This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Amanda: How are y’all doing? I’m Amanda. I am the Director of Tulsa Foundation for Architecture (TFA). I also occasionally describe myself as a recovering bureaucrat. Not as much anymore; I’ve been gone from that gig for three years, but I am here to talk to you about what we’re up to in Tulsa, some of which has been alluded to earlier, and Tulsa Foundation for Architecture.
Before we get too far into the Route 66 Commission, I just want to tell you guys a little bit about TFA. We are a nonprofit. TFA was created in the 1990s to change the way Tulsa sees itself and treats itself, or treats its built environment. This was a time in the ’90s when downtown Tulsa had all but been abandoned, and so had Route 66. There was really kind of a lack of overall vision going on, so a group of architects and preservationists got together. They formed a new nonprofit to provide a credible voice and some expertise in the areas of historic preservation and architecture, and we’re still going strong. Really, creating a culture that embraces the value of our architectural history is central to TFA’s purpose. That’s why we’re here.
There we go. We do this by raising awareness. We start them young. I love any picture with that tour guide, because he’s like 6’5″ and he gives tours to third graders all the time. It’s easy to pick him out. We spend a lot of time teaching Tulsans about Tulsa, and also our visitors. If I can get you to connect to the built environment, that’s everything. We do a lot of tours and events, mostly to get people out there looking at the buildings and connecting to the buildings, connecting to them personally and understanding why those places matter.
It’s not all the gleaming marble high-rises, either. This is actually a machine shop from the nineteen teens. Rhys, I think you took this picture. Our industrial heritage is just as important, and our transportation history is just as important. This is from what began as a commerce and industry tour but eventually became known as the Route 66 and Red Light District Tour. People loved it. We also have an extensive collection of original architectural drawings of many significant Tulsa buildings and residences, including some high-style high-rise buildings. This building some of you may recognize, and you’re going to see it on the Overview Tour, actually. And the Warehouse Market, which you’ll also see on the Overview Tour. We just got this rendering of the Rose Bowl, so I’m super excited about that addition to our collection.
I wandered away from the mic. Sorry. We do a lot of … It’s not just tours. We do a lot of advocacy and action. TFA worked very hard to save the Meadow Gold Sign with all of our partners who jumped in and helped with that. I love this picture because the cranes are putting the clocks on. For about 10 years, it didn’t have the clocks on it and just looked slightly wrong. Just finished this … when was that, last year? 2016? Just 2016.
This is my favorite work picture. I’ve been a nonprofit manager for about three years, but I’ve been a brick-hugging building nerd since grad school. I had this crazy professor who was like pulling ivy off a mausoleum and stomping on it and yelling “Bad!” He was pretty fun. He started our first preservation class with a clip from The Simpsons, so I decided that this preservation stuff was probably all right. But he also taught us … made us see the connection between old buildings and pretty much everything else. I was in planning school, and I learned how preservation related to housing, to economic development, to quality of life, to health, to happiness, all those good things.
I spent about 10 years at City Hall working on expanding the city’s historic preservation program before I made the leap into the nonprofit universe. I now serve on the Route 66 Commission, which is an honor and a privilege. It’s also fun as heck because we get to play with old buildings. They let me chair the Preservation and Design Committee. This is the arm of the Commission that actually does get to work with roadside architecture.
I have a whole section in here about Tulsa’s history with Route 66. Have we all heard this enough that I can just kind of buzz through? Everyone awake? Anyone not awake? Raise your hand if you’re asleep. Okay, so Route 66 and Tulsa, we go way back. We’ve got this guy, Mr. Cyrus Avery. He’s credited with creating the identity of Route 66. He was a Tulsa boy, and he helped plan the National Highway System. His proposal for the highway from Chicago to LA was approved and designated in ’26, and he was also the guy who founded the U.S. Highway Association … I’m sorry, the U.S. 66 Highway Association … and coined the Main Street of America. That’s from the Smithsonian.
