Cities We Live In: Tulsa
July 21, 2020
Classicism in Conversation features discussions by architects, urbanists, city planners, designers, and craftspeople about the relevance of the classical tradition in today's modern world. See all episodes of Classicism in Conversation.
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In the second entry of our mini-series Cities We Live In, tour the city of Tulsa with architects and urban designers Jennifer and John Griffin, who discuss why they relocated their family to this city that rose to prominence as an energy hub, but has now been named one of the most livable cities in America. Discover why these designers are drawn to Tulsa, and how classical design can innervate twenty-first century cities.Cities We Live In is a study of what makes our favorite cities stand out, and in doing so conveying a need for a return to traditional design principles which make them so beloved. Not simply a history of urban form, Cities We Live In teaches us why good places matter.
Kellen Krause: [00:00:00] Hey everybody. This show is a project of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. We've launched a new series of podcasts, examining the relevance of the classical tradition today. And this is the next episode of our debut mini series, Cities We Live In. We're excited to bring new topics to new audiences and want your feedback.
Write to [email protected] with your comments.
This show is sponsored by Historical Concepts. You can find them online at historicalconcepts.com. Or on Instagram @historicalconcepts. Welcome to Cities We Live In. I'm Kellen Kraus, an architect who grew up in the suburbs and is now living the city life. Each time I returned home, I think about what lessons can be applied from a traditional, walkable city to car-oriented developments. In this show I'll travel from city to city with two fellow architects and urbanists:
Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro: [00:01:05] Hi, my name is Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro.
Anthony Catania: [00:01:08] And I am Anthony Catania.
Kellen Krause: [00:01:11] We'll meet up with friends who can tell us all about what it's like to live in their city. In this episode, we visit Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:01:33] It's big enough to feel like a big city, but it's small enough to feel really rooted. It feels like a local community.
When we meet people that have been to Tulsa, they're just super excited. 'Oh, I traveled there for business one time.' Or 'I visited, I went to a wedding. I loved it. It's amazing. It's the best hidden secret there is.' We definitely feel like that as well.
Kellen Krause: [00:01:54] That's Jennifer Griffin, founding principal of J. Griffin Design. She and her husband, John, an associate principal at Selser Schaefer Architects, are based in Tulsa as architects and urban designers, where they work with their community to improve their built environment.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:02:12] We both went to Notre Dame for undergrad and grad, but actually met in London, working at Demetri Porphyrios' office.
He was the only other American in the office, I like to say. So we ended up together, and then, moved back, worked in New York City and Washington D.C., and took a stint teaching back at our alma mater, Notre Dame, being involved in a pretty cool research project there. After that, we started a family and decided to move to Tulsa to be closer to family.
I'm from Pittsburgh, originally. I'm a transplant. John's from Tulsa, grew up here, a big family here. When I first heard about Tulsa, it was like, what state is that in? Having traveled and visiting here before I moved here, just blown away by the place. We were fortunate enough to be at a transition point of our careers that we said it was a risk, we don't know what it's going to be like, can I do urban design from Tulsa, let alone traditional classical architecture? I don't know. But we just took the plunge because we knew that's where we wanted to try it out with our family. We knew it'd be good for our kids and we wanted to be close.
There's some amazing things here too, on a smaller scale. Really great little main streets and places where you get to know the local owner. The quality of life is at a different scale, but the elements are there. Tulsa has a lot of amenities. Having lived in New York and Brooklyn right next to Prospect Park, and some of the greatest world-renowned amenities in London , it has an amazing museum scene and art scene.
The collections just blew my mind.
John Griffin: [00:03:35] Geographically, it is laid out on a grid.
It was the railroad that determined where the downtown was gonna start. It was that easiest crossing point across the river, which later came into play with the history of Route 66, which comes across Tulsa. Championing that point of crossing the river.
The arts district was that oldest neighborhood, the oldest area that was planted for Tulsa, just north of the tracks. Then it started to expand south, what we call the IDL: inside the Inner Dispersal Loop.
That's got the great mid-rise deco buildings, in our downtown. And then the grid rotates; it shifts because it was oriented to the rail tracks.
So a section added to the east of the town shifts and it sets up some really nice urban, moments where we've got a spectacular church, Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, that has this exquisite, Bruce Goff tower on a rotated,
shifted axis, but aligned with Boston Avenue our significant downtown street. So that's the most urban, dense, big city feel, and then we have the river, West Tulsa has some of the best views then overlooking downtown and great trails that run up and down either side of it.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:04:46] So on the North Side, there's our arts district. On the south of that is our deco district, blue dome district, East Village, a lot of these different areas that really come up and been revitalized.
