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American Cities: Tulsa Oklahoma


Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain,
Where the waving wheat, can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain.
Oklahoma! Every night my honey-lamb and I,
Sit along and talk, and watch a hawk,
Making lazy circles in the sky.
We know we belong to this land,
And the land we belong to is grand,
And when we say: Ay yippy yi ki yea,
We're only saying: You're doing fine, Oklahoma,
Oklahoma! You’re OK!

- Rodgers & Hammerstein

You often hear it said that the U.S. has become homogenized; that regional flavor has all but disappeared; that there’s no longer a "there" anywhere. There is a bit of truth to such statements. Even cities known for their immense and distinctive beauty -- San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, or Chicago -- can look like anywhere else. Such dreary similarity usually takes place on a town’s outskirts, along high-traffic streets chockablock with fast-food emporiums, downscale motels, thrift shops.

National landmark Methodist Church certainly lends character to Tulsa. Credit: Courtesy of Tulsa Chamber of CommerceBut, just as with people, a city’s outer layer is often deceptive. Take the time to look beyond, and you’ll like as not discover beauty, character, and a certain indefinable something that exists nowhere else.

A good case in point is Tulsa, Oklahoma. I recently had my first glance at the Sooner State’s second-biggest city while driving from the airport, through mile after endless mile of malls, motels, and fast-food emporiums. Even fabled Route 66 -- subject of myth and song -- looked dowdy and depressing. I knew that Fortune Magazine had rated Tulsa among the country’s top 15 cities in Quality of Life. Surely, I thought, there’s more to the town than I’m seeing right now!

And, as I discovered, there is.

Let’s start with downtown, where, under the sprawling branches of the ancient Council Oak Tree, Tulsa was born. It was on this site that the tragic 1830s migration of Creek Indians -- now known as the Trail of Tears -- ended. And it was here, too, that the first "Tulsee Town" community meeting was held in 1836.

There was little then to differentiate Tulsa from any other Midwestern town. Situated on a river, it offered a decent but far from spectacular prospect of riches. Ranchers, traders, and farmers arrived and settled down to hard work. The population grew. In 1879 the town adopted a more grown-up name: Tulsa. In 1882, with the coming of the railroad and the town’s consequent prominence as a "cow town," most residents felt that the city had reached the height of prosperity.

But then, in 1901, oil was discovered in nearby Red Fork. The local Glen Pool strike four years later was the largest the world had ever seen. Almost overnight Tulsa was known as the "Oil Capital of the World." Money poured in, the population expanded, and soon the town was home to some of the richest people in the country.

World-renowned Gilcrease Museum. Credit: Courtesy of Tulsa Chamber of CommerceBy the 1920s, Tulsa’s leading citizens -- mostly wealthy oil barons -- were investing money in downtown construction to the tune of $1 million-a-month, and their handiwork is visible today in the area’s superlative architecture. The Art Deco Philcade building boasts zigzag motifs, custom-made bronze chandeliers, and ornate grillwork. The beautiful neoclassic Tulsa Municipal Building is listed in the National Register of Historic Structures. Trinity Episcopal Church has been called the best example of Gothic architecture between St. Louis and California. The Boston Building, once known as America’s "oil bank," displays intricately carved stone archways and lion-headed gargoyles. The 1918 Mid-Continent, once the tallest structure west of the Mississippi, displays a Venetian Gothic façade and a marble interior. Perhaps best -- or at least most impressive -- is the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, an astonishing Art Deco masterpiece truly deserving of its designation as a national historic landmark.

Such classic architecture is complemented by graceful modern buildings, wall murals, and outdoor sculpture. The 55-foot polished stainless steel Pilots’ Memorial soars skyward, embodying flight. In Tulsa Time and Light Continuum, sunlight is shattered into its component colors by 10-foot aluminum tubes. Black Experience, a relief wall mural, portrays both celebrated and everyday African-Americans.

As befits a city with a good deal of outdoor art, Tulsa is proud of its museums -- and justly so. The Gilcrease Museum contains the most comprehensive collection of American western art in the world. On display are works by Frederic Remington (Gilcrease owns all but three of his bronzes), Charles Russell, Thomas Moran, and major Native American artifacts. Gilcrease also hosts temporary exhibits. I was lucky enough to visit during a show of every Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell -- real covers, with mailing labels on them, dating back to 1916!

