Tulsa, Oklahoma, historical sites and things to do for history buffs

Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a vibrant city with a rich history and a thriving cultural scene. Known as the “Oil Capital of the World,” Tulsa has a fascinating past intertwined with the rise of the oil industry in the early 20th century. Today, it is a bustling metropolis that boasts a diverse array of historic buildings, museums, and churches that offer glimpses into the city’s past and present.

In this article, we will explore some of Tulsa’s most notable landmarks and cultural institutions. From the elegant Philbrook Museum of Art, housed in a former villa that once belonged to an Oklahoma oil pioneer, to the impressive collection of Native American art at the Gilcrease Museum, there are countless opportunities to immerse yourself in the city’s artistic heritage.

We will also delve into Tulsa’s architectural gems, such as the beautiful Boston Avenue Methodist Church, an Art Deco masterpiece that stands as a testament to the city’s architectural prowess. Additionally, we will uncover the fascinating history behind the historic Cain’s Ballroom, a renowned music venue that has hosted legendary performers throughout the decades.

Join us as we take a journey through Tulsa’s past and present, exploring its historic buildings, museums, and churches that embody the city’s unique character and cultural significance.

A brief history of Tulsa

Tulsa was initially inhabited by various tribes of native americans, such as the Kiikaapoi, Wahzhazhe Ma zha, Muscogee, and Caddo, before being settled by the Lochapoka and Creek tribes in 1836. They established a small settlement named Tallasi, meaning “old town” in Creek, which later became known as Tulsa.

The area was also home to other tribes relocated from the Southern United States. After the Civil War, the tribes signed Reconstruction treaties that resulted in land concessions. Outlaws like the Wild Bunch and the Dalton Gang frequented the area, adding to its colorful history.

In 1882, the town’s location shifted to its current site when the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad construction crew was convinced by a local merchant to move the site further west. Tulsa was officially incorporated on January 18, 1898, and experienced significant growth after the discovery of oil in 1901.

The discovery of the Glenn Pool Oil Reserve led to an influx of entrepreneurs, and Tulsa’s population grew rapidly. Unlike neighboring communities, the new settlers came from the East Coast and Midwest, shaping the city’s demographics.

Tulsa gained the nickname “Oil Capital of the World” and experienced prosperity in the energy industry throughout the 20th century. The city’s success in oil allowed it to thrive even during the Great Depression.

However, Tulsa’s history also includes dark chapters such as the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. The Greenwood neighborhood, known as “Black Wall Street,” was a prosperous Black community until it was attacked by White mobs, resulting in the deaths of numerous Black residents and the destruction of homes and businesses.

In 1925, Tulsa became the „birthplace of Route 66”, a famous highway linking Chicago to Los Angeles. The city served as a popular rest stop, attracting travelers with iconic landmarks like the Meadow Gold Sign and the Blue Whale of Catoosa.

Musician Bob Wills and his group, The Texas Playboys, played a significant role in creating Western Swing music, performing at Cain’s Ballroom, which still operates today.

During the mid-20th century, Tulsa implemented a master plan to develop parks, churches, museums, and improved infrastructure. The construction of the Spavinaw Dam was a major public works project that met the city’s water needs.

However, Tulsa faced economic challenges in the 1980s due to a national recession and the fall of oil prices. Efforts were made to diversify the economy and reduce dependency on the oil industry.

In 2003, the “Vision 2025” program was launched to enhance Tulsa’s infrastructure and tourism. The BOK Center, a multi-purpose arena designed by architect Cesar Pelli, was a key project in this initiative, providing a venue for sports, concerts, and conventions.

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma affirmed that much of eastern Oklahoma, including Tulsa, remained Native American lands under criminal law jurisdiction.

Tulsa’s history is a mix of cultural diversity, economic prosperity, and challenges. The city continues to evolve and thrive, embracing its past while looking towards the future.

The Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza

The Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza in Tulsa, named after the “Father of Route 66,” is situated at the east entrance of the historic Route 66 bridge near downtown. The plaza, established in 2008, showcases flags from the eight states along Route 66.

