It was 1926 and Waite Phillips, a former Iowa farm boy, had achieved his dream.
Like his older brothers before him, Frank and L.E. (of Phillips Petroleum fame), Waite had struck it big in the oil patch, filling his coffers with cash about as fast as the oil gushed out of the Oklahoma earth.
A year earlier, he had sold his oil company to a New York investment firm for a cool $25 million (adjusted for inflation, that's about $331 million today).
So, what does a fabulously wealthy and relatively young man (he was in his early 40s) with a cultured and elegant wife do? He makes a massive and unequivocal statement of his success and status, of course.
Thus was born in 1927 Villa Philbrook, a spectacular Italian Renaissance-style estate for which no expense was spared. Costing about $1.2 million at the time (about $15.7 million today), Philbrook became a 72-room masterpiece of a mansion sitting atop 23 manicured acres that included formal gardens and reflecting pools.
Designed by architect Edward Buehler Delk (with generous input from his patron),
Philbrook's scale and grandeur were like nothing the young oil boomtown had seen before.
Yes, it was quite a statement.
And yet, for all its splendor, Philbrook would be home to Phillips and his wife, Genevieve, along with their two children, Elliott and Helen Jane, for just over a decade.
By 1938, the restless tycoon – who had spent his teens adventuring west across the plains and mountains with his twin brother, Wiate, never staying too long anywhere — was ready for a change, even if his wife was not.
Accustomed to having things his way, Phillips persuaded his wife to part with her beloved palazzo in a decision that would both stun the city and create a legacy that continues to this day.
The gift that keeps giving
Waite and Genevieve decided they would give away their mansion and its surrounding grounds to the residents of Tulsa so that the estate could be turned into a museum and art center. It would include a special emphasis on Native American art and other fine art forms.
Phillips would provide the funds to help remodel the villa so it could accommodate galleries to display the art. And so, with this astounding and unexpected gift, Philbrook Museum of Art (then called the Philbrook Art Museum) began its existence 75 years ago.
"The level of generosity and the leadership demonstrated by that kind of philanthropy is remarkable, and that's what makes this a very special story," says Rand Suffolk, Philbrook's director.
Nearly eight decades later and thanks largely to the philanthropic commitment of many other Tulsans along the way, Philbrook continues to be the gift that keeps on giving.
"What a museum like Philbrook does is that it provides a mirror on society," Suffolk says. "Artists of all times are perhaps the most engaged and critical of their historical moment. They challenge us to think about our world in different ways, and I think that’s very important. Coming into contact with great art and the way it makes people feel and what it engenders in them is what enriches us."
Suffolk came to Philbrook six years ago after serving as director for the Hyde Collection in New York, where he oversaw a museum with a story that parallels Philbrook's, an Italianate-style mansion bequeathed to a city by wealthy benefactors. Philbrook, however, is about four times larger.
"It was exciting to come here with all the assets that Philbrook has," he says. "What distinguishes it from other museums is the singularity of the experience it provides, whether you're talking about the exceptional artwork that's within our collections or the exhibitions and traveling shows we bring here. And, of course, there's the remarkable architecture that we have, whether we're talking about the villa itself or now the fantastic space we have downtown."
A place of art and atmosphere
It's the art displayed inside the museum, and now also at Philbrook Downtown, that is the foremost attraction for the 135,000 people who visit annually.
The collection's works include such masters as Thomas Moran, Pablo Picasso, Andrew Wyeth, Robert Rauschenberg, William-Adolphe Bouguereau and many others. On longtime loan to Philbrook are pieces by greats such as Auguste Rodin, Georgia O'Keeffe and Willem de Kooning. Holdings at both Philbrook locations also include a survey of 20th century Native American art.
Philbrook is committed to adding to its permanent collection and bringing in the most intriguing exhibitions, Suffolk says.
"Our mission is to present the finest examples of artistic achievement we can get our hands on and to facilitate the broadest possible public engagement with that material," he says. Yet it's not the art alone that attracts museumgoers. Many come to see the old villa itself. And, even though significant portions of the interior were renovated to function as galleries, the opulent atmosphere created for Phillips and his family is still apparent, says Tom Young, Philbrook's resident librarian since 1978.
