Downtown, 1968—Just Before It All Came Down

Doug MillerDowntown Tulsa

downtown tulsa 1968


Downtown Tulsa 4th National

Looking northeast from the new 4th National Bank Tower (known today as the Bank America Building). At the center is the National Bank of Tulsa with its cupola wrapped with the Weather Teller. The white building with the beautiful terra cotta spires standing in front of it is the 15-story Hunt Building—home to the beloved Brown Dunkin department store. Less than two years after this photo was taken, the Hunt would be gone, replaced by central plaza. In the background can also be seen the Bliss Hotel and the Hotel Tulsa—both future targets of Urban Renewal.

In 4th & Boston: Heart of the Magic Empire I write about how most of Tulsa’s boomtown architecture was leveled by the Urban Renewal movement. He’s a unique glimpse (in color, no less) at what Downtown Tulsa looked like the year before everything started coming down.

After seeing the 4th & Boston book, a friend forwarded these photos to me. I wish I had gotten them before the book went to press. I certainly would have used the above image of the NBT (320 South Boston) Building!

These pictures came from the archives of the Army Corps of Engineers. Although they most likely originated in the Tulsa District, these were actually found in the Fort Worth District office. As it was explained to me, when engineers went on-site inspections, they habitually carried cameras to photograph construction or damage. They often had leftover film. Rather than just wasting it, the guys liked to use it up with random snapshots. That’s what most of these pictures reported were, just using up the remaining shots.

The Philtower, 1st National Bank, and the Thompson Building viewed from the Fourth National Bank Tower. The red brick building in the center foreground is the old Ketchum Hotel. It was designed by architect George Winker and built in 1915. The Ketchum was heavily modified and renamed the Oil Capital Building at some point—I’m not sure when. The official survey of Tulsa’s architecture conducted by the National Park Service for the National Register of Historic Places says the alternations took place in 1947. Yet, here’s a picture of it in 1968 in its original condition. I found ”official surveys” to be inaccurate quite often. Always best to cross reference with period photos and newspaper archives—a practice I fell short on as you’ll see below.

I spent a lot of time looking over these images, enjoying views that are familiar yet very different than what we’re used to seeing. Although there was a lot of redevelopment downtown during the 50s and 60s (as can be seen in the following photos) most of the lots that were cleared early on were immediately redeveloped. Sadly, much of what was torn down between 1969-1974 became surface parking that still remains as gaping asphalt scars throughout Downtown.


Petroleum Club

Two views of what was, at the time, the new Petroleum Club Building. It was built in 1963 as an outstanding example of Tulsa’s mid-century architecture.


A remarkable view to the south showing the city’s post-war development that would fall just outside the IDL (already under construction at the time these images were taken). Of particular interest is the single (west) tower of the City Services Building at 15th & Boulder. After the east tower was added, it would become the Texaco Building. Today it is Boulder Towers, home of Helmerich & Payne.


Looking north on Boulder. Fourth Street is in the foreground. I’m the one caught doing bad research by this photo. To the right is the Ritz Building, home of the Ritz Theater. My timeline of lost architecture in the 4th & Boston book says the Ritz was demolished in 1960. Yet here it stands in 1968. I’m sure someone will point that out to me soon but I’m glad I caught it first. Across Boulder to the left is the Beacon Building (with the lighthouse on top). On the northeast corner of 4th & Boulder stands the Skelly Building (behind the “RITZ” roof sign)—an amazing example of Bruce Goff’s early art deco. Sadly, it came down in exchange of a mere 14 parking spaces in 2004—decades after we should have known better. In the distance is the peak of the ”Old Lady on Brady”—the Brady Theater.


This view to the west shows the Tulsa Civic Center, still under construction. What is most noticeably missing is the City Hall Building which would open the following year. It’s still remarkable to me that “Old City Hall” at 4th & Cincinnati—current home of Frederic Dorwart, Lawyers—served Tulsa for more than 50 years yet it’s ultra modern Mid-Century replacement only made it about 38 years.

The top image shows a beautiful view of Main Street, looking north from 5th Street. The bottom image is the same scene as seen on Google Street View today. A lot has changed—not the least of which is the quality of commercial signage. I’m not sure if it’s the case in Tulsa (probably is), but the modern absence of beautiful, enormous, dramatic neon signs can be blamed on the Urban Renewal movement’s rejection of what it deemed ”visual clutter.” City codes began banning highly creative oversized pylon signs. In turn, commercial signs became the small, cheap, uncreative boxes and channel cut lettering we’re used to seeing today. The new codes stifled creative opportunities to work in mediums like neon, sculpted metal work, and hand painted typography. Sign making as a highly skilled trade largely died giving way to computer operators who program plotters that cut plastics, and vinyl.

This collection of images is an amazing view of how much our hometown has changed over the years. It’s easy to see why nostalgia plays such a powerful role in lore of Downtown. These images can also remind younger Tulsans why they’re so fortunate to be living in a time that Downtown Tulsa is making memories again.