“Why are you going to Tulsa?”
I heard this question more than once when I mentioned my (very) quick weekend trip to T-Town. My response: “why not?”
The truth was that my husband traveled there for business (a.k.a. taking clients to the NCAA tournament games) and I tagged along. The biggest incentive was the extra ticket to the second round of games, which I just couldn’t say no to. But I was also intrigued to visit a place I’d really only heard about through television shows (read: Friends). I knew practically nothing about Tulsa, apart from the fact it was once a booming oil town. I was eager to learn more. And who was I to turn down the opportunity to take a small adventure and break from the ordinary routine?
So I went. I hopped on a late evening flight from Denver, and two hours later, found myself in the quiet, empty Tulsa airport. Within minutes of getting off the plane, I got my first glimpse of what Tulsa would bring: a large, colorful mural brimming with historic figures, architectural gems, local attractions, and food galore. If this is what was waiting for me, I was ready to explore it all (or at least as much as I could in a 48 hour period). Bring it on, Tulsa.
An Italian Escape in Tulsa
After a solid night’s sleep, my husband and I grabbed some coffee and left our hotel to explore. In the very little research I did, I read that Tulsa had an art museum housed in an Italian villa-style mansion. Given my love of everything Italy, I had to check it out. After a fifteen-minute drive through the quiet streets of downtown, we pulled through the gates of the Philbrook Museum of Art.
Sitting on 23 acres, the museum was originally the home of oilman Waite Phillips (yes, the man behind Phillips 66 gas stations) and his wife Genevieve. In 1926, Phillips hired an architect to design an Italian Renaissance villa, and the result was a stunning 72-room mansion surrounded by gorgeous gardens, fountains and ponds. Most of the residence has been kept intact, but additions and renovations have been made to accommodate the many art exhibits it now houses.
We entered the museum rotunda to purchase our tickets, and were met with our first surprise. The artist HOT TEA (also known as Eric Rieger), transformed the room with a large-scale yarn installation, creating a rainbow of colors floating over the marble floor. It was amazing how something as simple as a piece of yarn could leave you in awe.
Our first stop was the Lusha Nelson exhibition, which showcases thousands of images from this Condé Nast Publications photographer. Among the hanging celebrity portraits and New York City skyline shots, there were some interactive pieces that allowed you to take photos of yourself in the style of Nelson. It was a different way to bring the art to life and make it relatable in our modern world.
While the art exhibits were inspiring, I was most intrigued by the gardens. The Italianate design features tiered levels on the east side that descend from the mansion to a tempietto. This portion of the gardens is probably the most well-known (and most photographed). Even though we visited in late winter, the gardens were already turning green and flowers were almost in full bloom. Apparently, this is not prime time to visit. If we had stopped by even a few days later for the spring solstice, the gardens would have been much more lush, filled with bright flowers and deep green plant life. Still, it was an impressive sight that I never expected to find in Tulsa.
Modest Tulsa Attractions
Tulsa has a few historically significant things going for it.
Tulsa is home to a portion of Route 66, the Main Street of America that was one of the original highways in the U.S. This famous road was once the major path for those migrating west, and thousands of mom-and-pop businesses popped up as a result of the high traffic. Now, many of those businesses have shut down, after the interstate highway system was built and motorists all but abandoned the route.
Still, there are many gas stations and restaurants that pay tribute to their location on the road, featuring historic Route 66 signage to remind drivers of the road’s glorious past. Tulsa’s portion of the road is no different, but there are fewer tourist traps than I imagined. Even when we did come across a “notable” attraction, there wasn’t much to it. In fact, we missed most of them because there was nothing to really draw attention. The Tulsa section is book ended by two large signs indicating to drivers that they are on the Mother Road. However, those signs were only built a few years ago, probably because many people had no idea what route they were on.
Despite passing by somewhat significant sites, it was refreshing to see a city that doesn’t get pretentious about its attractions. Yes, the convention and visitors bureau talks about Route 66 on the website and points out the highlights. But you won’t find dozens of vendors hawking overpriced memorabilia or trying to sell souvenir photos in front of vintage signs or stores. Tulsa acknowledges the road’s history, appreciates it for what it is, and leaves it at that.
Tulsa was a booming oil town back in the early 1920s and 1930s. There are subtle nods to this past throughout the city, but one of the most extravagant (and by that I mean large) landmarks is the Golden Driller. The 76-foot tall statue, which sits on the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, was first introduced at the International Petroleum Exposition in 1953 and has now become a symbol of the city.
The structure is a rendering of a petroleum worker, standing proudly next to an old production derrick with Tulsa stamped on his belt. Other than the size, there’s nothing all that spectacular about it. Yet it’s been the subject of thousands of photos, taken by visitors from all over the country and the world. We became part of that statistic, too, as we happily hopped up on his large shoes and snapped pictures. It was a little cheesy and I definitely felt like a lame tourist, but it was one of those things you just have to do when you’re in Tulsa. It represents the city’s history, and the fact that it’s still standing despite the many ups and downs it has endured.