"The sense of the original house, especially on the main level, remains," Young says. "It's such an elegant space and the grandeur is very much in evidence. So, although it has been altered to serve as a museum, it still takes you to another time and place."
Then, of course, there are the lush 23 acres surrounding the museum. Designed by landscape architect S. Herbert Hare, Philbrook's gardens exemplify the magnificence of the Italian Renaissance style.
The gardens remain true to the spirit of the original design, though in 2004, Philbrook spent $7 million to renovate and upgrade them to make them more accessible for those with disabilities, as well as convenient for museum events.
Chris Kallenberger, director of exhibitions and collections, finds the grounds particularly soothing.
“I’m like a lot of people. If you're having a difficult day, a walk around the grounds lifts your spirit and heals your head," she says. "It's just a beautiful experience."
Kallenberger, who joined Philbrook in 1977, says there is something for just about everyone who visits the museum, even those who don't consider themselves art buffs.
"You know, some people may be skeptical about coming to a museum," she says. "They may not consider themselves to be art people. But, invariably, there ends up being something here that fascinates them, whether it's the architecture of the villa or the magnificent grounds." The diversity of experiences at Philbrook is one thing that few other museums can claim, Suffolk says.
"You're not going to be able to get the mix that you find there," he says. "If you come to the museum and you don't like the temporary exhibition, you can go up into the villa and hopefully see some of your old friends hanging in one of the galleries.
"If that doesn't make you happy, then the architecture of the villa will get you. If that doesn't get you, you can go out to the beautiful gardens and that will make you happy. If you don't like any of that, you can go downtown and experience a different set of galleries and experiences there.
"One way or another, we're going to find a way for you to fall in love with us."
A museum evolving and growing
Philbrook's inherent charm combined with its mission to engage the community are key factors to its longevity.
"My hope is that we manage to take people from the ordinary to the extraordinary as soon as they come through our front gate," Suffolk says. "I think that if we've developed enough credibility with people to get them to come here, give us their time and spend time looking at an object or experiencing those gardens and forming their own opinion about it, whether they love it or hate it, then we've done our job." Philbrook has remained far from a static entity through the decades. From early on, studio art classes were offered, and a children's program was incorporated. New wings were added for collection storage as well as to provide space for offices, a museum shop and restaurant, auditorium, and conference room.
Earlier this year, the museum took a huge step with the opening of Philbrook Downtown. Located in the old Mathews Warehouse in the Brady Arts District, the two-story, 30,000-square-foot facility was designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects of New York and Tulsa's Kinslow, Keith & Todd. It features galleries devoted to a semi-permanent installation of modern and contemporary art, and two changing galleries with various works from Philbrook's permanent collection, as well as the recently acquired Eugene B. Adkins Collection of Native American and Southwestern art or the second floor.
"Philbrook Downtown marks a significant moment in our 75-year history," Suffolk says "Not only have we created a new arts destination for domestic and international visitors, we have also established a vibrant forum for engaging dialogue, which adds further dimension to our organization.
"Philbrook Downtown will cultivate and engage new audiences as well as enrich the cultural fabric of our community. Creating a space in this part of town lends to our mission by directly contributing to Tulsa revitalization efforts."
Appealing to more diverse audiences
Like so many Tulsans, Holbrook Lawson's first experience with the museum occurred when she was introduced to photography through a class taught at Philbrook.
"I was 10 when I took the class and I still have my work," she says with a laugh. "It was terrible! It turned out that I was better at appreciating art than producing it."
That childhood encounter, however, inspired her to carry on a family tradition of serving at Philbrook. She is, in fact, a fourth-generation board member of the museum, with a lineage going back to her great-grandparents.
"It's one of the things that is so fascinating about Philbrook," says Lawson, the museum's current board chairwoman. "You had this gift and a vision for it, and now generations of people have been involved and enjoyed it.
"It's evolving and changing and reaching out to broader audiences all the time. This dynamism is what makes the future of the museum so exciting, especially when you look at our new partnerships and the exhibits and the opening of Philbrook Downtown."
