POSTED ON OCTOBER 26, 2011:
Meet Modern Tulsa
Fans of local mid-century Modern art and architecture cultivate interest in neighborhood
Modern Tulsa is a six-year-old group that gets a lot of blank looks. Modern who, modern what?
The loose collective of Modern Tulsa members love and want to preserve modern design.
Modernism arose in America in the 1930s as a rejection of "traditional" art, thought and design. In 1934, American poet Ezra Pound tapped into the soul of modernism when he challenged fellow artists to "Make it new!"
Modern design is a sort of sleek tango between clean lines and Mad Men panache. It's a little like the structural translation of a well-tailored go-go dress. Think The Jetsons spacey cartoon living room furniture brought to life.
In Tulsa, modernism came of age in the 1950s, when interest in the style led to the creation of an entire subdivision -- Lortondale, near 31st St. and Yale Ave.
In the 1950s, full-page newspaper ads touted the California contemporary style of Lortondale's airy, angular post-World War II homes.
Under the modernism umbrella lays several different styles of architecture, including a Tulsa perennial favorite -- Art Deco.
While Art Deco art and architecture has been carefully preserved in Tulsa, modern architecture is still often neglected. Cue the crickets and the blank looks.
Enter the guy at the helm of Modern Tulsa, Shane Hood, with a distinctively long beard and a sharp eye for design. The organization hopes to preserve modern buildings in Tulsa, and to educate the public on how to look for (and appreciate) modern design.
But the Tulsa Foundation of Architecture board trustee said he hadn't planned on becoming an advocate for historic preservation. "I just hate when I see people tear things down that are really well-designed. And put up crap," he laughed.
Before graduating from Drury University in Springfield, Mo., one of Hood's college friends showed him around Tulsa, pointing out the modern buildings and Lortondale. He was impressed.
Before Hood and his wife, both Drury grads, decided to settle in Tulsa, he scoured old magazines for mentions of modern design in his adopted city.
He found plenty.
Modern Testing Ground
"Tulsa was a testing ground," Hood said. Modern homes were built in the city by architects at Life Magazine and Popular Mechanics. An Atomic Ranch house was built here, too, along with a "House for All America," touted by '50s-era Better Homes & Gardens as "the perfect style of house for Americans," Hood said.
In 1952 and 1953, Tulsa architect Donald Honn teamed up with tract house builder Howard Grubb to develop plans for a neighborhood filled with cutting edge architecture at a mid-range price point.
In 1953, Grubb and Honn constructed three prototype homes for Lortondale, at 21st Pl. and Pittsburgh Ave., according to the neighborhood's website, Lortondale.com.
The acreage for the mid-century modern neighborhood was previously owned by the Lorton family, who nicknamed their country ranch "Lortondale." The family sent out Christmas cards with photos of the property with the friendly salutation, "Greetings from Lortondale!"
According to history compiled by the Lortondale site, the Lortons' original brick entrance columns at 27th St. and Yale Ave. are still standing.
Grubb purchased the ranch site and constructed 220 modern houses between early 1954 and 1956.
The 220 Lortondale homes were offered for between $13,500 and $16,500, and featured "combo living and dining rooms at the rear of the house with expansive floor-to-ceiling glass walls looking out onto the backyard," according to Lortondale's site.
A Lortondale contemporary was Levittown, Pa. -- the original "planned unit development" or PUD -- built by William Levitt in 1953.
Then the 1970s happened. Many once-stylish houses were altered beyond almost all recognition, Hood said, and the Philippine mahogany paneling -- so chic when it was installed -- is often painted over.
However, Tulsans have shown a renewed interest in Lortondale and its thoroughly modern homes.
Hood and his wife, Heather, bought their Lortondale house about 6 years ago for $75,000. Now, houses in the neighborhood go for up to $130,000.
A lot of younger couples have bought the starter houses for the sleek aesthetic and thoughtful design, though most require work to return the homes to their former glory.
Lortondale houses sell quickly, but none faster than "the ones that haven't been 'renovated,'" Hood said.
The Hoods spent years peeling vinyl siding off their modern house to reveal the original redwood planks, and renovating the kitchen with complementary, clean elements.
Right now, Hood said, Lortondalers are going through the process of having their beloved modern neighborhood added to the National Register of Historic Places.
"It should happen this year," Hood said.
Modern Tulsa is planning a home tour for spring 2012 to show that modernism didn't just pop up in Sweden and the coasts, Hood said.
This immaculate design can be found in Tulsa, too, albeit a bit obscured by time and changing trends. A few years ago, Hood and his design partner Mary Tepera Jones salvaged a boarded-up '50s-era PEMCO gas station on 11th St. near Peoria Ave.
No one wanted to use the old station "as anything but a used car lot," Hood said. But the station had good modern bones, so Hood and Jones replaced the boards with fresh glass.
They stripped the interior down to its original block material, paneled the 240 sq. ft. space in aromatic cedar and fixed the gas pump canopy lights. The station, 1347 E. 11th St., was transformed from an eyesore into the modern office for elevenTH design, Hood and Jones' architecture and graphic design firm.
Neither of the partners office there anymore, but now other small businesses -- not just used car salesmen -- are interested in using the space.
There is something a bit post-modern or perhaps slyly ironic about nostalgia for modernism, a movement determined to reach beyond nostalgia and tradition and the past itself.
However, there is also something timeless in the appreciation of good bones, in the renovation of a well-designed house, in the resurgence of a period in American design when the future was now.
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