It's a good thing for a city to get a look at itself through the eyes of visitors. They can help us see the good points that we tend to overlook and the flaws that we prefer to ignore.
That opportunity is intensified when a couple of thousand visitors come to town at once, and especially so when they're the sort of folks who pay attention to architecture, urban design, and the way cities are shaped by history.
About 1,500 delegates came to Tulsa in mid-October for the 2008 National Preservation Conference (NPC), the annual gathering of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). The organization's mission is "helping people protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to them."
NPC delegates include state and city preservation officials, architects, city planners, restoration experts, managers of historic sites, directors of Main Street organizations (they work to revive historic commercial districts) and owners of historic homes -- both professionals and amateurs with an interest in saving the best of the past for future generations to enjoy.
It was a smaller turnout than most years. 2,404 registered for the 2006 conference in Pittsburgh. St. Paul, Minn., drew about 2,000 in 2007.
Perhaps it was because of rising travel costs and economic uncertainty. Perhaps Tulsa wasn't appealing enough to preservationists to move them to register.
The NPC is usually held in cities with substantial achievement in and strong commitment to historic preservation. Delegates come to see first-hand examples of successful preservation of endangered landmarks.
Those success stories certainly exist in Tulsa, but they're scarcer than they should be. Private owners have accomplished some wonderful rescues -- the Fire Alarm Building and the Vickery Phillips 66 are a couple of recent examples -- but Tulsa has neither a cultural consensus nor a determined governmental stance in support of protecting our historic buildings and neighborhoods.
Tulsa's poor record was reflected in the theme chosen for the Tulsa conference -- "Preservation in Progress" -- and in a midweek op-ed by NTHP president Richard Moe which appeared in our city's staunchly anti-preservation daily paper.
Strangely, (we can only imagine because that paper needs to get the message directly force-fed) the NTHP offered the piece exclusively to the news outlet responsible for one of the most recent historic-building-to-parking-lot conversions, the Bruce Goff-designed Skelly Building at 4th and Boulder Ave.
Moe acknowledged the city's wealth of art deco buildings, neighborhoods, and "preservation achievements in recent years." But, he wrote, Tulsans "must also see that big, important chunks of their heritage are still in danger of being spoiled or lost altogether."
Oklahoma's tax credit program for the rehabilitation of historic income-producing buildings drew praise as one of the best in the nation. Oklahoma offers a 20 percent tax credit on top of the federal credit, providing an economic incentive to reuse endangered landmarks. He cited the conversion of the Atlas Life Building into a Courtyard by Marriott hotel as an example of what could be accomplished in "Tulsa's underused and abandoned historic buildings."
Moe also called attention to Tulsa's teardown problem, where old homes in a neighborhood are demolished and replaced with "monster houses" that are out of scale and out of character. He urged the city to adopt neighborhood conservation ordinances to ensure "that neighborhoods can grow and evolve without losing the historic character that made them desirable in the first place."
I'm struck by the irony of these sentiments appearing on an editorial page whose "professional bull writers" (to borrow a phrase from KFAQ's Chris Medlock) have slandered as anti-development, anti-growth, and anti-progress any city councilor or council candidate advocating such an ordinance.
Thanks to work of the daily and their development lobby allies, there isn't a single city councilor willing to take the political risk to push for such legislation.
Tulsa was scolded a few more times during the week. At the opening session at First Presbyterian Church, Richard Wilson spoke of the contrast between the beautiful buildings and the desolation caused by our own citizens, an observation inspired by a visit to the corner of 4th and Main, once home to ornate movie palaces and stately department stores, now home to a parking garage and a hole in the ground.
At the closing session, Anthony Tung, an author and urbanist who has served on New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission, was asked what advice he would give to Tulsa. He too urged passage of a "binding preservation law."
According to NTHP communications manager Virgil McDill, Tung said that "the fact that 52 percent of downtown Tulsa is covered in surface parking lots... owes in large measure to the fact that historic buildings are not designated by the city. Until they are, the glory of Tulsa's rich architectural heritage -- including the many art deco buildings still standing -- could be further eroded."
It will come as no surprise that delegates were impressed with Tulsa's collection of Art Deco, ranging as it does from late '20s zigzag to '30s WPA public buildings to '40s streamline. A bus tour delighted deco fans, who were privileged to get a rare inside look at the Goff-designed Adah Robinson home at 11th Pl. and Owasso Ave.
But the tour-goers were frustrated by the need to speed past most of the buildings on the tour, a third of which was for some reason devoted to two non-deco sites: the ORU campus and Westhope, a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Whether you got a good look at, for example, Christ the King Parish, depended on which side of the bus you were on.
The bus trip illustrated how Tulsans, even historically-minded Tulsans, take so much of our architectural history for granted, while we crow about amenities that any cultured city would have. Some delegates called in vain for a brief pause as the bus zoomed past art deco commercial buildings on Harvard between 11th and 15th, but the Tulsa-based tour guides were apparently oblivious, rambling on about our wonderful ballet and opera and Utica Square.
