TULSA, Okla. — As an Oklahoma transplant — a native New Englander who moved here for love — I’ve had fun getting to know the Sooner State. I also host the occasional out-of-town visitor, so I’m always on the hunt for colorful history, interesting art, quirky shopping and a great meal. I have found it all, plus some surprises, in Oklahoma’s second-largest city: Tulsa.
Tulsa was initially occupied by Native American tribes forced to relocate here from their home territories by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. But the modern city was built from oil money in the early 20th century. There was already a railroad station here serving the cattle industry when oil was discovered in nearby Red Fork in 1901, so Tulsa became the logical place for oilmen — from tycoons to middlemen to so-called wildcatters looking for the next big well — to settle with their families.
What you find here now is an eclectic mix of new and old: artsy hangouts that show off Tulsa’s thriving hipster culture as well as well-preserved historic gems that harken back to the oil boom of the early 1900s. As somebody who seeks out both highbrow art and underground subculture, I love this about Tulsa.
At first glance, downtown Tulsa can seem quiet and a little rugged at the edges. But if you know where to go and you practice the art of looking up at the buildings instead of down at your feet, you’ll find a great display of art deco architecture and other turn-of-the-century styles.
Tulsa was a “young city ... experiencing unprecedented growth and prosperity in the Roaring Twenties, just as the Art Deco movement came into vogue,” according to the Tulsa Preservation Commission’s website. “Flush with oil money, prominent Tulsans started building the skyscrapers that would spur one of the pre-eminent Art Deco collections in the United States.”
The most striking example of Tulsa’s art deco treasures might be the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, 1301 S. Boston Ave. You can’t miss its 258-foot (79-meter) tower, holding court at the city’s southeastern edge. Somehow the building, erected in 1929, manages to look like a church and a skyscraper all at once.
Straight down Boston Avenue from the church sits another beauty: the Philtower Building, 427 S. Boston Ave., which was commissioned by prominent oilman Waite Phillips and opened in 1928. Look for the gargoyles above the Boston Avenue entrance, and look way up to see the colorful tiled roof, a splash of strange, almost lovably outdated hues that floats above the city as a relic of the past.
Also worth a look are the Atlas Life Building, 415 S. Boston Ave.; the Mayo Hotel (where you can book a room or grab a gourmet meal), 115 W. Fifth St.; and the Philcade building, 509 S. Boston Ave. The building facades are only the beginning: On a weekday afternoon, it’s fun to wander into the lobbies for stunning views of ceilings and chandeliers.
For more information, visit http://www.tulsapreservationcommission.org .
In search of fine art
In addition to its architectural gems, Tulsa boasts two wonderful major art museums.
Ten minutes northwest from downtown, Gilcrease Museum, 1400 N. Gilcrease Museum Road, houses an expansive collection of art from the American West (the largest worldwide, they say) and an array of Native American artifacts such as glass-beaded moccasins, feather headdresses and leather clothing.
Grown out of the private collection of Tulsa oilman Thomas Gilcrease, the museum is now home to more than 10,000 paintings, prints and sculptures from prominent American artists such as Frederic Remington and Thomas Moran.
Meanwhile, 10 minutes south of downtown, the Philbrook Museum of Art, 2727 S. Rockford Road, houses an equally magnificent collection in what was once the 72-room private villa of Waite Phillips’ family. Perhaps even more impressive than the fine artwork displayed at this renowned Tulsa attraction is the sprawling 23-acre (9-hectare) garden behind the museum.
I attended a wedding last summer that embodied the romantic European spirit of this Italian-style estate.
Shopping, music and food
The shopping in Tulsa, like everything else, can be fancy or casual, depending on your whim. I always like to browse through the luxury home-goods store T.A. Lorton, 1343 E. 15th St., on a bustling street known locally as Cherry Street. It’s quite expensive, but you are guaranteed to find items you’ve never seen before, from indulgent children’s gifts to high-end linens to unique lamps, tables and dinnerware.
For a store with lower prices and an edgier flair, I recommend Dwelling Spaces, 119 S. Detroit Ave., in the Blue Dome District. The neighborhood, named after the blue-painted dome of an old gas station that originally served motorists on historic Route 66, is a small but bustling corner of downtown that attracts artists and others with a bohemian bent.
Dwelling Spaces sells quirky handmade items such as T-shirts, decorative pillows and posters that tend to feature offbeat Oklahoma- and Tulsa-centric designs.
It’s where you can buy all your Flaming Lips merchandise (the world-famous rock band started in Oklahoma) and the latest copy of the popular bimonthly broadsheet magazine, “This Land Press.” Read it over a freshly brewed cup of Joe at the coffee bar.
My favorite casual spot for eating is El Rio Verde, 38 N. Trenton Ave., an authentic Mexican restaurant in the otherwise unassuming region northeast of downtown. Like many good hole-in-the-walls, this place seems a bit shady from the outside. But step inside and order a wet burrito (served with sauce on top) and a glass of horchata (a traditional rice drink) and you won’t care where you are.
For higher-end fare, I’ve been twice blown away by the new but amazing Juniper Restaurant and Martini Lounge downtown, 324 E. Third St. Chef Justin Thompson is getting a lot of buzz for his local-focused, seasonal menus featuring items such as bison burgers and pork belly eggs benedict. I like the sweet carrot soup and roasted vegetable and goat cheese sandwich. And, while I’ve never had a Juniper cocktail myself, who wouldn’t be intrigued by concoctions using house-made green tea and lemon vodka and roasted peanut bourbon?
For a great non-alcoholic pick-me-up, try the Coffee House on Cherry Street (1502 E. 15th St.). A community oasis for artists and musicians, full of mismatched furniture and a constant stream of regular customers, the cafe makes all its own baked goods, including gluten-free and vegan items that look just as enticing as their bad-for-you counterparts. I never leave Tulsa without a slice of peanut butter pie from CHOCS (as the locals call it).
Tulsa is home to a great music scene as well. The historic Cain’s Ballroom, built in 1924 and known as the regular performing venue of Bob Wills, the “King of Western Swing,” now draws a steady stream of big acts across all genres, 423 N. Main St., or http://bradytheater.com/.
The Brady Theater, likewise, has been around since the early 1900s — 105 W. Brady St., http://bradytheater.com/ — and continues to draw the hottest performers.