If you didn’t know, the center of the universe is in Tulsa. Okay, it’s not the actual center, but it’s been branded that way. What is it exactly? It’s a concrete circle located at the apex of the Boston Street bridge between First St. and Archer St. The circle sits in the middle of circular rows of bricks. When you stand in the center of the circle and make a noise, it’s echoed back several times louder. It’s said that anyone standing outside the circle can’t hear a thing. Based on my experience, that’s not true. People outside the circle can hear what you’re saying, but they can’t hear the echo. It’s a strange phenomenon, a mystery that draws dozens of people there every day to test it out. The circle isn’t much to look at, in fact, I’d even call it ugly. But what it looks like really isn’t the point. The acoustic anomaly is fascinating, and, for a moment, it’s fun to get caught up in the mystique.
Small, Distinct Districts
Most major cities are broken up into neighborhoods, each one touting their own diverse history, culture, nightlife and attractions. Tulsa is similar in that it has a number of unique districts, all located in and around downtown. Many of these districts have experienced a renaissance in recent years, building on their historic roots and mixing in contemporary businesses.
After we explored the Philbrook Museum and Route 66, we headed to the Brady Arts District. Located on the north side of the city, across the railroad tracks from the central business district, the Brady District is one of the oldest in Tulsa. It consists of brick warehouses that have been refurbished with art studios, restaurants, retail shops and apartments. As we strolled the streets, I was pleasantly surprised by the electric atmosphere. Crowds of families, college-age students and young professionals filled seats at restaurants, and I felt a vibe reminiscent of some of our up-and-coming neighborhoods in Denver.
Since I’m a stickler for trying local craft beers in every city I visit, we decided to go to Prairie Artisan Ales. Their new brewpub, which just opened last year, is located right in the heart of Brady Arts District and is housed in what was once the Universal Ford Showroom. The place was packed, and we quickly learned this is a common theme on Saturday nights. We were lucky to find two open seats at the bar, where we ordered a flight of five Prairie Beers and some appetizers. As we sipped on saisons, stouts and sours, I soaked up the energy around us. I know it sounds naive, but I never expected Tulsa to be so trendy.
Across the street from Prairie is a small cafe called Chimera. Since we’d enjoyed our evening in the Brady Arts District so much, we decided to return for breakfast. Chimera serves up delicious breakfast tacos, sandwiches and specialty coffee. In the evening, you can sip on cocktails or beer. When we arrived, the place was abuzz with activity. If I lived in the area, I’d certainly frequent this cafe. There was even a DJ spinning vinyl records as part of a Vinyl Brunch series held by the Tulsa Vinyl Society. How very hipster.
Our bellies full and caffeine pumping through our veins, we ventured out to explore more of the district, and some of the neighboring areas. Just up the street from Chimera on Main Street is Cain’s Ballroom, an historic music venue that was originally an auto garage turned dance academy before shutting down for a few years. Since it’s revival in the 1970s, it has become one of the top performance venues in the country. The Brady Theater was built between 1912 and 1914. Despite being displaced as the city auditorium in the late 1970s, it continues to be used for a number of concerts and theater productions.
A walk down Brady street took us past the Woody Guthrie Center, dedicated to the life and music of the famous folk singer; the Philbrook Downtown, a satellite location of the original that houses a number of contemporary art exhibits; and 108 Contemporary, a community arts organization showcasing fine craft artists.
To the south of Brady Arts District is the Blue Dome District. Named after the distinctive building constructed in 1924 as a Gulf Oil Station, the Blue Dome District is now a popular entertainment hub. It is filled with chic restaurants and bars, retails shops, a comedy club and art studios. It is where a number of city festivals are held. When we visited, remnants of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities were spread throughout the area. The Blue Dome itself isn’t much to look at, currently serving the community as an information office. However, there are plans to renovate the iconic building into an event space; another indication of the city’s efforts to rejuvenate the once booming oil town into a modern, sophisticated destination.
From what I saw, they are well on their way. The funky old bars juxtaposed with farm-to-table eateries is the essential equation for a successful urban refresh.
Touches of Art
As we explored the Tulsa districts, I couldn’t help but notice the street art that seemed to be around every corner and on nearly every building.
It was somewhat reminiscent of my visit to Reykjavik last September. Beautiful painted murals are all over that city, and Tulsa is another town that’s embracing the street art craze wholeheartedly.Every district had colorful, vibrant compositions, and I couldn’t help but snap photo after photo. The stunning art was another aspect of the city that took me by surprise, and left me grateful that I could experience it.
Even a mural with something as simple as the city name caught my attention. It wasn’t crazy or flamboyant, bur rather straightforward and honest, just like the city itself.
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