I also thought it was kind of a hoot that … He’s the third from left in this picture. He supported the Ozark Trail Highway, which went through Springfield and Tulsa and Oklahoma City to Amarillo, in 1916, so 10 years later, he got Route 66 established along the same route. Here’s his bridge. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of spending any time with me recently has gotten to hear me harp on this bridge. Right, Scott Sundermeyer? So, built in 1916 and 1917 over the Arkansas River, this is the 11th Street Arkansas River Bridge, now known as the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge. It’s significant because it’s the first major multi-span concrete bridge in Oklahoma.
Cyrus Avery was the county commissioner from 1913 to ’16. Helped get this thing built, and then in 1924, the federal government appointed him as a consulting highway specialist. The fact that this bridge was already in existence became a major determining factor in defining the path of Route 66 to and through Tulsa. So, Route 66 came to Tulsa. Like lots of other towns, we had multiple alignments. Federal Boulevard, which is now Admiral, through Whittier Square into downtown on 2nd Street. Everybody going on the Overview Tour? You’ll see all this. It’s pretty cool.
Whittier Square is in the top photo. That was Tulsa’s first suburban shopping district. It absolutely boomed when Route 66 came in. The alignment was later moved to 11th Street, which is the lower picture. It was a more direct route all the way through. 11th Street started booming too, but Whittier Square kept its momentum going. We started to get really cool buildings like the White Star Service Station on the original 2nd Street alignment, which we now call the Blue Dome. We named the whole district after it.
This was Cyrus Avery’s gas station, out where the traffic circle is now. We started to get auto services and hotels, and we’ve got some really good signs. Had some really good signs. Car dealerships. I love the Fred Jones sign. This building just makes me drool. Lots of automotive services. Rest in peace, McElroy’s. Roadside restaurants. I don’t know how well you can see the picture of the little barbecue shack on the side there. This is Borden’s. Once we got a little further along out of the 1920s, standard brick commercial block, we started to build some more funky buildings.
We got the motor courts started moving in. There’s a big one. Another thing that was interesting is major businesses started to relocate themselves along 11th Street, businesses that served other businesses. Bama makes pies. I don’t know what they did in the 1930s, but Bama makes pies for McDonald’s. There were commercial dry cleaners moved onto Route 66, dry cleaners who did dry cleaning for the hotel industry. So it wasn’t just mom and pops in Tulsa; we had some bigger buildings on Route 66 too that we have to figure out what to do with.
Then this happened. Michael spent a lot of time talking about this this morning, but the high cost of the freeway. Tulsa really, really loves its cars. We came of age as the automobile came of age, and our obsession with and devotion to the freedom of driving your own car has never wavered. Just like everybody else in the 1960s and ’70s, we jumped on the expressway bandwagon, and Tulsa was forever changed. As an aside, I got this book last week. It just showed up. This is part of the collection we received from Charles Ward, who’s one of the architects of the building we’re sitting in right now. He’s still with us, but that’s not Route 66 related.
We really love expressways. We ram highways right through neighborhoods, just like everybody else did. It resulted in the same thing that most other cities saw: Tulsans and travelers bypassed the local shops and often bypassed the city of Tulsa altogether. We had entered this era of fast cars and fast food and suburbs and shopping malls. The downtowns withered and died. We all know Route 66 suffered a similar fate. Whittier Square … We’re going to visit Whittier Square. The Circle Cinema was thriving until the highway cut it in half, put an expressway through it, didn’t even give them an exit even though it was a shopping destination. Yeah, it was bad. Started to die. The neighborhood really boomed and came alive because of transportation when they got Route 66, and then died by the same hand. It was very dramatic.
This guy … Does everyone have this book? I brought it with me because I have all these signatures in mine from when I dragged it from here to Los Angeles. Every time I’d stop at teepee curios or whatever, they would like sign it. But Mr. Wallis has never signed it, so I dragged it with me today and then left it in my bag, but anyway. Tulsa’s obsession with new and shiny … we still have this … extended to abandoning well-loved Route 66 for new expressways, and roadside businesses were abandoned for shopping malls. As you walk around downtown, you can see that we did urban renewal in a big way here. We were pretty serious about it. We like shiny, new.
