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I Said Tulsa, OK?

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.

But it's the western landscapes that grabbed my full attention. Thomas Moran's 1900 "Shoshone Falls on the Snake River," so realistic that if you look long enough you can feel the water spraying down the falls, is probably the most celebrated piece in the place. Albert Bierstadt's "Sierra Nevada Morning," an 1870 painting that portrays the start of a new day in the daunting mountain range, is another standout.

No one leaves without making a ritual stop in the Vista Room, a large salon with a view of the countryside. A picture window looks out onto a panaroma of pines, redbuds, dogwoods and evergreens bathing in the brilliant Oklahoma sunset. It's a scene that always sends a shiver down my spine.

From there, I headed to another familiar area, Greenwood Avenue, until the 1980s the center of Tulsa's black community. As a kid, my pals and I used to hang in these streets. We'd buy orange snow cones and catch a horror film at the Rex Theater, grab slabs of barbecue at Betty's Chat 'N Chew, drop into Cannon's Drygoods Store for lemon gumdrops. All black-owned businesses, they have long since been razed. Tony middle-class homes with neat lawns and fences have replaced them.

Thankfully a bit of the 'hood's old flavor still hangs in the air. At Tee's, the black barbershop at the end of the street, a crowd of regulars was sitting around trading basketball scores and gossip.

Farther along is the Greenwood Cultural Center, a small building that organizes occasional black-oriented arts events. A gallery explains the history of Tulsa's "Black Wall Street" and has photos of local African American celebrities; outside are a small monument and plaque dedicated to the victims of the 1921 race riots. Although the scattering of buildings was a scrawny skeleton of the former Greenwood, I'm glad that some semblance of the area's glory has been retained.

Still, change has brought an unexpected hipness to the city. Before nostalgia overtook me, I decided to explore the city's more happening haunts. Richard Florida, a nationally known public policy expert, gives Tulsa big points for its lively creative class. Using his "creativity index," he ranks Tulsa 10th among medium-size cities (right after Little Rock and Birmingham). That's thanks mostly to the strong contingent of students, artists, musicians, designers, gay men and lesbians, and other free-spirited souls who call the city home.

But where to find that scene? Brookside, a boulevard lined with trendy bars, clubs and boutiques in the city's south end, was one option. Too easy. Instead, I headed for Cherry Street, a mix of homey cafes, antiques stores and restaurants about a mile south of downtown.

One step inside the Peace of Mind Bookstore, a favorite hangout for former hippies, and I was back in the era when cool people were listening to the Grateful Dead and reading Carlos Castaneda. Most of the shelves were stocked with books on the occult, metaphysics and new age trends. One corner featured herbs, scented candles, tarot cards and incense.

A few blocks away, I encountered a part of Tulsa's chattering class, which gathers at Panera Bread. Owens, the newspaper reporter, had set up shop with her laptop and latte in one corner. Jeff Van Halen, a local documentary filmmaker, was devouring a croissant in another.

In front of the fireplace were members of the Panera Parliament, a coffee group that meets daily to debate political issues or just chat. They include a judge, a former U.S. attorney, a reporter for the Tulsa World, a public relations executive and a Belgian businessman.

The group's leader is Ilan Kozlowski, an Israeli immigrant and retired advertising executive who moved to Tulsa from Brooklyn two decades ago. "One of the things that makes it different from most other places I know is the pace of life," he said. "People are happy to let the rest of the world rush by."

* * *

While parts of Tulsa are clearly trendy, for the most part it clings dearly to its boomtown past. This is especially true of the downtown art deco district. For that reason, whenever I'm in town, I work in a walk through the area. A dozen or so worthy historical structures remain, mostly in a 12-square block area centering on South Boston Avenue. Most were built during the oil boom of the 1920s, when the city was the home base for many major international oil companies.

"These buildings are, no exaggeration, an architectural wonderland," Rex Ball, a retired architect and president of the Tulsa Art Deco Society, told me at his stylish south Tulsa home. "You won't find any more impressive examples of art deco in the middle of the country."

The Philtower building, for instance, rises 24 floors above the corner of Fourth Street and Boston Avenue and commingles Gothic revival and art deco. While the red and green polychrome tile roof, gargoyles and ornate facade are striking enough, the interior -- a riot of chandeliers, mahogony, travertine marble and brass -- is the real treat.

Just across the street is the Philcade building, featuring a terra-cotta facade adorned with carvings of animals. The doorways are decorated with intricate metal and glasswork typical of the art deco era. But the inside corridor, covered with a generous sweep of marble, embroidered wrought iron and fluted pilasters, is what makes this building special.

Then there's the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, at Boston Avenue and 13th Street. Surfaced in Bedford limestone blocks and adorned with finely chiseled terra-cotta sculptures and a 225-foot spire, the church is a visual stunner. But after years of consideration, I've come to this conclusion: It doesn't resemble anything I have seen in Paris, a city I now know intimately.

But that's okay. I could not imagine it anywhere but here.

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