Cyrus Avery played a significant role in creating and promoting Route 66 as a member of the Federal Highway System and establishing the US Highway 66 Association.

The plaza celebrates Avery’s achievement in developing the national highway system, spanning eight states from Chicago to Los Angeles, which became Route 66. It features the flags of the eight states, the Route 66 Skywalk with its distinctive art-deco style, a park, a pedestrian walkway over Route 66, and bronze statues including a land-run horse and wagon and an old automobile with Will Rogers.

These symbolic sculptures are depicting the Avery family in a Model T Ford meeting an eastbound horse-drawn carriage along Route 66. The detailed bronze sculptures, created by Robert Summers, capture this historic encounter.

Centennial Plaza offers a great spot to take a break, stretch your legs, and capture memorable photos. Free parking is available near the pedestrian bridge crossing 11th Street. Future plans include a visitor’s center and the Route 66 Interpretive Center, featuring exhibits, historical perspectives, restaurants, and a gift shop.

Located at the intersection of Southwest Boulevard and Riverside Drive, the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza is a must-visit for enthusiasts of Route 66.

The Philtower Building

The Philtower Building, situated at 427 South Boston Avenue in Tulsa, is a remarkable historic structure that exemplifies neo-gothic and art deco architecture. Completed in 1928, it was designed by Edward Buehler Delk and funded by Waite Phillips, a respected oil magnate and philanthropist.

In 1941, Phillips generously donated the Philtower Building, along with the majority of his Philmont Ranch and Villa Philmonte, to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Subsequently, in 1977, the BSA sold the building to a local investor group known as The Philtower LLC, who currently own the property.

Originally designed as a high-rise office building, the Philtower underwent a transformation in 2004 when floors 12–20 were converted into loft apartments, making it Tulsa’s first mixed-use high-rise.

With a towering presence of 24 floors and a height of 323 feet, the building captivates onlookers with its remarkable 40-foot-tall pyramidal roof adorned with colorful tiles and a prominent copper lantern. The lantern’s neon lights, which had originally adorned it, were lovingly restored to their former brilliance in 2003.

During its early years, the Philtower housed the broadcasting studios of KVOO Radio on the 22nd and 23rd floors, where renowned radio announcer Paul Harvey delivered his inaugural broadcast.

The Philtower’s lobby features a captivating gothic “Fan Tracery” ceiling, skillfully executed in travertine to replicate the appearance of 16th-century limestone carving. The walls are adorned with travertine marble and mahogany accents, complemented by attractive brass elevator doors and glass embellishments, enhancing the overall aesthetic appeal.

Access to floors 12-22 is provided by three elevators bearing the distinctive W.P. seal. Notably, the office on the 21st floor, originally occupied by Waite Phillips, has been preserved.

Recognized for its Gothic Revival architectural style, the Philtower Building was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Furthermore, it became an integral part of the Oil Capital Historic District on December 13, 2010, underscoring its historical significance and enduring presence in Tulsa’s skyline.

The Prayer Tower

The Prayer Tower, located at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, is a 200-foot glass and steel structure designed by Frank Wallace and opened in 1967. It features an enclosed observation deck offering a 360° view of the campus and surrounding area. The Ralph L. Reece Memorial Gardens surround the tower base, adding to its allure as a local tourist attraction.

Symbolizing the central role of prayer in the university’s goals, the tower’s design incorporates Christian symbolism. Its form resembles a cross from any horizontal view and the Star of David from above. The latticework surrounding the observation deck represents the crown of thorns worn by Jesus on the cross. The tower’s upward spiral reflects the relationship with God, and an eternal flame atop signifies the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

The tower’s base showcases ORU’s history and Oral’s ministry through visual displays. Riding the elevator to the observation deck provides a panoramic view of Tulsa. Additionally, the deck offers prayer stations where visitors can sit, pray, and reflect on the written thoughts at each of the 7 stations.

Within the Prayer Tower, separate areas house the offices of the chaplains and provide spaces for various prayer styles. The tower’s location at the campus center reinforces the importance of communion with God in life. Surrounded by the Reece Memorial Gardens, bronze statues of Jesus and students serve as a reminder of seeking God’s will at the university.

