Behold, the gardens at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla.
Behold, the gardens at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla.
Gilcrease Museum

I Said Tulsa, OK?

Thomas Moran's
Thomas Moran's "Snoshone Falls on the Snake River" is displayed at the Gilcrease Museum. (Gilcrease Museum)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

When I first ventured into downtown Tulsa more than three decades ago, I was sure that's how Paris looked. Don't laugh. A cluster of art deco buildings -- a rush of terra-cotta facades, ornate sheaves, boldly geometric doorways and corridors covered in travertine marble -- towers above the city center. To a 10-year-old who had never traveled beyond St. Louis, it seemed to be a fine replica of European grandeur.

It still does.

Tulsa is a city of period pieces. The Gilcrease Museum, with its dazzling portraits of Indian tribal leaders and bronco-riding cowboys in bronze, takes you back to the Old West. Tee's Barber Shop, as much a hangout for African Americans as a place to get a haircut, is a reminder of the rich and raucous black life that once reigned here. Cain's Ballroom, the gargantuan rock music performance hall where locals once paid 10 cents for square dance lessons, is a throwback to an era before high-tech clubs.

These are a few of the monuments left by the oil barons, displaced Indians, wily entrepreneurs and motley pioneers who built Tulsa. Together they make this one of the most intriguing urban enclaves in the Southwest.

Okay, a city that is perhaps best known as the old home base of televangelist Oral Roberts isn't everybody's idea of a get-there-quick destination. As a native son and fourth-generation Oklahoman, I know its sore spots all too well. Although it's the second-largest city in the state and has a population of 387,000, it has the up- and downsides of a small town.

The house where I grew up (and still own) is a short walk from the scene of a 1921 race riot, a bloody rampage that left more than 300 dead, almost all of them African Americans. For all its splendor, downtown can be downright funereal at night. On a recent weekend evening, I heard nothing but the whistle of a Union Pacific freight train and saw no one but a drifter in cowboy boots hugging a fifth of Jim Beam.

Tulsa city is also a nondriver's bad dream. Spread across just under 182 square miles -- around three times the area of Washington -- it's a place where locals think little of spending an hour wheeling around just to get a burger.

But there is no better-preserved example of Southwestern frontier culture. Even road-trippers in a hurry along Route 66, which runs through the city, would be foolish not to stop at one of the vintage eateries. Take, for instance, the Coney Island, a beloved downtown lunch spot that Greek immigrant Christ Economou opened in the mid-1920s -- and where you can still get your fix of the house special, a trio of hot dogs topped by a small forest of chili, onions and mustard. For bigger appetites, there's the White River Fish Market, for seven decades the purveyor of heaping platters of buffalo and catfish, fist-size shrimp and every other kind of seafood.

Nancy K. Owens, a feature writer for the Greater Tulsa Reporter, a monthly community newspaper, thinks the eclectic conglomeration of venues around Tulsa makes it seem more a collection of small villages than a city. "You can get caught up in one scene here," she said, "and forget that there are many others equally as interesting all across town."

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The Gilcrease Museum, a 10-minute drive northwest of downtown, is one of the best-known repositories of American West art -- and a great way to get a feel for what Tulsa is all about. Even after a dozen visits to this place, I always discover something new.

This time I noted that the museum -- with more than 10,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings, including one of the world's largest collection of Thomas Moran paintings and Frederic Remington bronzes -- reaches far beyond western art. One special exhibit was devoted to photographs of the ruins at Macchu Picchu. An impressive collection of Mexican paintings, including a couple of brilliant works by Diego Rivera, is on permanent display.

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