Tulsa

This isn’t Larry Clark’s Tulsa, although the few denizens of the windswept downtown recall the subjects of that epochal photography book. This is the Tulsa of historic preservationists and architectural historians, and five days there produced a herd of precious insights, small delights and the occasional belly laugh. It was here we had the National Preservation Conference and it was here we sampled the felicities of architectural child prodigy Bruce Goff and I praised the preservation of Barry Byrne’s Christ the King church which had an integrity and vibrancy exceeding most of the sites I saw. We danced to Asleep At The Wheel, as some Oklahoman was when they named a chain of gas station mini-marts “Kum ‘n Go.”

Again I got to join the Saturday architectural excursion with the cool kids – Brad White, Will Tippens, Shannon Wasielewski, Jack Rubens – who have allowed me to come along on their Saturday excursios before – notably 2006 to Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater. This time we had Joel Burns(Fort Worth), Dan Everhart(Boise), and Rob Saarnio(Hawaii). Rob has been on other trips and Joel may have too – I missed last year’s adventure across the Wisconsin border to score cheese curds. Our secret ingredient this year was Sam’s List – a list prepared by Sam Guard, one of Chicago’s best-kept architectural secrets and a friend for the last decade or so. Bartlesville became more than Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower (although that alone is worth the trip) with Sam’s list.

We saw the 1961 Frischette House, an in-line ranch by Goff that Sam had ranked the highest, with a roof ridge skylight running the length of the house from the porte cochere to the two-level living room. The exterior is a series of blocks that suggest the rooms within and the owner described its tintinnabulations in thunderous weather she somehow let us in and somehow we went in.

We found a fabulous streamline Deco 1939 High School in Bartlesville, and Goff’s playful Play Tower.

The highlight was the “tree that escaped the forest,” the Price Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright’s only highrise, half apartments and half office and the luxuriance of its detailing in both material (copper) and design (horizontal louvers for the residential side, vertical for the office) made it a wonder – the usuall cramped Wrightian spaces (especially the elevator) and the typical modernist disdain for client needs, but absolutely drop-dead gorgeous from the leaky butted glass corners to the triangular garbage cans and drain grates. This is a good building, and the planned Zaha Hadid addition is unnecessary (the intro video runs the animation fly-through three times too many.

We saw the Redeemer Lutheran Sunday School, bejeweled with sharp massive boulders of glass, cutworthy cullets that made it seem like a child’s art classroom project, but it has the repose of great architecture despite its frivolity because somehow Goff makes it sincere and engaging. Somehow. That is the word for Goff – somehow. You can’t make sense of it by describing it because only he could make sense of it by building it.

Encountering the Conner House in Dewey was like finding a Ferrari in a yard full of abandoned school buses – a regular town with regular, banal houses and then a shallow-peaked ranch composed of diamonds with massive beams extending over the driveway suspended from Goffian masts. Rolf told me today this building is for sale.

The day ended among the bison and bluestem of the Great Tallgrass Prairie and the complete but nearly empty historic town of Pawhuska. Physical pleasures may Kum-‘n-Go but architecture – thanks to preservation – is a lasting passion.

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