In particular, Lawson points to growing attendance, especially among minorities who in the past may have faced real or perceived barriers to visiting museums such as Philbrook.
"Art is for all people," she says. "It knows no color. It doesn't matter what you look like or your background. All parties are equal through the experience of art."
Philbrook's attendance records for this year reflect that about 42 percent of attendees identify as a minority. Meanwhile, the museum also has seen tremendous success with high attendance through its Second Saturdays program, which provides free admission for museum visitors on the second Saturday of each month.
Carrying the spirit of Phillips into the future
Bill Thomas joined Philbrook board five years ago and is determined to see that the museum that began with Waite Phillips' initial gift continues to grow and prosper for another 75 years at least. He and his wife, Susan, will chair the Philbrook Wine Experience, a biennial fundraiser for the museum, for the second consecutive time in 2014. One of the largest of its kind nationwide, the 2012 Wine Experience grossed $2.4 million.
"It's too easy to forget that at least 98 percent of Philbrook's support is derived solely from private sources, meaning memberships, contributions and gift store sales," Thomas says. "The people who have supported it for the last 75 years have quite a legacy of building an institution of such lasting value. That will move on to those in our future who will surely build on what has happened before, inspired by what an ever-evolving Philbrook can be in our community."
Thomas cites those such as the late Katie Westby, Bill Flint, Walter Helmerich, and John Williams as among those supporters who helped make Philbrook what it is today.
"Our community owes a great debt to them and others whose resolve was matched by generous financial commitments," Thomas says.
Suffolk believes Philbrook's future is a bright one as long as the museum remains dynamic and relevant within the Tulsa community.
"There's a sense of place here," he says. "I can't imagine that over the next 75 years we will stop placing value on this campus. It's too valuable, too historical and too beautiful."
And what would Waite and Genevieve think of what has become of their gift to Tulsa?
"I think they would feel proud," Suffolk says. "If they could take a look at how the museum has evolved over the past 75 years, I think they would be thrilled with the role we play in the community and the impact we are having."
Editor’s note: We’re grateful to Michael Wallis and his book “Beyond the Hills: The Journey of Waite Phillips” as a historical resource for this article.
A Home in the Mountains
While Waite Phillips left an indelible impression on Tulsa through Philbrook and other notable buildings, his philanthropy also extended to the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. It was there that Phillips constructed his home - Villa Philmonte (a combination of his name and the Spanish word for mountain) – on 300,000 acres.
This Spanish Mediterranean-style home, also designed by Edward Delk and constructed concurrently with Philbrook, was the Phillips family's mountain retreat, a place to fish, ride horses and tend to cattle.
But, just as with Philbrook, Phillips' love affair with Philmonte had an expiration date. In 1938, he made a gift of the home along with 36,000 acres to the Boy Scouts of America to use for training, education, and campouts. In 1941, he donated another 91,000 acres (Phillips owned about 700,000 acres in New Mexico and Colorado).
"The impact of that gift 75 years ago can't be underestimated," says David Werhane, director of Philmont Museums. "It has literally affected over a million people's lives who have been involved in scouting or whose lives have been touched by those who have been to Philmont. We've had boys who went on to become astronauts, artists, surgeons, a Speaker of the House - you name it - who have come here.”
Annually, about 25,000 people participate in Philmont's programs that include camping, hiking and high adventure, and a training center for adult scout leaders. Approximately 18,000 visit Villa Philmonte, which today serves as a museum.
Nancy Klein, the museum's curator, says that unlike most of Philbrook, Villa Philmonte has been maintained or restored to the condition it was in when the Phillipses lived there.
"We call it a house museum, and it's about 90 per cent original;' she says. "We give visitors the bios on
Waite and Genevieve and how they put the ranch together and then donated it.”
Waite Phillips loved fishing, horseback riding, and cattle ranching and believed that spending time out doors was essential for the development of young men, because it offered life lessons they could not learn doing anything else.
"After 75 years, his dream still continues;' Klein says. "We accomplish a lot at Philmont with young folks, and that's what Waite wanted - people to grapple with nature as he once did when he traveled the country with his twin brother:'
Located at the foot of the mountains about 40 miles from Raton and 130 miles from Santa Fe, the 28,000-square-foot villa and surrounding scout ranch are somewhat off the beaten path, but that's OK with just about everyone who visits.
"We are out there for sure, but it's well worth the trip,” Werhane adds.
Phillips’ other properties
Waite Phillips was an admirer of wise sayings and enjoyed penning a few epigrams himself. Although he was long gone when the phrase "go big or go home" became popular, it
could have been one that he wrote himself - especially when it came to big buildings and big philanthropy.
Not only did Phillips bequeath Philbrook to Tulsa, he also left behind other significant buildings in Tulsa's downtown skyline, including the Philtower and the Philcade.
"They are very much iconic structures that have stood the test of time;' says Amanda DeCort, City of Tulsa preservation planner and preservation planning administrator for the Tulsa Preservation Commission, the city board that ensures the integrity of Tulsa's many historic buildings for future generations. "When he built them, he built them to last and these are still revered today, much like his legacy:'
Flush with money from the sale of his oil company in 1925, Phillips embarked on a building binge over the next few years that would see the near simultaneous construction of his Tulsa mansion, Villa Philbrook, the Philtower, the Philcade, and, out on his sprawling New Mexico ranch, the construction of his Spanish Mediterranean villa, Philmonte.
Opened in 1928, the 24-story Philtower, capped by colorful tiles, was at the time Tulsa's tallest building (at least on the city's main downtown axis of South Boston Avenue). While Tulsa would eventually become known widely as a locus of the art deco architectural style, the Philtower is more accurately described as a late Gothic Revival building but reflects the concurrent explosion of the art deco style by incorporating art deco accents, DeCort says.
"There are a few art deco details but that was pretty new at that point,” she says. "The building itself was intended to be the architectural jewel between the Union Depot station at one end of town and Boston Avenue Methodist Church at the other.”
Like his Villa Philbrook mansion, Phillips spared little expense and outfitted the building with a lavish marble lobby that still dazzles visitors today. If this was going to be his business headquarters, it was going to be one befitting an oil tycoon.
For decades, the Philtower housed many of Tulsa's energy-based companies. Today, River City Development manages the building, which houses businesses as well as 25 upscale loft apartments, says Richard Winton, director of development. The apartments are in high demand and don't stay on the market long.
"We're at 100 percent leased right now for the lofts;' he says. "They're high-end luxury residences for people who want to live downtown and whose commute may just be an elevator ride to an office on a different floor:'
About 75 percent of the Philtower is for commercial use, and Winton says overall occupancy of the historic building has surged from less than 50 percent occupied about eight years ago to more than 80 percent occupancy today.
Referencing a series of 1928 photographs of Phillips' penthouse office, which he occupied in the Philtower from the late 1920s through the 1930s, River City and Brainerd Chemical Co. recently restored the office to its original condition. Matt Brainerd now offices in the Phillips penthouse, which is complete with replica furniture and an authentic ceiling, floors, ironwork, fireplace and light fixtures.
The Philtower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Though certainly not as showy or prominent in the Tulsa skyline as the Philtower, the 14-story Philcade building remains a prime example of the art deco style that had just emerged in the late 1920s and whose conspicuous extravagance was tempered by the Great Depression. Opened in 1931, the building features enough marble and mahogany, black terrazzo flooring, plaster friezes, arched ceilings covered with gold leaf and hand-painted geometric designs to keep any art deco buff happy. The ornate lobby also forms a "T" shape for Tulsa.
"The Philcade was pretty much an office building, and a lot of different oil firms had their headquarters there over the years;' DeCort says.
Both the Philcade and Philtower remain popular and are must-sees for those on the art deco touring circuit, she adds.
After moving out of Philbrook, the Phillipses resided for a time in the Mayo Hotel before moving into a penthouse apartment on the 14th floor of the Philcade Building. They lived here until moving permanently to Bel Air, Calif., in 1945 .