A few decades ago, our beloved Tulsan author Michael Wallis wrote in his book, “Route 66: The Mother Road,” that Route 66 through Tulsa had been pawed over and in long stretches is just plain seedy. He was not wrong. As a city, we continued our passionate love affair with our cars, but we had broken up with Route 66. Tulsa added endless miles of interstate in the second half of the twentieth century, but our mom and pop Route 66 businesses disappeared what seemed like overnight. As went the businesses, so went the buildings. Neon fell out of style, and the mall was in, and the mother road just suffered.
I like this little quote: “Like other key points on the highway, including Oklahoma City and Amarillo,” which brought me back to the slide of Cyrus Avery in the car, “Tulsa turned its back on the old road. Tulsa sold out for the fast lanes of the interstate.” Man has a way with words. I like this: “Avery probably twists a good deal in his grave, especially if he can see what’s happened to his beloved highway in his own city.” Ouch, right? “Latter-day city fathers did not see the value of preserving the better architecture and businesses along city routes.” Does anybody else want to cry, or was it just me?
Now what? When your hometown hero calls you out in his widely, nationally published, internationally published book for turning your back on the national treasure that’s in your back yard that you’ve always kind of taken for granted, you just might be at rock bottom. Yeah. How do you climb back out and make the most of what you still have? Cheer up! All is not lost. Is everyone depressed? Let’s get happy. Okay, so. Vision 2025, that was a fine first step. They adopted this master plan in 2003, and there’s a lot of language in it about capitalizing on the iconic nature and historical significance of the bridge. Sometimes it’s even capitalized; capital T, capital B.
So the city is going to be able to create a tourist destination for enthusiasts. They’re going to do some additional development around the bridge, including Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza. The Route 66 experience and Avery Park Southwest … “We’re going to create a multi-generational tourist destination that has the ability to inspire, impress and educate to appeal to all age groups and to satisfy the requirements of today’s vacationing families.” Sounds pretty good, huh?
Here’s what we actually did. We did a lot of capital improvements. This is one of the gateways. I think I’m in that picture somewhere. This is one of the gateways. This is the one on the west side of downtown. We did a lot of interpretation. The plan called for, “As travelers follow Route 66 through Tulsa, they should have statues and stamped concrete and historic markers and freestanding kiosks conveniently located roadside so that a quick stop or a view from a car could tell the story.”
“Route 66,” this is a quote from the plan, “so strongly influenced American culture that Tulsa’s 26-mile stretch alone provides abundant opportunities to soak up some history through art of many forms.” Like this stuff, which is great. I’m glad we have it. I actually live right around the corner from Cyrus Avery Plaza, and I see people out there all the time.
Where was the preservation in all of this? We talked a lot about preservation, and we actually put about $700,000 aside for it in what we called the Pearl Preservation Fund. This was before Tulsa really got on board with renaming a district that is now known as the Pearl District. The Pearl District … so, sometimes the Pearl Preservation Fund confuses people. I’ll just call it the Route 66 Preservation Fund, but it says right in the plan that no other city anywhere in the world has the Route 66 assets that we have. What did we do? Well, we put a little asphalt and some historic lights on it, and painted a stripe down the middle and fenced it off, and then started building some interpretive monuments all around it. It was a little bit of a missed opportunity, because fixing the bridge at that point had a $15 million price tag, and now we’re up to like $20-ish.
We’ve learned some lessons from this, I think. It’s still there. Some more lessons … We built some wonderful capital improvements in the form of … there’s a pedestrian overpass that crosses Southwest Boulevard for where the Route 66 Experience will be. If you Google “Route 66 Bridge Tulsa,” you get eight million pictures of the pedestrian overpass and like two of the historic bridge. We now realize this. This is the good news is we realize this and we are working on this.
We have a lot of partners. We have a lot of partners who are now actively working on Route 66 and have been for a while. Tulsa Foundation for Architecture worked on the Meadow Gold Sign pretty early on, and we did a neon sign survey. Kaisa, did the Corridor Preservation Grant … did the matching grant help fund that? This was before my time. Okay, Meadow Gold but not the survey. But we reached out to our partners.