The Golden Driller statue

The Golden Driller in Tulsa, is a 75-foot-tall statue of an oil worker. Made of steel, concrete, and plaster, it stands in front of the Tulsa Expo Center since 1966. Originally built as a temporary feature in 1952, its positive reception led to its permanent installation.

The statue’s right hand rests on an oil derrick from Seminole, Oklahoma. Inscribed at the base is a dedication to the petroleum industry. In 1979, it became the state monument of Oklahoma.

In 2006 the Golden Driller gained recognition as a top ten “quirkiest destination” in a promotional contest and underwent branding changes in 2020 as part of Tulsa’s bid for Tesla’s Gigafactory 5. The statue’s belt buckle was temporarily replaced with “Tesla” to depict Elon Musk. Notable features include a large belt, shoe, and hat size.

Boston Avenue Methodist Church

The Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in downtown Tulsa, is a remarkable example of Art Deco architecture. Completed in 1929, this 15-floor church is considered one of the finest in the United States and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1999.

The church’s design is credited to Adah Robinson and Bruce Goff, with some debate over their respective roles. The original building featured a semicircular auditorium, a towering 225-foot tower, and classroom wings. The vertical lines of the tower pay homage to Gothic cathedrals while embracing the Art Deco celebration of height.

At the top of the tower, stylized sculptures of two hands raised in prayer adorn the high points, echoing the motif seen throughout the building. The use of a large, semicircular auditorium was influenced by Louis Sullivan’s St. Paul’s Methodist Church. The exterior showcases a combination of materials such as metal, glass, terra cotta, limestone, and granite. Numerous terra cotta sculptures by Robert Garrison decorate the facade, depicting groups of people engaged in spiritual life, religious education, and worship.

The church also features statues of equestrian Circuit Riders, representing early Methodists spreading their message. Statues of John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and Susanna Wesley can be found over the north entrance. The exterior incorporates art deco-style organic plant designs inspired by Oklahoma’s flora, including the tritomas and coreopsis flowers.

The Boston Avenue Church made a significant impact on the architectural world. Art critic Sheldon Chaney praised its daring detail, fresh ornamental idioms, and expressive masses. In 1978, the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and later designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1999.

To commemorate the congregation’s 100th anniversary in 1993, murals were installed, designed by artist Angelo Gherardi to maintain the Art Deco style of the building. In 2000, a Columbarium was added, designed by architect Roger Coffey, allowing interment of cremains. The Columbarium features a cut glass window created by Richard Bohm.

A stone from the Boston Avenue Church is embedded in the walls of the Chicago Tribune Building, alongside other historic and famous stones from around the world. The church is home to a 105 rank Möller pipe organ, expanded and modified over the years. It was constructed by W. S. Bellows Construction Corporation.

The Boston Avenue United Methodist Church stands as a testament to the beauty and significance of Art Deco architecture, blending spiritual and artistic elements in a unique and influential way.

The Philbrook Museum of Art

The Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, is an art museum with beautiful formal gardens. It opened its doors in 1939 in the former 1920s villa known as “Villa Philbrook,” which was once the home of Oklahoma oil pioneer Waite Phillips and his wife Genevieve.

The museum showcases nine collections of art from around the world, spanning various artistic media and styles. One of the prominent collections focuses on Native American art, featuring basketry, pottery, paintings, and jewelry.

Under the guidance of its first director, Eugene Kingman, the Philbrook Art Museum officially opened to the public on October 25, 1939. It started with a permanent art collection comprising works from the Tulsa Art Association and Villa Philbrook. The museum initiated studio art classes in 1940 and a touring program for school children the following year. This led to the establishment of a Children’s Museum in 1949.

In response to the increasing demand for studio art classes, a new museum wing was built in 1969, although its use has since changed. The museum faced financial difficulties in the 1980s but experienced a renaissance in the 1990s. It was renamed the Philbrook Museum of Art in 1987 and was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums in 2009.

The museum expanded in 1990 with the addition of the Kravis Wing, which provided space for a special exhibition gallery, a public entry rotunda, a museum school, a library, a restaurant area, an expanded museum shop, and event space.