The Philcade made the National Register list in 1986. Today the building is owned by Kanbar Properties, which leases space to commercial tenants.
Facts About Philbrook
The staff at Philbrook Museum of Art compiled the following list of facts they'd like Tulsans to know about the museum celebrating its 75th anniversary this coming year (November 2013-October 2014).
1. Philbrook Museum of Art is self-supporting. In 1938, Waite and Genevieve Phillips donated their home to a private group known as the Southwest Art Association to form Philbrook, and they gifted the 23-acre gardens to the City of Tulsa Parks Department. Waite Phillips negotiated the transfer of the grounds to the Southwest Art Association in 1945 before he moved to California. Today 98 percent of Philbrook revenue comes from private donations, museum membership and gift shop revenue.
2. Philbrook is classified as a general art museum. Over the past 75 years, generous donations and strategic acquisitions have built a nearly encyclopedic collection, categorizing Philbrook as a "general art museum" with holdings in American, African, Asian, Native American, modern and contemporary art, as well as European classics.
3. The largest aspect of the Philbrook collection is Native American art. When he announced the gift of the Phillips home, Waite Phillips wrote in the press release that his wish for Philbrook Art Museum was to emphasize Native American art to "perpetuate the culture of people to whom Oklahomans are especially indebted:' Rooted in that foundation, 75 years later more than half of the Philbrook permanent collection features Native American art, including one the finest surveys of
20th century art by Native American artists.
4. People of minority background visit Philbrook at a rate four times the national average of minority museum participation. According to a third-party research company, over the past four years 40 percent of the more than 130,000 visitors to Philbrook each year self-identified as a member of a minority group. The national average for minority participation at museums (science, history, children's or art) is 9 percent.
5. Philbrook membership costs less than $2 per week. Philbrook membership begins at
$55 (or $1.06 per week) for an individual and $80 (or $1.54 per week) for a two-adult household . Museum membership helps Philbrook secure additional funds from private donors and foundations. Children 17 and younger receive free daily admission to the museum .
6. Philbrook offers monthly contemporary art and cultural events. On the third Thursday
of each month, Philbrook features nationally recognized artists, researchers, and creators to speak on topics related to contemporary art, design, or culture. A social hour (light bites and a cash bar) begins at 5:30 p.m., with the main program commencing at 6:45.
1926 - Waite Phillips hires Kansas City- based architect Edward Buehler Delk to build an Italianate villa based on those he and his wife, Genevieve, have seen on their recent travels. Delk designs Philbrook to last with a steel framework and reinforced concrete walls and floors. Herbert Hare is the landscape architect. The 72-room house, 23 acres of grounds and gardens and furnishings cost nearly $1.2 million (about $15.7 million today).
1927 - Villa Philbrook, 2727 S. Rockford Road, is completed during the summer, and the Phillipses hold a reception for hundreds of friends and business associates. Will Rogers was quoted as saying about Philbrook, "Well, I've been in Buckingham Palace, but it hasn't anything on Waite Phillips' house.” Work on the gardens continued into 1928.
1938 - Waite and Genevieve decide it's time to move out and donate the villa to the residents of Tulsa with the intention of it becoming a museum and art center with an emphasis on Native American art. Phillips also pays for renovations to make the home into a museum.
1939 - Philbrook Art Museum opens on Oct. 25. Waite and Genevieve are out of town, but their children attend, along with Oklahoma's governor.
1940 - Studio art classes are offered.
1942 - Philbrook's name changes to Philbrook Art Center with the addition of an auditorium and enclosure of the south terrace.
1949 - A children's educational program is created in collaboration with the Junior League of Tulsa and Tulsa Public Schools to teach fifth and sixth-grade students the art and culture of different countries.
1964 - Waite Phillips dies at age 81 at home in California.
1979 - Philbrook is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
1987 - Philbrook is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. Philbrook changes its name from Philbrook Art Center to the Philbrook Museum of Art.
1990s - The museum undergoes a 75,000-square-foot expansion.
2013 - Philbrook Downtown opens in the Mathews Warehouse in June in the Brady Arts District. The 30,000-square-foot facility features modern and Native American art.