Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.
The Roaring Twenties: Before the Tulsa Cave House Got Its Name
The Cave Garden was swarming with people. Cigar smoke filled the rooms as tall men in dark fedoras ordered whiskey under the code name of “horse liniment” or “coffin varnish." They knew that at any time the Tulsa police could raid the chicken restaurant and arrest anyone that possessed even a tiny drop of alcohol. It was rare that alcohol could be found in the main rooms, but occasionally some blundering fool would walk out with his monkey rum in hand and tempt fate. Typically, the restaurant patrons would have to pay a hefty sum to gain entrance to the rooms that lie hidden behind the stucco façade of the main dining hall. Still, mistakes were made, so a wary eye was always kept on lookout for the authorities.
Occasionally, Pretty Boy Floyd would stop in with his gang of outlaws and share stories of how he and his boys had outwitted the law yet again, all the while showing off his charismatic smile and sipping on some fancy home-brewed liquor. He seemed to favor this restaurant. He enjoyed its picturesque view of Lookout Mountain as it shimmered across the Arkansas River, and always happened by while he was in Tulsa.
Besides the picturesque view that the Cave Garden offered, it was one of the most unique places in Tulsa. Nestled back against a short cliff, the restaurant resembled that of a cave and fit in perfectly with its surroundings. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, while short ledges and obscure crevices lined the walls. The place always smelled damp and musty, and many times the patrons would don heavy coats to ward away the chill. Still, in an era where prohibition was strongly enforced, people were willing to do anything to get a sip of liquor.
It wouldn’t be until after the end of prohibition that the Cave Garden would come to be known as Tulsa’s Cave House.
The Fact of the Matter Is . . .
Joseph Koberling Sr. and James Purzer built the uniquely designed “Cave House” in the 1920s. It was designed as a restaurant that provided outdoor eating, but it was notorious for being the front to a speakeasy at night. The building almost looks like something out of the Flintstones, complete with stalactites and round, curving walls. In fact, the lines between the walls and the ceilings are blurred, as they form a smooth transition resembling that of a well-worn cave.
The legends that surround the Cave House are numerous; mentioning everything from secret access panels to haunted rooms. Most of these legends remain unproven, but there are attempts underway to either prove or disprove the legends one and for all.
The Myths and Legends: Secrets and Specters
Legend has it that the restaurant was just a ruse. Patrons would enter the restaurant’s main room and rattle off a password to one of the owners. If they accepted the password, then the patron would be led towards the fireplace and a secret door that led to a flight of stairs. After turning left on the stairs, they would enter a tunnel that went deep into the hillside. At the end of this hidden underground chamber, a large dining room was set up, fully supplied with plenty of alcohol. Allegedly, Pretty Boy Floyd and his gang of outlaws, among others, would frequent this bar. Of course, the entrance to the bar was sealed off with concrete walls sometime in the forgotten past and its exact location has yet to be found.
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Residents who live on the top of the hill tell of many tunnels that also served as entrances and/or exits from the restaurant. Supposedly, the bodies of black victims of the Ku Klux Klan are hidden in these tunnels. Newblock Park, next to the Cave House, is also rumored to be the site of a mass grave for victims of the 1921 Race Riots.
Tunnels and hidden passageways aren’t the only secrets the Cave House hides. In an upstairs room towards the front of the house, there is a floorboard that is removable. Apparently, it was a cache of illegal liquor. One person found some old, colored glass bottles still corked hidden in this cache. These hidden nooks are rumored to be spread throughout the house, and many have remained undiscovered since the days of prohibition.
In addition to the many secrets the Cave House still has to offer, many claim that it is often visited by the supernatural. Ghosts occasionally can be heard cooing throughout the wee hours of the night, and there are accounts of strange gusts of wind blowing even when the house is sealed tight. The former restaurant may be haunted, or it may just be the acoustics in a cement house and a forgotten window left open.
The Future of the Landmark
Whatever the truth may be, the Cave House is both a fascinating piece of architecture as well as a Tulsa county landmark. It is an enigma, a puzzle just waiting to be solved. Throughout the years, there have been numerous plans made to locate and excavate these hidden tunnels, but none of the plans have come to pass. One day, when all is said and done, we may finally know the true nature of the Cave House, but for now, we wait.
Visiting the Tulsa Cave House
The Tulsa Cave House is located at 1623 W. Charles Page Blvd., just west of Downtown Tulsa in Newblock Park. Many people pass by and wonder what the story is behind the building, but few stop in. For those who haven't been, it's certainly worth a visit. The owner provides tours of the house as well as much of the history back to the Pretty Boy Floyd days.
© 2010 Eric Standridge