An Art Deco Enigma

I’ve recently reconnected with a cousin of mine that has graciously brought me some old family photos to scan. It has been a real treat to see my mother’s family from years past – even a few pictures of my Mom when she was a little girl – that I’ve never seen before.

One picture that particularly piqued my interest was a long, rolled up photo labeled as the Tulsa Fairgrounds in 1931. I didn’t recognize anybody in the photo, but it stands to reason that one of the workers was a member of my family. I also didn’t recognize the building – so I went digging.

1931 Tulsa Fairgrounds photo – cleaned up courtesy of the Tulsa Historical Society

The architecture looked significant and at first I thought it was the Art Deco Coliseum on the northwest side of the complex, but it wasn’t. A little more digging into the Tulsa Historical Society archives and the Tulsa County Library’s Beryl Ford Collection and I had it: the Merchant’s Exhibit and Grandstand Building.

1932 photo of the Merchant’s Exhibit Building, courtesy of the Beryl Ford Collection

The enormous Zigzag Art Deco structure was designed by Bruce Goff and clocked in at 685 feet long and 100 feet wide; it was the longest building of its kind west of the Mississippi. It enclosed the area beneath the race track grandstand and was used for merchant displays as well as dormitories and dining facilities for visiting boys and girls clubs like 4-H.

I also read that part of it collapsed into a coal mine in the 1970s.

What?!

Photo courtesy of tulsagal.net

Yes, there are underground coal mines beneath the Tulsa State Fairgrounds. Mining in the Tulsa area (including in the Dawson community to the north and areas out east of town) started before Oklahoma Statehood and lasted until the mid-1950s. In fact, according to the Tulsa World, St. Francis hospital was originally going to be built at 21st and Yale. When their survey team discovered the honeycomb of mines underneath their proposed site, they decided to build a bit farther south.

1950 aerial photo of the Tulsa State Fairgrounds; the Merchant’s Exhibit Building and Grandstand is at the top

Mine collapses have been rare throughout the city’s history as they are about 100 feet underground — but they have happened. Much to my chagrin, the Tulsa World hasn’t scanned in their newspaper archives to allow for research – but I did find quite a few articles from other regional newspapers. Something didn’t add up, though; I couldn’t find any evidence that mentioned a mine collapse at the Fairgrounds. I did find multiple articles about a significant fire in 1958.

On Sunday, June 8th, a fire destroyed the grandstand along with 150 vehicles stored within. Also lost was the bunks and supplies stored for the 4-H and FFA dormitories (the dorms themselves had moved to their own building five years earlier.) The north section of the grandstand and exhibit hall collapsed and the south section was gutted.

A comparison of aerial photos from the Tulsa Historical Society and the USGS (above) show that, indeed, the Art Deco grandstand building next to the track disappears between 1957 and 1959.

1958 artist’s rendering of the proposed replacement exhibit hall

Another article a few weeks later mentioned temporary exhibit space and temporary grandstand bleachers for the race track would be made available for the 1958 Tulsa State Fair. A full-page ad in October of that year supported the passage of a proposition that would replace the lost 60,000 feet of exhibit space – a size that only the former grandstand and exhibit hall could boast.

The bond issue passed in November of ’58 and the new building was completed in time for the 1959 Tulsa State Fair. A look at a 1961 aerial photo shows the new building on the east side of the fairgrounds footprint, next to the race track. The dimensions are bigger but ended up pretty close to the original grandstand in concept.

Aerial photo from 1961. The new grandstand building is larger and more defined.

So what about the mine collapse from the 1970s? Well, in April 1977 there was another collapse…but it had nothing to do with the underground mines. A portion of the wooden grandstands at the baseball park collapsed during a thunderstorm, injuring 18 people. Tulsa Oiler Park (which had just become Driller Park that year) dated back to 1934 as part of the Works Progress Administration. It had a spotty history of maintenance and the grandstand failure seemed to have surprised no one. After a few years of failed propositions, it was demolished and a new facility, Sutton Stadium, was built in 1981 at the corner of 15th and Yale.

The new race track under construction; you can see the vague outline of the former track next to the replacement Exhibits Hall

You might wonder about the replacement exhibit hall placement today, but it’s gone also. The original speedway was demolished in 1973 and a new, larger $1.7 million track was built just to the east. It was the site of many races and some (sometimes controversial) outdoor concerts. Auto racing left the fairgrounds in 1985 and a few years later the race track was converted to Fair Meadows for horse racing. The replacement exhibits building was demolished during that project.

Fair Meadows proposal in 1987, showing the “Trade Center” still on the map; that area is open parking today

So…did part of the original Merchant’s Exhibit and Grandstand Building sink into an old mine?

I don’t know. The story could be a conflation of the fire in ’58 and the baseball grandstand collapse in ’77. But there are some unanswered questions. Mainly, I don’t know why the Deco grandstand seems to have had a façade change on the north section in the early 1950s. Did it sink into the ground without impacting the integrity of the rest of the building? There are many anecdotal stories about minor collapses tied to the mines. It’s not a crazy idea — I just haven’t found those details yet.

Original rendering courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society

Hopefully, some day, I’ll find the answer. But for now it’s enough for me to know a little more about Tulsa’s rich history. The photo that started this whole thing has now been donated to the Tulsa Historical Society.

Here’s an animated gif showing the difference from 1954 to 1967 to today. Watch the grandstand change and then the entire complex expand.

1954 to 1967 to 2010s

4 thoughts on “An Art Deco Enigma

  1. Rhys, Nice article! I am Eilis’ Uncle. My wife and I met you on the roof of the Hillcrest parking garage last year while chasing sunset photos.

    1. The 1958 replacement Exhibition Building was a very non-descript, utilitarian structure. I think it was either fabricated metal, concrete block, or some combination of the two. Metal roof. My first experience with it was probably around 1968. It ALWAYS had some funky smell going on in there. My best recollection is the aroma of: 1) Dusty natural gas heaters; 2) Cheap hot chocolate or coffee; 3) Poorly maintained bathrooms and cheap disinfectant. The smell of popcorn and hot dogs could win the battle if you were close enough to the Snack Bar, but otherwise not. I think it was eventually demolished as part of the transition from Tulsa Speedway to Fair Meadows.

      1. Hello Jim! Good to hear from you again. Was that just last year? Geez time is weird these days. Thank you for the description of the replacement building! I spent a little time at the Central Library yesterday looking through their vertical files and found a few newspaper photos of the racetrack construction and that replacement building sure looked…basic. Makes sense considering they had to build it quickly. NOTHING like that conceptual drawing.

        Indeed, I also found articles about the transition from the 1974-1985 raceway to Fair Meadows and it showed that old structure still sitting out by itself. Once the Fair Meadows conversion was done, it was gone. I will be updating the blog post with that info shortly. THANK YOU for dropping a line!

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