It also features the Williams Conference Center and the Patti Johnson Wilson Hall, an auditorium performance hall. In 2013, Philbrook opened a satellite facility called Philbrook Downtown in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District. However, this location closed in 2020 to make way for the Bob Dylan Center.

The museum’s permanent collection encompasses European, American, Native American, Modern and Contemporary Art and Design, African, Asian, and Antiquities. Over the years, the collection has grown through generous gifts and donations.

Notable artists represented in the collection include Giovanni Bellini, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, William Merritt Chase, Pablo Picasso, Kehinde Wiley, and Andrew Wyeth. The Eugene B. Adkins Collection of Native American painting, pottery, and jewelry is shared with the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

The original structure of the museum is an Italian Renaissance villa called Villa Philbrook. It was designed by prominent architect Edward Buehler Delk and completed in 1927. The mansion features stucco exterior with ground white marble, limestone corners, and Italianate tiles on the roof.

The interior boasts 72 rooms adorned with travertine, marble fireplaces and fountains, teak, walnut, and oak floors, and ornate ceilings reminiscent of Italian villas. The mansion’s main rooms are found on the ground floor, including the entrance hall, receiving hall, dining room, library, living room, and music room.

The museum is surrounded by 25 acres of formal and informal gardens. The original formal gardens were inspired by Villa Lante, an Italian country estate, and feature rills, diagonal walks, and a classical tempietto near a rustic pool. Additional gardens were completed in 2004, showcasing native Oklahoma plants and a refurbished creek. The gardens are a picturesque setting for the bronze sculpture “Thinker on a Rock” by Barry Flanagan.

The Gilcrease Museum

Gilcrease Museum, located in north-western Tulsa, is renowned for housing the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of art depicting the American West. Named after Thomas Gilcrease, an oil tycoon and passionate art collector, the museum boasts an extensive assortment of artwork and artifacts from Central and South America as well.

Thomas Gilcrease, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, inherited land in Oklahoma in the early 20th century. As an able businessman, he founded the Gilcrease Oil Company in 1922 and expanded his holdings. Inspired by European museums, Gilcrease began collecting art, focusing on American Indian heritage and the history of the American West. The first Gilcrease Museum opened in San Antonio in 1943 before relocating to Tulsa in 1949.

Facing financial difficulties, Gilcrease offered to sell his collection, but a bond election in 1954 saved the museum, with Tulsa residents approving the bond issue to pay his debts. In 1955, Gilcrease deeded his collection to the city of Tulsa, and in 1958, the museum buildings and grounds were conveyed as well. Gilcrease continued to support the collection until his death in 1962.

The Gilcrease Museum features works by renowned American artists such as Bierstadt, Remington, Moran, and Sharp, along with pieces by Russell, Hogue, and Audubon. Gilcrease believed art could convey the story of the American West and Native American history, supporting Native American artists and acquiring over 500 paintings by 20th-century Native American artists alone.

The museum’s long-term exhibition, “Enduring Spirit: Native American Artistic Traditions,” showcases the strengths of its Native American art collection. With approximately 10,000 art pieces, including 18 bronze sculptures by Remington, the Gilcrease Museum remains a cultural treasure. Since 2008, the University of Tulsa has managed the museum in partnership with the City of Tulsa.

In 2014, the museum expanded with the addition of the Helmerich Center for American Research, a state-of-the-art facility costing $14 million. This center provides a secure archival space where researchers can access over 100,000 books, manuscripts, documents, and maps related to American history.

Gilcrease Museum’s anthropology collections and department focus on the cultural history of North, Central, and South America, encompassing 300,000 artifacts, including archaeological and ethnographic materials. Noteworthy areas of the collection include artifacts from the Mississippi Valley region, the southwestern United States, and ancient Mexico. The museum also boasts a research facility, the Kravis Discovery Center, equipped with sliding glass display shelves and a computer database system for artifact management.

