Mary Caroline Cole

Mary Caroline Cole

Mary Caroline Cole, Oklahoma’s first licensed woman architect, lived life on her own terms. 

She liked bulldogs, Oldsmobile convertibles, trees, Mexican silver jewelry, weekends at Grand Lake, and rum and coke.

In early photos, with tailored clothes and her sculpted face, she resembles a young Katharine Hepburn. She rarely smiled for the camera and looked like the person she was: smart, talented and not taking any guff from anyone. She was notorious for her quick-witted put-downs for anyone who annoyed her, according to her nephew, architect Roger Coffey. She needed those characteristics as a woman breaking into the male-dominated architecture profession in the 1940s. 

Cole was a woman of contradictions. She never married and could neither cook nor sew — she repaired her clothes with a staple gun — but designed residences attuned to the women who lived there — space for 40 pairs of shoes, for example. Athletic from childhood and renowned for her tennis skills, she made history designing barrier-free spaces for people in wheelchairs long before “barrier-free” was a concept.

Mary Caroline — never Mary — was called “Tot” by her friends and family. She was born in 1913, the oldest of three daughters to prominent Tulsans Audrey and C. C. Cole, who was chair of the building committee of Boston Avenue Methodist Church. She became interested in architecture by listening to artist Adah Robinson discuss the design of the new church building. 

Cole was always a maverick. When Lee Elementary School (now Council Oak) wouldn’t permit girls to join the soccer team, she and the school janitor played against the team. After graduation from Holland Hall in 1931 and Smith in 1934, she went to Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) for math credits, but the architecture professor wouldn’t let her into his classroom and told her to sit in the hall. She appealed successfully to the university president. When two architecture schools refused to admit her because she was female, she found Cornell School of Architecture and when the Cole family lost its fortune during the Great Depression, she relied on scholarships and waiting tables. She graduated as the only female architectural student in the class of 1941.

Despite the wartime labor shortage, some architecture companies wouldn’t hire a woman and told her so. She said she got a job with the U.S. Engineer’s Office in Kansas City, Missouri, only because they were desperate.

She had interned for Tulsa architect Donald McCormick where she worked on drawings for Southern Hills Country Club and was still in Kansas City when celebrated Tulsa architect Joseph R. Koberling offered her a job. He balked at her salary request of $60 a week, but they needed help with a new residential project near East 31st Street and South Harvard Avenue with a lake in the backyard. 

In 1945 she got her architect license, hung her shingle and built a life with her family, a series of bulldogs and a circle of close friends who were professional women: musician Rosalie Talbot, equestrian Mary Glass, attorney Norma Wheaton, accountant Betty Hager and others.

Female architects were usually relegated to residences, so Cole made it her specialty, painstakingly personalizing them for her clients. She had a fondness for trees and famously enlarged her own bungalow around a large elm tree with limbs growing through the ceiling. Her revolutionary style for fire stations with drive-through truck bays/garages became standard. Two Tulsa fire houses with “butterfly roofs” still exist: No. 18 at 4802 S. Peoria Ave. and No. 21 at 4606 E. 31st St.

In 1985 she was elected to the prestigious College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in recognition of her barrier-free designs and her contribution to barrier-free requirements for building codes.

“She was my own Auntie Mame,” Coffey says. They would climb into her convertible with the top down as she quoted from an adventure fairytale about a boy seated on a fox’s tail who sailed away like the wind. 

Today 161 women statewide — 72 in Tulsa — belong to the American Institute of Architects, according to Lindsey Ellerbach, executive director of AIA Eastern Oklahoma. Mary Caroline Cole, who died in 1991 at age 78, was a girl with moxie who paved the way for them. Professionally and creatively, she broke barriers. How much more might she have accomplished without the sexist limitations of her time? She might have sailed as high as a boy on a fox’s tail.

Connie Cronley is the author of four books, commentator for public radio 89.5 FM and a columnist for TulsaPeople.

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