At the Philbrook Museum, housed in an Italianate Villa with extensive gardens, more than 8500 pieces afford an impressive overview of art history. By the way, you’ll definitely want to tour the residential area surrounding the Philbrook, which was originally built by oil zillionaires such as John Paul Getty. Set against a backdrop of big old trees and manicured lawns, these homes are stunning.

Other good museum bets include the Museum of Jewish Art, with one of the country’s largest collections of Judaica; Mac’s Antique Auto Museum; and the Dennie Willis Museum, with more than 1,000 dolls, trains, and robots housed in a 1910 Tudor-style mansion.

Outdoor entertainment for 2000 at River Parks Amphitheater. Credit: Courtesy of Tulsa Chamber of CommerceWhen it comes to cultural life, Tulsa has it all, including opera and ballet companies, a symphony orchestra, and theater troupe. The versatile Tulsa Philharmonic performs classical and contemporary compositions. Another orchestra, the Sinfonia, produces the annual July Fourth American Salute. The Gilbert & Sullivan Society holds a Light Opera series each June. The New York Times has lauded the Tulsa Ballet, calling it one of the best regional companies in the country. Founded in 1948, Tulsa Opera produces three major works each year. The downtown Performing Arts Center, which houses many of the performing groups, also hosts visiting celebrity performers (Luciano Pavarotti, for one), well-known touring companies, and Broadway plays such as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. And on the broad Arkansas River -- bordered with jogging trails, bike paths, and parks -- there’s a 2000-seat amphitheater and floating stage where performers entertain throughout the year.

Then there are the festivals. From Mayfest clear through Oktoberfest, Tulsa explodes with food, art, and music in its many street celebrations. There’s the Tulsa PowWow, the Jazz Festival, a chili/bluegrass/barbecue cookout, Juneteenth, a balloon fest, Scottish games, ethnic fairs (Greek, Hispanic), and lots more.

 

Scottish Games Festival ranks among annual Tulsa events. Credit: Courtesy of Tulsa Chamber of CommerceOn the employment front, Tulsa is fairly prosperous thanks to a strong base of commercial, manufacturing, and financial interests. It’s the headquarters of numerous industries, including manufacturers of aerospace equipment, oil-field supplies, refined petroleum, electronic equipment, fabricated metal, furniture, textiles, and building materials. Aircraft maintenance, data processing, and tourism -- mostly from other Oklahomans and business travelers -- play a big role, too. A major inland deepwater port, the nearby Port of Catoosa, sits at the head of a river system linking south to the Gulf of Mexico and north to the Great Lakes.

Tulsa contains a number of colleges and universities. In fact, the reason I was in Oklahoma to begin with had to do with the University of Tulsa. Hundreds of letters written by the controversial and unconventional Natalie Clifford Barney -- an American writer and salonist born in 1876 who’d spent most of her long life in Paris, where she was known as The Amazon -- were archived at the school’s McFarlin Library. I’m writing a biography of Barney; I needed to read the letters; et voila! I must admit that, in the back of my mind, I wondered how the correspondence of a woman who’d never set foot in Oklahoma (who probably never even uttered the word "Oklahoma") had ended up in Tulsa.

As I soon discovered, the presence of Barney’s letters in McFarlin’s Special Collections Department was no fluke. The curators have worked with determination and purpose for years to create an outstanding collection of literary manuscripts, letters, and other papers, and rare books. Among the gems: letters of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice B. Toklas, John Fowles, D. H. Lawrence, Christopher Isherwood, Rebecca West, and V. S. Naipaul; notebooks of Beat poet Gregory Corso; draft stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; a 1774 letter written by the Marquis de Sade.

TU, as it’s called, isn’t the only college in town. The privately funded Oral Roberts University (as well as its related Evangelistic Assocation and radio/television production facilities) is also in Tulsa. A visit here is rewarded by the school’s unusual modern architecture, the Prayer Tower, the giant sculpture of clasped hands, and an observation deck with a panoramic view of the city. By the way, in addition to these two large universities are Tulsa Community College, Rogers University, and several specialty schools.