The Meadow Gold Sign was sitting on top of a building that the property owner was all kinds of ready to tear down. TFA jumped in and said “Please don’t do that,” and worked with the National Park Service, with the statewide … We worked with everybody that would hold still long enough and wanted to work with us, and ultimately were able to construct a new structure to put the sign on. Now we’re at the point where some people who have opened businesses around it are ready to start calling it the Meadow Gold District. Everybody is thrilled with how this ultimately turned out.
It was a little bit of a hot mess at the time, and the guy did demolish the original building and then moved his car dealership to like the edge of suburbia. What was the point of that? I don’t know, but this was a great example of a public-private partnership, and it was all hands on deck. I recently came across … This was before I worked at TFA. I recently came across a whole bunch of pledge envelopes and cards from people who were like sending $20 in because they wanted to help save this sign. That makes me happy, and we’re going to see it at the Neon Tour.
Pretty. It looked like that for way too long, and then we finally used some of the Pearl Preservation Fund and other funds to put the clocks back on. They’re putting on the clocks. This is … I told you, Kaisa, that you were in here. This is Lee Anne Ziegler. She was the Executive Director of TFA when she worked so hard on this, so here she is getting a plaque.
We have some other partners. We have two main streets on America’s Main Street along different stretches of Route 66. I’m sure that y’all are the choir and know what Main Street programs do, but I’m very happy to report that both of ours now have façade programs to help their property owners with little grants. One of the criteria in there is historic and architectural integrity. They’re going to give you bonus points if you are returning a building to its historic appearance, and if you’re going to cover, damage or remove original architectural features, no money for you. This brings me great joy.
Remember when I told you that the interstate highway rammed through Kendall Whittier and cut it in half? Then it started a nosedive. This was Elsie’s Dress Shop, and it ended up being the dirty bookstore. Then it was Alcoholics Anonymous. Neither of those venues needed a lot of light or people seeing in, so when they got those boards off, the Main Street manager said that was probably the first time there had been natural light in that building for 40 years. Here it is now. Not only did the Main Street manager, Ed Sharrer, land a new coffee shop tenant for the vacant space, but he helped them fix up their building and do it right. Literally, I have a picture somewhere I couldn’t find of him up on a ladder scraping 18 layers of paint off of prism glass. Now everyone that goes on TFA tours knows what prism glass is. I stood there and helped by taking the picture.
I love this. I just found this on Yelp. “Lots of natural light,” says one Yelp reviewer, but you can actually see the prism glass in that picture. We had some of the cost share grants. The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Grants, I’ve always called them, and I’m probably calling them the wrong thing, but the Circle Cinema used that to work on their façade, or I’m sorry, their marquee. The Vickery Phillips 66 Station became an Avis. There you are again, Kaisa. I was actually standing there. It was freezing that day. I think this is like the best use one could come up with for an automobile-related gas station that you don’t know what to do with; now it’s the car rental place.
This little guy … This is city service station number eight. I think it would make a great pub. It was the construction office for the bridge for a long time. We also have a lot of entrepreneurs who have been buying a lot of property on 11th Street, and also in Kendall Whittier and other places, and fixing them up and putting new businesses in these old buildings. That’s my bestie and her Bobby Pin, the new hair salon in Kendall Whittier. I just had to give her a little plug.
Historic tax credits were used in this particular project, so really any and all incentives we could figure out, except we never did anything, really, with the Pearl Preservation Fund. We came up with this new commission. The city came up with a citywide Route 66 Commission, and we have a Preservation and Design Committee. That was our very first meeting. That’s a Rhys Martin selfie, but we have city planners and engineers and Main Streeters. Rhys is our official roadie and photographer. We have a lot of preservationists.
The whole purpose of it is to get these buildings … Here’s a whole bunch of words, words, words. We want to save what’s left and get those buildings back into fully utilized, productive use. We know that it’s not going to be a situation where nothing ever changes. We know things are going to change, so let’s do that with intention. We have too many priorities to mention them all, but basically identifying and preserving and enhancing existing Route 66 resources; facilitating neon signage old and new; guiding design decisions for all publicly funded Route 66 expenditures so that we don’t have blue streetlights over here and gray ones over there; prioritizing the funding to facilitate stewardship of historic structures and signs.
