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Tulsa's Art Deco History and Locations to Visit

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

Tulsa Grew up With Art Deco

In the early 20's and lasting until 1939, Downtown Tulsa was booming with life and money. Throughout downtown Tulsa, Art Deco buildings were springing up almost overnight. Art Deco buildings were all the rage in the United States. In fact, the art deco style had permeated almost every facet of American civilization between the two world wars.

Art Deco can best be classified as a style of art that is marked by stylized forms and geometric designs adapted to mass production. It shows the influence of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, and Eastern design, often using shapes and streamlined contours. Often, the stile was used for hotels, theaters, and office buildings.

In essence, Art Deco was a "modernization" of a great many artistic styles and themes from history. In many examples of Art Deco, one can easily detect the influence of Far and Middle Eastern design, Greek and Roman themes, and even Egyptian and Mayan influence. Modern elements included machine and automobile patterns, shapes such as stylized gears and wheels, or natural elements such as sunbursts and flowers.

Three Styles of Art Deco in Tulsa

Between World War I and World War II, especially during the roaring twenties, Tulsa began to come into her own. The discovery of oil in the early 1900s brought a great wealth into Tulsa, causing the city to explode in a building frenzy. Tulsans wanted the local architecture to reflect the modern, progressive city they called home.

Art Deco was an opulent style, and its lavishness is attributed to a reaction to the forced self-denial imposed by World War I.

There are three types of Art Deco architecture: Zigzag, Classic Moderne, and Streamline Moderne.


Zigzag (or stepping) architecture is used in Art Deco to make qualities of height more pronounced and is an obvious choice for towering structures. The standard shape of the Art Deco skyscraper is that of a wide base, and as the building grows taller, narrows gradually into a stepped form until the tower extends into the sky at a consistent narrow width. This type of architecture is influenced by the pyramids of ancient civilizations. This type of architecture was highly popular during the early to mid-1920s.

Classic Moderne

Classic Moderne is a type of Art Deco architecture that is identified by its graceful composition. This type of architecture modifies classical architectural forms and compared to other types of Art Deco architecture, exterior, and interior ornamentation is far less apparent. This form of Art Deco values symmetry, typically these buildings were more sedate in form, usually horizontally structured, except for the towers which were modeled after the traditional forms of urban skyscrapers. This typically features a variety of distinguished artwork and imagery created in a variety of mediums. Painted murals and carved statuary were meant to convey through symbols the purpose of the building and its position in the community. This type of architecture was popular after the stock market crash of 1929.

Streamline Moderne

Streamline Moderne is a type of Art Deco architecture that appears to be the most modern of the three Art Deco architectural types. It is easily identified through the styles clean, smooth lines which convey aerodynamic qualities. Typically, they are box-like in appearance and have flat roofs. During the 1930’s, when this type of architecture was prevalent, streamlined moderne provided a relief from the heavier ornamental look of the previous two styles of Art Deco architecture. This type of architecture looked thoroughly cutting edge with the use of glass bricks, speed stripes and alternative windows, with some looking like the portholes of an ocean liner.

Art Deco in Tulsa

Built in 1926, Christ the King Church, located at 16th and Quincy, is one of the best examples of Zigzag Art Deco. The church was designed by architect Barry Byrne of Chicago and opened to the public in 1927. Barry Byrne was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright from 1902 until 1907, and was heavily influenced by this great American architect and designer. The church is accented by beveled piers and terra cotta ornamentation designed by Italian artist Alfonso Ianelli. Alfonso also designed the church’s massive stained glass windows.

Boston Avenue Methodist Church is one of Downtown Tulsa's most prominent and stunning Art Deco buildings. The Church was opened in 1929, and is an amazing example of the Zigzag Art Deco style prominent during this time. With its stylized lines and sweeping curves, the church's modern designs and symbols make it one of Tulsa's most famous Art Deco Structure. This building was named a National Landmark in January 1999.

Classic Moderne Art Deco was introduced during the Great Depression. Many of these buildings were built with funds from the Public Works Administration, which was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. The Tulsa Union Depot was built using Zigzag design features on a large scale. The Union Depot, designed by Frederick Kershner in 1931, was built to serve the needs of three different railroads in the Tulsa area. This style of building isn't as opulent as earlier styles of Art Deco, so it can be best classified as Moderne.

Other examples of Classic Moderne Art Deco include the Tulsa State Fairground Pavilion (Leland Shumway, 1932), Daniel Webster High School (Atkinson, John Duncan Forsyth, William Wolaver and Raymond Kerr, 1938), and Will Rogers High School (Atkinson, Koberling and Senter, 1939).

Once Tulsa began to recover from the Great Depression, Streamline Art Deco became popular. The Art Deco style emphasized speed and motion. Typically, these buildings were simple and paid homage to the automobile and the sea with travel and nautical designs. In Tulsa, the Brookside neighborhood is largely Streamline Art Deco, notably the City Veterinary Hospital (Koeberling, 1942) and the S & J Oyster House (1945). Other fine examples of Streamline Art Deco structures include The Tulsa Monument Company and Will Rogers Theater.

Art Deco in a City Between Wars

World War I had a great impact on Tulsa around 1915.  Tulsans were focused on helping the war effort, and were swept away with patriotism and national pride.  They conserved resources, and because of this, growth in early Tulsa slowed to a crawl. 

After the war ended in 1919, Tulsans began building like never before, erecting huge skyscrapers and opulent homes.  Tulsa was no longer repressed by war efforts, and, like the rest of the country, celebrated in a way that made the roaring 20's famous.

This great building spurt only lasted a few short years, as the Great Depression once again slowed growth.  Still, Tulsa powered on as citizens did their best to show their pride for this great city.  This slow growth continued until World War II began in 1939.  During this time, the United States once again geared up to support the war efforts in Europe.

Tulsa still continues to construct buildings in the Art Deco style, but to a much lesser degree.  It was during the glory days of big oil and swinging jazz, a time between two wars, where Art Deco reigned supreme.

The P.S.O. Building, Downtown Tulsa - Zigzag Art Deco Style architecture

The P.S.O. Building, Downtown Tulsa - Zigzag Art Deco Style architecture

© 2010 Eric Standridge


Zoe on March 31, 2020:

The bus depot is neo-deco at best. It was built this century.

Joy56 on December 14, 2010:

i enjoyed that, the only art deco had known before really were Clarisse Cliffes jugs, they are beautiful, far more to learn i see, Thank you for such an enlightening hub

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 03, 2010:

Interesting hub about Tulsa.

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