Sculptured hands point the way at Oral Roberts University. Credit: Courtesy of Tulsa Chamber of CommerceLast but absolutely not least: dining. While it probably won’t replace San Francisco as Foodie Capital of the U.S., Tulsee Town is doing just fine indeed. As you’d expect, there are dozens of great bar-b-que and steak places. But there are many ethnic spots, too: Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Cajun, Chinese, Vietnamese, and a good Jewish deli.

If you can afford it, the Warren Duck Club (AAA Four Diamond) is a must. This luxurious, handsomely furnished place could hold its own anywhere with such perfectly prepared dishes as Breast of Chicken encased in Crushed Macadamia or Colorado Lamb Brochette on Rosemary Skewer. The food, the presentation, the service -- tops!

The Polo Grill, smack dab on the city’s most upscale shopping street, has a menu that somehow manages to be traditional and trendy at the same time. Don’t know how they do that, but it works: this place has received the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence as well as other prestigious commendations.

Dining at Bravo! rewards you not only with excellent Italian food (Saffron Fettucini, Terrine of Roasted Vegetables) but costumed waitpersons who break out periodically in operatic arias. Bodean Seafood has the kind of fresh, imaginative seafood dishes I love: Grilled Salmon with Raspberry Soy, Fennel-Crusted Yellowfin Tuna…the list goes on.

My only disappointment in Tulsa remains old Route 66, which really did look rather sad. If I’d stayed another day I might have explored that important piece of highway history. I’d have followed it out beyond the city, past the lakes, toward the Ozark Mountains. I’d have kept going until I could feel the wind come sweeping down the plains, watch a hawk making lazy circles in the sky. I’d have looked up and thought: It’s a grand land.

Ay yippy yi ki yea: I guess I’ll just have to come back and do it.

Until I do, though, let me just say that you’re doing fine, Oklahoma! And, Tulsa, you’re Okay!

If You Go:

Tulsa has many fine, moderately priced hotels. I stayed in two different places, each with its own unique benefits.

The Doubletree at Warren Place is a great choice for business travelers: rooms are large, quiet, and elegantly decorated, with good-sized desks and phones with modem ports; there’s an indoor swimming pool and a fitness facility; you can entertain guests in the comfortable bar or at the resident restaurant, the Warren Duck Club. The room service menu covers the gamut from snacks to full-course meals. The staff here was extremely friendly and helpful (such amiability appears to be a Tulsan trait). Info: 800-222-8733.

Hawthorne Suites, in a quiet cul-de-sac, is perfect for families or anyone contemplating a long stay. The comfortably furnished suites come with fully equipped kitchens; a trip to the grocery store and you’re set. A pool and tennis courts are on the grounds. All guests are welcome to the complementary breakfast buffet each morning (fruit, cereals, scrambled eggs, sausage patties). Most every evening the management hosts a two-hour reception where they dish up the evening’s hors d’ouevre: steak fingers, cheese sticks, mini burritos, finger sandwiches. Once in a while they throw a full-blown BBQ. Here, too, you’ll be greeted warmly. Info: 800-527-1133.

Then there are the festivals. From Mayfest clear through Oktoberfest, Tulsa explodes with food, art, and music in its many street celebrations. There’s the Tulsa PowWow, the Jazz Festival, a chili/bluegrass/barbecue cookout, Juneteenth, a balloon fest, Scottish games, ethnic fairs (Greek, Hispanic), and lots more.

Scottish Games Festival ranks among annual Tulsa events. Credit: Courtesy of Tulsa Chamber of CommerceOn the employment front, Tulsa is fairly prosperous thanks to a strong base of commercial, manufacturing, and financial interests. It’s the headquarters of numerous industries, including manufacturers of aerospace equipment, oil-field supplies, refined petroleum, electronic equipment, fabricated metal, furniture, textiles, and building materials. Aircraft maintenance, data processing, and tourism -- mostly from other Oklahomans and business travelers -- play a big role, too. A major inland deepwater port, the nearby Port of Catoosa, sits at the head of a river system linking south to the Gulf of Mexico and north to the Great Lakes.

Tulsa contains a number of colleges and universities. In fact, the reason I was in Oklahoma to begin with had to do with the University of Tulsa. Hundreds of letters written by the controversial and unconventional Natalie Clifford Barney -- an American writer and salonist born in 1876 who’d spent most of her long life in Paris, where she was known as The Amazon -- were archived at the school’s McFarlin Library. I’m writing a biography of Barney; I needed to read the letters; et voila! I must admit that, in the back of my mind, I wondered how the correspondence of a woman who’d never set foot in Oklahoma (who probably never even uttered the word "Oklahoma") had ended up in Tulsa.

