, situated on the south end of downtown. Once everyone was sufficiently caffeinated and a group photo was taken, we split off into smaller groups and ventured into the tapering snow.
Our first stop was the First Presbyterian Church, built in the mid-1920s. Most of the churches we visited had undergone multiple expansions and modifications over the years, with First Presbyterian being the latest to have some major work done. We were met by a lovely church historian (Joan Williams Hoar, who actually authored a book about the 125th anniversary of the church) and Jim Turner, one of the architects behind the new additions completed in 2012. We learned all about the materials used for the construction and the care taken to ensure the new and old meshed together well; they even added a second bell tower that I couldn’t identify as as the new one. When we entered the main sanctuary, I was awed at the craftsmanship in the smallest details. Joan enthusiastically told us about the church’s beginnings as Tulsa’s first church, starting with pews made from timber and hay bales outside of a general store in the late 1800s. I love hearing people talk about their passions, and that was definitely the theme of the day.
Our next stop was Holy Family Cathedral, where once again we were met by a knowledgeable duo. Michael Malcom and Monsignor Gregor Geir showed equal excitement in sharing the history of the church itself (built in 1914, it’s the oldest church building in Tulsa that still serves that same purpose.) An early pastor of Holy Family helped establish Saint John’s Hospital in town and the church also sheltered people during the 1921 race riot. In the 1970s, there was a fire in one of the front vestibules that resulted in a repainting of the interior….in all white. The space was re-colorized in about 2005, and it’s unreal to think of the space being whitewashed today. The sanctuary of Holy Family was the most delightfully colorful and vibrant space I saw the whole day. Monsignor Gregor talked to us about the selection of the colors used (most of it matching the stained glass windows and all of it having some sort of faithful significance) and the intentional design of the building itself; for example, the twelve central pillars symbolize the twelve apostles. I could’ve sat and listened to the Monsignor for hours, but we still had two more stops to make.
First United Methodist (which Gregor had referred to as “the most catholic Methodist church in town”) was next. Sue Berg, their historian, met us and showed us around. One of the things that struck me about First United was that several of the interior walls had originally been exterior, a result of expansion since the building’s original construction in 1921. I loved seeing the ornate Gothic stonework next to modest coffee station in one of the entry rooms. The sanctuary itself was stunning and is known as the “Protestant Cathedral of the South.” Their pipe organ was impressive, with pipes in all directions when you’re standing at the front row. The stained glass particularly interested me, as the designs in them were much smaller than in the previous churches we’d visited…but the windows were much larger. They looked like mosaics. The only exception was the large representation of Christ in the front, which Sue told us represented his return in Revelation.
Our final stop was the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, which is currently my favorite building in town. It was built in 1929 and is one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture I’ve ever seen. I’d been wanting to see the inside of it for a long time and I was not disappointed. Our guide, Michelle Place, also happens to be the Director of the Tulsa Historical Society and was full of great information. I learned that the church was designed by Adah Robinson, a woman from the University of Tulsa. She engaged one of her students, famous architect Bruce Goff, to help make her designs a reality. The design credit has been debated for years, as Goff claimed sole credit for the work afterwards. Read more about Adah Robinson on my wife’s blog here.
The building exterior is punctuated by an ornate 225-foot tower, and the sanctuary carries that same power but in a different way. It’s wide, circular, and enormous; the walls echo many touches from the exterior terracotta work. On our way out, we stopped at the columbarium and talked about the enduring legacy of the church, as it is Tulsa’s only National Historic Landmark. I also found out that there’s a stone from it at the Chicago Tribune Building! I’ll have to seek that out.
After about three hours of walking and learning, our tour was over. The snow had ceased and it had actually warmed a bit, turning into a traditional Oklahoma January day. It was a fantastic tour; if you haven’t attended any of the hosted Tulsa Foundaction for Architecture tours, they take place on the second Saturday of every month. Their Facebook page (here) has an event listing throughout 2016 outlining the focus of each monthly tour. They’re $10 per person and highly worth it if you’re even remotely interested in Tulsa’s history or architectural significance.
Full photos available here: