On top of Tulsa
What goes on at the top of some of Tulsa's tallest buildings?
Top of the heap. Rise to the top. Coming out on top. The adages justkeep on coming. Clearly, there’s something special about being at thetop. More specifically, there’s something special about being at thetop of some of Tulsa’s most interesting buildings.
Maybe it’s prestige.
“From the earliest days of civilization, being on a high structure hashad special meaning; you had land that was literally under yourcontrol,” says Rex Ball, architect and co-founder of the Tulsa Art DecoSociety. “Even with the pyramids, the two most important commodities totheir civilization — treasury and grain — were at the top of thepyramids.”
Perhaps that’s why rental costs go up with every floor.
What’s going on at the top of some of Tulsa’s most interestingskyscrapers? The answers include prayer, legal work and business asusual — but all in these most unusual spaces.
Boston Avenue Methodist Church
In the world of architecture, there’s art deco and there’s Boston Avenue United Methodist Church — the only church in Oklahoma designated by the Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark. Its tower stretches 255 feet toward the heavens, housing 14 floors of classrooms and offices, and on the 15th and top floor, a small prayer chapel.
“It’s the highest spot visitors can get to without a ladder and a hatch,” says Brenda Reed, the church’s business administrator.
Not reachable by elevator, the chapel is accessible only via a private stairway. This space was empty for decades, from the time the church opened in 1929 until the mid-1960s when the chapel was constructed.
Today, the room is neither heated nor cooled, so use is limited to the occasional communion service held by Bible study classes or a rare (and very small) wedding. Seating capacity can go as high as 14, with guests doubling up on the seven peach-covered benches wedged into as many alcoves. Beige carpeting and neutral walls complete the basic décor.
The best two views from the chapel are out and up. Looking outward, visitors get a bird’s eye vista of the city that goes as far as CityPlex Towers and the Arkansas River. Glancing upward, they see vertical beams forming one cross and horizontal beams making another cross on the ceiling, for a cross-within-a-cross effect. One more small bronze cross graces the tower altar, where the woodwork echoes the broken-angle arch designs that permeate the building.
Dr. Adah M. Robinson, then head of the Central High School art department, designed the structure. A friend asked Robinson to come up with a design. Every idea that had been presented up to that time fell short of what the congregation envisioned. Robinson spent the better part of a summer studying Methodism and incorporating the Christian denomination’s tenets into her design.
Penni Gage, a local historian and tour guide in her free time, says Robinson didn’t receive credit for her work at that time. Instead, credit went to Bruce Goff, one of Robinson’s former students and renowned Tulsa art deco architect. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the art teacher was finally credited with the magnificent design.
“But, being a good Quaker woman, she also built herself a house with leftover material (from the church building),” Gage says.
Boston Avenue United Methodist Church is considered one of the finest examples of ecclesiastical art deco architecture in the United States, but putting a monetary value on the structure is close to impossible.
“We couldn’t rebuild it for what it’s worth,” Reed says. “The materials may be available, but the craftsmanship is not.”
Today’s tallest building in Oklahoma is (drumroll, please …) the BOk Tower, the 52-story, 667-foot structure that straddles Boston Avenue downtown. True, CityPlex Tower in south Tulsa has eight more floors, but it stands 19 feet shorter than the BOk Tower. Must be those high ceilings.
Any similarities between the BOk Tower and the former Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York are completely intentional. Not just in appearance, but also in structure. John Williams, the CEO of Williams in 1975, commissioned Minoru Yamasaki & Associates, the architectural firm that designed the New York towers, to design his Oklahoma skyscraper.
Williams’ original idea was to build two small-scale, 25-floor replicas of the towers in Tulsa, but the multi-building concept had too many inefficiencies. The solution was to stack the buildings on a single footprint, which doubled the height.
According to George Shahadi, director of corporate real estate for Williams, the idea for skyscrapers followed the development and refinement of structural steel. Before such advancements, the technology of construction could not feasibly support structures more than six stories in height. The advent of elevators and air conditioning further brought tall buildings into the 20th century, making the spaces easy to access and to cool.
Today, once business visitors clear security and get past the ear-popping elevator ride, they get a gasp-worthy perspective of Tulsa from the top two floors. The 51st floor is an indoor mini-park — an atrium-like environment lush in ground cover, live trees, palms and planters, plus walkways through the nature-like setting. In past lives, the 50th and 51st floors were used as an executive dining room and to house The Summit Club. Over the years, this site has played host to business events and the occasional reception.
A winding staircase and rounded glass elevator both lead to floor 52, which today serves as a corporate conference room for Williams, with plenty of room for catered meals. Another part of the 52nd floor was home to a health club, which since has been relocated to the Williams Resource Center (the former Williams Center Forum).
The floor-to-ceiling windows offer visitors fantastic vantage points to view the entire city in every direction. Because there’s no outside access, such as a balcony or veranda, the inside-looking-out perspective is almost surreal — like being inside a 3-D Google map where everything seems within reach. There’s the new ballpark just six blocks to the northeast, the BOK Center two blocks to the west and south Tulsa goes on for miles.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the traditional epicenter of downtown activity was near the East Sixth Street and South Boulder Avenue area. But with so much development to the north, it’s easy to see how the BOk Tower has become downtown’s new geographic center.
320 South Boston
On any given day, the lobby of the 320 South Boston building can be filled with tourists admiring its art deco detail, but they won’t see what goes on at the top — in the law office of C. Robert Burton.
Just getting to Burton’s 24th floor existence requires one public elevator, one private and a “secret” flight of stairs tucked into the southeast corner of the 23rd floor. He says he was “somewhat suspect” when his real estate broker suggested the top floor and then “had a visceral reaction” when the door opened on the secluded penthouse suite.
“As a trial lawyer, I can work 15-hour days,” Burton says. “This is the best space downtown to serve my needs, near to where I make my living, at the federal courthouse in downtown.”
He didn’t have to do much to his 1,700 square feet of space. The wooden floors were already in place, and the kitchen updates had been made — including a wine rack in the cabinets. He did add a large flat-screen television in the entry area.
From the north balcony, he can wave to people in the BOk Tower. He can see Gilcrease Museum, the Osage Hills, the BOK Center, the Arkansas River and, soon, the new ballpark. To the east, his view covers the Washington County line, the airport “and Carver and Booker T., where my kids go to school,” Burton says. The south balcony offers a view of the refinery to the west, as well as Oktoberfest festivities on the bank of the Arkansas River. He recommends a night view for the best effect, when “the horizon looks like diamonds in the sky,” he says.
The 320 South Boston building was 10 stories tall when it was constructed in 1917. In 1929, 14 more stories were added, making it the tallest building in the state at 400 feet — a distinction that held for nearly three decades. The building was designed with all the art deco features of the day, plus a Zeppelin mooring that is still visible from the balcony.
Other top-floor occupants have included an oil and gas company, a real estate developer and other lawyers. From Burton’s office, a dumbwaiter goes to the 21st floor, where a cafeteria and executive dining room used to be. The junction boxes contain the original handwritten labels designating the specific breakers for the dishwasher, fry cooker and other appliances.
History. Architecture. Workmanship. Craftsmanship. All are important to this native Tulsan.
“It’s good to be back home in a historical building,” Burton says.
The two construction phases of the Mid-Continent building happened 66 years apart — the first 16 floors were built in 1918; the next 20 were added in 1984, a cantilevered tower built around the original structure. The 513-foot-tall building’s top floors currently belong to Berendsen Fluid Power corporate offices. And at the very top, the 36th floor, is the office of the president, Ian Hill.
Hill likes when suppliers visit Tulsa for the first time.
“They’re a little surprised by what they find here,” he says, meaning the grandeur of his building and the midtown homes he shows them during his driving tour.
“You can concentrate on work because there are no interruptions,” he says of his vast penthouse perch. “It’s hard to leave at night because it’s so beautiful.”
He particularly likes the night view in winter (“the city seems to go on forever,” he says) and watching the sunsets over the Arkansas River. He also enjoys how green everything gets in the summer, with treetops covering houses, buildings and roads to give him an all-emerald view.
Each plank of the wooden floors was individually machined. The carpets are Italian silk. His working fireplace features a bronze sculpture. And in the ladies’ room, brass birds function as faucets. An opulent winding staircase connects the three top floors, and is capped by magnificent domed stained glass. The attention to detail never ends.
The conference room has all the grandeur and appointments of a White House cabinet room, only nicer. The wood paneling, thick doors, world-class workmanship and materials make meetings there a treat, not a chore, Hill says.
Outside, the view from Hill’s three-sided balcony miniaturizes all major landmarks. It’s a popular place for lunch or dinner meetings, an often-requested (and seldom granted) venue for wedding photo shoots and a rockin’ place for watching fireworks displays from around the city on the Fourth of July.
But skyscrapers aren’t for everyone — the Mid-Continent sways.
“That cantilever gets a workout on windy days,” Hill jokes. “Some people can’t work up here because of motion sickness.”
The drapes on the 36th floor touch the floor, which minimizes the sense of movement, but on other corporate floors, drapes and lights can waft, and a glass of water can create a gentle wave.
In spite of that, it was no surprise when, in 1979, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s unbelievable up here,” Hill says of his unique workplace. “There’s nothing (about the space) that won’t surprise you.”
ORU Prayer Tower
The Prayer Tower at Oral Roberts University is a divine mix of perspective and symbolism. From anywhere in its 360-degree sweep, the structure looks like a modern-day cross. The upward spiral serves as a reflection of man’s relationship with God. The deck represents the power of the Gospel radiating from the cross. And the tower’s geographical location — at the center of campus — reminds visitors of the importance of prayer and that God must always be at the core of a Christian life.
An aerial view of the angled gardens and sidewalks leading to the Prayer Tower reveals a Star of David shape. From the base of the building looking up, the spokes of the observation deck depict the crown of thorns, red tips symbolizing the blood shed by Jesus. And atop the Prayer Tower, the eternal flame represents the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Designed by architect Frank Wallace, the 200-foot structure was built in 1967 as one of the original university buildings, and doubles as the ORU Visitor Center. A quick elevator ride takes visitors halfway up, 100 feet off the ground, to the observation deck. This level was once home to Oral Roberts’ private prayer room and a series of smaller prayer rooms. Prayer partners — hired to pray in round-the-clock shifts for those who sent prayer requests from all over the world — staffed these quarters.
Today, in fact, the observation deck is a place to look out across the entire ORU campus, as much of south Tulsa as visibility allows and even downtown on a clear day. Lookout points around the deck feature shadow boxes and frames, which are temporarily empty while the information, including interesting facts and campus highlights, is updated.
A three-phase remodel is under way for the tower. Last February, a new prayer center opened on the first floor. Phase II, beginning this summer, will update the lobby and theater. Phase III (no start date yet) will transform the observation deck space into a tribute to Oral Roberts, his life and ministry.
For now, the sign from the dedication of the Prayer Tower best describes the building’s purpose: “To be forever in memory of the faithful partners of the Oral Roberts Ministry believing that prayer is the mightiest force on earth.”