As I soon discovered, the presence of Barney’s letters in McFarlin’s Special Collections Department was no fluke. The curators have worked with determination and purpose for years to create an outstanding collection of literary manuscripts, letters, and other papers, and rare books. Among the gems: letters of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice B. Toklas, John Fowles, D. H. Lawrence, Christopher Isherwood, Rebecca West, and V. S. Naipaul; notebooks of Beat poet Gregory Corso; draft stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; a 1774 letter written by the Marquis de Sade.

TU, as it’s called, isn’t the only college in town. The privately funded Oral Roberts University (as well as its related Evangelistic Assocation and radio/television production facilities) is also in Tulsa. A visit here is rewarded by the school’s unusual modern architecture, the Prayer Tower, the giant sculpture of clasped hands, and an observation deck with a panoramic view of the city. By the way, in addition to these two large universities are Tulsa Community College, Rogers University, and several specialty schools.

Sculptured hands point the way at Oral Roberts University. Credit: Courtesy of Tulsa Chamber of CommerceLast but absolutely not least: dining. While it probably won’t replace San Francisco as Foodie Capital of the U.S., Tulsee Town is doing just fine indeed. As you’d expect, there are dozens of great bar-b-que and steak places. But there are many ethnic spots, too: Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Cajun, Chinese, Vietnamese, and a good Jewish deli.

If you can afford it, the Warren Duck Club (AAA Four Diamond) is a must. This luxurious, handsomely furnished place could hold its own anywhere with such perfectly prepared dishes as Breast of Chicken encased in Crushed Macadamia or Colorado Lamb Brochette on Rosemary Skewer. The food, the presentation, the service -- tops!

The Polo Grill, smack dab on the city’s most upscale shopping street, has a menu that somehow manages to be traditional and trendy at the same time. Don’t know how they do that, but it works: this place has received the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence as well as other prestigious commendations.

Dining at Bravo! rewards you not only with excellent Italian food (Saffron Fettucini, Terrine of Roasted Vegetables) but costumed waitpersons who break out periodically in operatic arias. Bodean Seafood has the kind of fresh, imaginative seafood dishes I love: Grilled Salmon with Raspberry Soy, Fennel-Crusted Yellowfin Tuna…the list goes on.

My only disappointment in Tulsa remains old Route 66, which really did look rather sad. If I’d stayed another day I might have explored that important piece of highway history. I’d have followed it out beyond the city, past the lakes, toward the Ozark Mountains. I’d have kept going until I could feel the wind come sweeping down the plains, watch a hawk making lazy circles in the sky. I’d have looked up and thought: It’s a grand land.

Ay yippy yi ki yea: I guess I’ll just have to come back and do it.

Until I do, though, let me just say that you’re doing fine, Oklahoma! And, Tulsa, you’re Okay!

If You Go:

Tulsa has many fine, moderately priced hotels. I stayed in two different places, each with its own unique benefits.

The Doubletree at Warren Place is a great choice for business travelers: rooms are large, quiet, and elegantly decorated, with good-sized desks and phones with modem ports; there’s an indoor swimming pool and a fitness facility; you can entertain guests in the comfortable bar or at the resident restaurant, the Warren Duck Club. The room service menu covers the gamut from snacks to full-course meals. The staff here was extremely friendly and helpful (such amiability appears to be a Tulsan trait). Info: 800-222-8733.

Hawthorne Suites, in a quiet cul-de-sac, is perfect for families or anyone contemplating a long stay. The comfortably furnished suites come with fully equipped kitchens; a trip to the grocery store and you’re set. A pool and tennis courts are on the grounds. All guests are welcome to the complementary breakfast buffet each morning (fruit, cereals, scrambled eggs, sausage patties). Most every evening the management hosts a two-hour reception where they dish up the evening’s hors d’ouevre: steak fingers, cheese sticks, mini burritos, finger sandwiches. Once in a while they throw a full-blown BBQ. Here, too, you’ll be greeted warmly. Info: 800-527-1133.