We have some working goals. We’ve been in existence about a year, and I’m pretty excited to realize how far we’ve come. You may not see a great deal of it when you’re out on your tour, but we’re in that “things are happening under the surface” stage. We have the Pearl Preservation Fund from 2003 that’s just been hanging out, waiting. Here we are. It’s go time, so we are establishing criteria for how that will be spent. We’ve come up with neon signs in the near term, façade restorations at some point, and eventually an intervention fund. We’re working on the neon sign overlay in order to facilitate restoration of existing signs and placement of new signs. We have a historic marker program that was called for in that 2003 plan, and we finally got it done.
Accomplishments thus far? We have the historic markers in the final stage of design, and it’s about to go out to bid. That’s huge. When you’re dealing with the wheels of bureaucracy, they tend to turn slowly, and that’s just a fact of life. I have actually brought a mock-up for you just for fun. Here’s one of them. They all have a great photograph, either historic or new, and then info about the building on the back. They’re pretty cool. This is just a draft, but I like them. I’m excited about this.
The neon sign overlay is out of the development stage. We’ve had a couple of public meetings. It’s been to the planning commission for work session, so now it’s got to go to the planning commission for adoption. If it all goes well, it should be adopted by the end of July. When that’s done, we can put our new neon sign grant into motion. I have already had like nine people call me and say, “When’s the grant going to be ready? I want to fix my sign, or I want to put up a new neon sign,” so pretty pumped about that.
Also, the DOT has approved our plans to recreate some lost neon signs, some long-gone neon signs on Avery Plaza Southwest, which has basically been a patch of dirt for the past decade or longer. In the near future, our goals are to resurvey all of the remaining Route 66 resources, the buildings and the signs, and nominate those that are still eligible to the National Register. We want to launch our neon sign grant program once the overlay is in place, and we have plans to create an outreach program to property owners and business owners specific to historic preservation, the National Register … it’s not scary … and the neon sign grant program.
Longer-term, we’ve got to figure out how to save this bridge. That’s the thing that … I tell people we’re going to do this, and they just laugh at me. So far, we’ve added it to the capital improvement list, and we’re exploring some options for future bond packages. It’s really a big goal of mine to make that happen. That’s the reason Route 66 came through Tulsa, so we shouldn’t just put bronzes around it and fence it off. We should have it open so that Tulsans can enjoy it and walk across it and experience it, and not worry about concrete falling off of it onto their heads on the trail below it. That’s a big goal. That’s a big goal.
The other thing we’re cooking right now, the Route 66 Commission is working on potentially transitioning in the future to the Route 66 Authority. That means that when that happens, we’ll be able to get our intervention fund going and our façade grant going. I’m over time, huh? When I practiced this, it was only 32 minutes. I don’t know that happened. We’re going to talk about the Rose Bowl when we get to the Rose Bowl on the Overview Tour. How about that?
Michael Wallis would kick me in the shin if I did not mention that the Route 66 Experience is finally going to be happening. They are going to break ground this winter. This has been in the works since 2003. The past two years, they’ve had full-time … Ken Busby working on it, and this is going to be a pretty amazing space when it’s done.
Amanda DeCort is the Executive Director of Tulsa Foundation for Architecture and a long-time advocate for saving places. She serves on the City of Tulsa’s Route 66 Commission and chairs its Preservation and Design Committee. Prior to TFA, Amanda spent ten years as the City of Tulsa’s historic preservation planner, where she listed numerous buildings and districts in the National Register of Historic Places. She provided support to the Tulsa Preservation Commission, and brought popular programs like hands-on window restoration boot camp and realtor education classes to Tulsa. Amanda earned a Master’s Degree in Community Planning with a certificate in Historic Preservation from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. She lives in a 1925 Craftsman bungalow in the Riverview historic district.