The archival collection at Gilcrease Museum is home to remarkable items such as a letter signed by Diego Columbus in 1512, the Cortez Decree of 1521, and copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. The Helmerich Center serves as a secure space for accessing these valuable documents, with a design inspired by the Vasari Corridor in Florence, Italy.

Gilcrease Museum’s gardens, covering a portion of its vast 460-acre grounds, offer visitors an immersive experience that complements the museum’s collections. With themed gardens representing various periods in the American West, including Pre-Columbian, Pioneer, Colonial, Victorian, and a rock garden, these landscaped areas provide educational and inspirational spaces for exploration.

Overall, Gilcrease Museum stands as a treasure trove of American art and history, inviting visitors to delve into the rich cultural heritage of the American West and beyond.

The Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium

The Tulsa Air and Space Museum (TASM) in Oklahoma is an aerospace museum situated in the northwest corner of Tulsa International Airport. Spanning 19,000 square feet, it houses historical exhibits, interactive activities, and vintage aircraft.

TASM added a full-dome planetarium in 2006 and offers educational facilities for school visits, summer camps, and Scout groups.

Within Hangar One, TASM’s exhibits provide a chronological account of aviation history in Tulsa. The Early Birds exhibit explores the origins of aviation, highlighting Tulsa aviation pioneer Duncan A. McIntyre.

A replica of Tulsa’s original art deco airport terminal is featured, showcasing its original elements like cast iron door frames, terra cotta decorations, and art deco sconces. The exhibit also presents historic documents and photographs. The Pearl Harbor survivors’ exhibit engages visitors with an interactive touch-screen where Oklahoma survivors share their experiences.

The World War II exhibit focuses on Tulsa’s contributions to the war effort, including the Spartan Aircraft Company, Spartan College of Aviation and Technology, and the Douglas Bomber Plant.

A commercial aviation exhibit displays uniforms, documents, and photos from American Airlines, Trans World Airlines, and other carriers. Tulsa’s involvement in manned and unmanned space programs is showcased in the space exhibit, which also offers visitors the chance to operate a mockup of the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm.

Hangar One is home to several historic aircraft, including surviving models such as the Spartan C-2, Rockwell Ranger 2000, Spartan NP-1, and F-14 Tomcat. The museum also dedicates a small exhibition to the training of 42 technical staff members of the young Israeli Air Force in 1949. These individuals underwent a 9-month training program at the Spartan College of Aviation and Technology in Tulsa, and upon completion, returned to Israel as certified aircraft mechanics.

TASM’s collections primarily focus on Tulsa’s aviation history. The museum’s James E. Bertelsmeyer Planetarium, opened in 2006, features a 360-degree high-definition full dome, offering full-dome digital shows, traditional star shows, and community events.

The Cain’s Ballroom

Cain’s Ballroom, located on the North Main Street in Tulsa, is a historic music venue with a rich history. Originally built in 1924 as a garage for W. Tate Brady’s automobiles, it was later purchased by Madison W. “Daddy” Cain in 1930 and transformed into Cain’s Dance Academy. Today, Cain’s Ballroom is recognized as one of the top performance venues globally, with Pollstar ranking it 13th worldwide for ticket sales at club venues in 2021.

The ballroom’s standout feature is its iconic maple dance floor, designed in a unique “log cabin” or concentric square pattern. The floor is accompanied by a four-foot neon star and a silver disco ball, creating an enchanting atmosphere.

The walls are adorned with oversized photographs of celebrated musicians who have graced Cain’s stage, including Bob Wills, Johnnie Lee Wills, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Kay Starr, and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Bob Wills, widely regarded as “The King of Western Swing,” played a pivotal role in Cain’s Ballroom’s history. From 1935 to 1942, the venue served as “The Home of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys,” popularizing the vibrant sound of western swing—a fusion of country, jazz, blues, and more. Wills, known for his remarkable fiddling skills, wrote and recorded numerous songs, influencing future artists like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Asleep at the Wheel.

With his significant contributions to American music, Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Cain’s Ballroom, known as both “The Home of Bob Wills” and the “Carnegie Hall of Western Swing,” remains an iconic venue, captivating audiences with its historic charm and vibrant performances.

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