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Art Deco Primer

Can you imagine downtown Tulsa without Boston Avenue Methodist Church, the Warehouse Market, or the Union Depot?  I hope you wouldn’t even want to imagine such a scenario because we, as Tulsans, understand the importance of art deco architecture.  It helps define us as a city, and in no small part, gives us our “sense of place.”

But, what does “art deco” really mean?  What are some examples of art deco in Tulsa?  Why is it important?

The term Art Deco (coined in the mid-60s) is used to describe three separate but related movements of the popular modern architecture common in the 20s and 30s:

The first movement is referred to as Zigzag:  this term is derived from the 1923 Exposition of the Decorative Arts in Paris and is an essential ingredient of the American Perpendicular Skyscraper Style–most popular in the 20s.

Existing examples in Tulsa include:

  • Boston Avenue United Methodist Church,
  • Oklahoma Natural Gas Building,
  • Gillette-Tyrell Building (as originally designed with 13 floors),
  • Philcade Building (considered by many to be one of the best lobbies anywhere),
  • Warehouse Market,
  • Christ the King Church, and the
  • Tulsa Club, now vacant and potentially at risk.

The second movement is called Streamline Art Deco:  the rhythm of the 30s with automobiles and jazz propelled everyone forward and was reflected in horizontally streamlined architecture.

The line was the parabolic curve; building materials that could be smoothly molded such as stucco and glass block were extensively used.

Nice examples include:

  • City Veterinary Hospital at 36th & Peoria
  • Lerner Shop at 5th &Main, as well as
  • some extraordinary homes sprinkled in our historic neighborhoods (Ungerman, McGay, Forsythe) .

The third movement is the PWA Style:  The early 30s were marked with the Great Depression.  Although oil price dropped, oilmen continued to make money during the Depression.  In response to the national situation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided a “New Deal” for the country under the auspices of two “New Deal” agencies:

  • the Public Works Administration (PWA) and later, the
  • Works Progress Administration (WPA).

PWA Art Deco is considered a “transitional architecture” as it incorporates elements of the Zigzag art deco of the 20s and the Streamline art deco of the 30s.  Buildings in this style are characterized mainly by their public use and massive or monumental scale.

Existing examples include:

  • Tulsa Union Depot,
  • Fairgrounds Pavilion,
  • Tulsa Fire Alarm Building, and both
  • Daniel Webster and Will Rogers High Schools.

Referring to the WPA and PWA programs, Will Rogers is quoted as saying, “Never was a country more in the throes of more capital letters than the old U.S.A., but still we haven’t sent out the S.O.S.”

As Tulsa continues to grapple with its identity, we must continue to educate Tulsans about our rich architectural heritage so that it will continue to be recognized, loved, and cared for by future generations.

Tulsa is known worldwide as an art deco destination; in fact, Tulsa was the host city to the 6th World Congress on Art Deco in 2001.  We had the opportunity in October of 2008 to dazzle thousands of participants with our art deco architecture as Tulsa hosts the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference.

We cannot afford to be complacent about preservation in Tulsa.   You are a part of the preservation success story in Tulsa. Preservation begins at home—it happens on the local level.

You now understand the term “art deco” and the three styles associated with it.  I invite you to look at Tulsa – especially downtown Tulsa—with new eyes!  Share that knowledge with a friend and share the importance of preservation for our city.

Art Deco is fun, art deco is cool, art deco is Tulsa!