Oklahoma City and Tulsa both have a stock of distinguished modernist buildings that is surprising to anyone who visits these cities fort the first time. There are several “Oklahoma modern” websites in the state and residents of these communities take a good deal of pride in their historic structures. But, inexplicably, Oklahoma City is about to destroy John Johansen’s iconic, though controversial, Mummers Theater (1965–1970)—the best-known building in the state behind Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower in Bartlesville. Johansen claimed Mummers never met the expectations of many in Oklahoma City, who hoped to get a replica of New York’s Lincoln Center. The critic Peter Blake best defined the theater as a “kind of action architecture” built of various “available products and elements that can accept… changes and accidents with equanimity.” It is a truly revolutionary structure, but now seems slated for demolition with the site becoming a high-rise office building, parking garage, and public space.
While this truly extraordinary but seemingly unloved structure will be destroyed, across town another modern icon, known simply as the Gold Dome, is being saved. The geodesic structure will be repurposed as a new corporate headquarters for the engineering and environmental company Teemco. The company is proud of the 36,000-square-foot building and promises to return its 145-foot-diameter dome back to its golden glory. In fact, Teemco, which claims it paid handsomely for the building, seems to be happy to be restoring the structure and making it their home.
Tulsa is home to an extraordinary collection of modernist and art deco buildings, many of which hearken back to the days when the city was the oil center of the nation. Here, local officials are not only taking steps to save the city’s architectural heritage, but are using the buildings to re-imagine and reinvigorate the built environment. Local architecture firm Kinslow, Keith & Todd (KKT) has restored several buildings, including the 11-story Bruce Goff designed Tulsa Club, the Mayo Building, and the spectacular Philtower Building.
Several blocks from these structures, a citywide effort that started from a thoughtful master plan is transforming a stretch of old commercial and manufacturing buildings along Brady Street into a thriving arts district. The plan connects the new baseball stadium—ONEOK Field—with the BOK Center, a César Pelli–designed arena. The city’s Philbrook Museum of Art has opened a new downtown gallery space in an old warehouse that includes a new craft gallery, art studios, and Woody Guthrie Center. The Philbrook downtown is a textbook example of how to save, preserve, and update a perfectly good building. It has a contemporary exhibit space designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects. Directly across Brady Street from this new arts center, the city, with funding from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, created Guthrie Green, a new public park and performance facility designed by KKT.
Tulsa has barely 400,000 residents, but it is showing its much larger neighbor down route 44 how to preserve its architectural heritage and use it as the basis of a contemporary, re-imagined city.