The tour ended in the ornate lobby of Tulsa's earliest art deco skyscraper, the ONG Building at 7th and Boston. The Hille Foundation now owns the building as a real estate investment and has plans to convert the upper stories into downtown's first condo conversion project.
A "Downtown Safari" walking tour, led by Tulsa Preservation Commission staffer Ed Sharrer, featured lions, owls, dolphins, eagles, iguanas, cranes, and squirrels -- a menagerie that exists in the ornamentation on downtown's buildings, along with human faces and figures that Sharrer called the "safari staff."
It was a whimsical way to take in the history of downtown's most interesting buildings, inspired by Sharrer's observation: "There's an entire zoo to be seen downtown, if people would only look up." Sharrer plans to refine the tour and make the script available online for download, so that it can be used to introduce school children (and children of all ages) to downtown's treasures.
The Philcade Building at 5th and Boston contained a hidden highlight -- a Tulsa Foundation for Architecture exhibit of drawings, photos, and architectural artifacts from downtown's lost buildings.
Tulsans might be surprised at the delegates' interest in our mid-century modern architecture. Just across the street from the ornate ONG HQ is a building with a striking horizontal overhang, multilevel flat roof, and horizontal bands of windows, once home to Ponca City Savings and Loan. Beyond it to the east, the First National Auto Bank, now closed, drew expressions of both appreciation of its classic style and concern about its future.
Preservationists have mixed feelings about mid-20th-century architecture, connected as it is with the demolition of older urban streetscapes and the rise of auto-dependent suburban sprawl. Because it was built in living memory, people are inclined to discount its importance, just as earlier generations carelessly discarded Victorian and Art Deco masterpieces, thinking them too recent to be worth preserving.
Still, the forms and materials of mid-century modern evoke a distinct period in American history of great social and economic change. As neighborhoods like Lortondale move beyond their golden anniversary, they become eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and designation as a historic preservation zoning district.
Tulsa's mid-century commercial architecture -- the first wave of post-World War II suburban shopping centers -- are falling to the wrecking ball. Gone are the original 21st & Yale Sears, the John Duncan Forsythe-designed Mayo Meadow Shopping Center, the Continental Theater, and the U. S. Jaycees Headquarters. The multi-level Sheridan Village, on Admiral, which opened in 1954 and was home to J.C. Penney, OTASCO, and Borden Cafeteria (on the "roof garden"), is fenced off and awaiting its doom.
Other mid-century marvels -- the Bellaire and Boman Acres shopping centers come to mind -- have lost their period charm to modernization.
The delegates I encountered spoke highly of the Tulsans they met, finding the people here friendly and helpful.
But out-of-town delegates were frustrated at the difficulties they faced just finding a bite to eat. If a delegate thought she wouldn't need a car because her hotel and the convention were both downtown, she soon realized her mistake.
A single convention center snack bar (high prices, limited selection) was open for limited hours during the day. An evening shuttle service was offered between the conference hotels (the downtown Doubletree, the Crowne Plaza, and the Ambassador) and Brookside and Cherry Street.
Tulsa's antiquated taxi laws make it impossible to hail a cab anywhere except the airport, something that came as a surprise to conferees from larger cities. Golzern Pedicabs helped fill the gap, cycling passengers between hotels and the Blue Dome district.
Many conference cities arrange for locals to serve as greeters or "ambassadors." Wearing distinctive attire, they circulate in and around the convention hall, on the watch for delegates with perplexed expressions, ready to answer questions and give directions. While many locals volunteered for the NPC, guiding tours and helping to marshal people on and off buses, there weren't any ambassadors as such.
The two entities which receive tax and assessment revenues from the city to promote Tulsa and its downtown were also conspicuous by their low profile. Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, notorious for its opposition to such basic preservation measures as a demolition review ordinance, didn't appear to have a presence in the convention hall. The Convention and Visitors Bureau had a table in the exhibits hall, but it wasn't manned during any of my visits.
But cabs and directions wouldn't have been in such demand if it weren't for the consequences of decades of demolition, resulting in isolated pockets of activity separated by great gulfs of surface parking and office buildings that are dead after 5pm. In a city with an intact downtown, you can follow the crowds on the street to find someplace to eat. That's not possible in Tulsa, not even in the middle of a weekday.
Blogging on the Preservation Nation Web site (preservationnation.org), NTHP architect Barbara Campagna voiced a commonly heard sentiment:
"...I would like to understand sometime what happened to downtown Tulsa to devastate it to such an extent... And while many downtowns around the country go dormant on the weekends, I have never seen a major city that is dormant during the week also. Let's be honest, I was pretty depressed my first few days here.
"What I learned from this trip and from several other visits around the city over the weekend, was that there are islands of hope in the city. What's missing right now is connection. Downtown has more holes than beauty and most of the innovation appears to be on the edge of downtown."
As Ed Sharrer put it, Tulsa has some great places, but we don't have enough places between the places.
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