And then outside the IDL, we have a series of shoulder or collar neighborhoods that ring around the downtown. And they generally were built in the 1920s, 1930s, 1910s.
And there's some really great building stock in there. Some of them have been established and have kept their population. And generally have been well kept, a lot of them, during suburban flight and people moving out, decrease in population, building stock suffered. And so some of them are in the process of being revitalized and people are investing in. Some of them are still waiting for that investment to happen.
John Griffin: [00:05:31] From the Native American roots - and still very present, here in the region - to the discovery of the oil, early ninteen hundreds. This became the oil capital of the world. This was the Dubai of its day. We had our own chandelier company that was making these beautiful chandeliers for these exquisite art deco lobbies, where they were bringing craftsmen over from Italy to do some of the detailed stonework, to fit these spaces out.
It's just incredible. And so we have that legacy here, these wonderful, beautiful buildings. At the same time - oh, it was a couple of years ago now - really funny article where we won, they called it the Golden Crater Award for most devastating amount of surface parking. So there's this dichotomy right with these gorgeous buildings.
We've lost a lot of them, like many cities did. Hopefully we're beyond that era now and we're making good use of what we have and celebrating that rich history.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:06:26] Yeah. There's a lot of construction going on. So where there was a hole, there's an opportunity now.
It doesn't happen maybe as quickly as the booming metros that scale and scope and rate of change, but it's definitely going in the right direction. And there's a lot of people coming back and investing both their knowledge and their expertise and their love for the place.
Kellen Krause: [00:06:44] What is helping spur that change? Is it an increase in population? Is it a return to traditional principles? What's making all these parking lots go away and these new parks come and place and everything stay walkable?
John Griffin: [00:06:58] There's a big push on the economic development front of things, where civic leaders, corporations, private philanthropists have been looking to what's going to attract the next generation of leaders and how do we keep the top talent in the area and be able to continue to recruit? Because there are great jobs available and we're not able to fill all of them.
So in terms of growth, we're not expanding dramatically, at the moment, in terms of population. But there's certainly the opportunity to do so, given the infrastructure, the amenities, everything that's in place. There are some regulations that make things easy and some where we're behind the curve .For instance, we have no parking requirements in our downtown. Which is great. We can come, in a developer can just weigh what their needs are, in terms of shared parking, be really creative about that and do a very dense development. But at the same time, still weighing that against the right economic moment in time opportunity to move forward with development. We're privy to lots of plans that are out there, and they're just slowly hitting, over the years in terms of the infill. So certainly not for a lack of vision. That's really exciting around here. So many people engaged and coming up with great ideas about where Tulsa is going next and contributing big dollars.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:08:11] Because of the oil history, there is generations of philanthropic families and institutions in Tulsa. And they've spurred a lot of this, not just the physical development of place, but also how can we cultivate and attract talent to come here, for jobs or for opportunities. And so there's a program now, Tulsa Remote, and it provides grants for families or for professionals who want to relocate here and they say, 'Hey, we're going to give you a certain amount of money.' They agree to live here for a certain period of time, with the hope that they fall in love with the place and bring their skillset here and their business. So there are programs like that in place among others that are helping to attract talent. What we find is when people come here they're realizing there are other creatives that are here that are actually trying to do really cool stuff, and it's at a scale that it's easy to meet people and they end up staying.
Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro: [00:08:58] I remember you talking about jumping from one place to another. You guys mentioned that in order to make an impact on a community, you have to commit to it. I'm curious to know more about your involvement in Tulsa over the years and how it has impacted you and how your involvement has impacted the community at large.
John Griffin: [00:09:21] It was back in grad school, scribbling on the margins, notes, what are the top things that need to happen in order to make great urbanism?
And the first one on the list was find the place where you want to die. And then move there until it happens. I think part of this has been maturing our place in life, we found home. And so now we're settled here and, as big or as small as our impact may be, there's that gratification that comes through the sense of commitment to a place.
There are the equally disappointing moments, right? Because everybody in the community and you get that much more frustrated when something doesn't move forward and doesn't happen. Like, everyone has a great vision, right.
How to make it work. But at the same time, yeah. We're seeing so many fruits of just being present, which is really exciting.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:10:07] So a little history about Tulsa: race relations here and even to this day are still very raw and intense given the history of this part of the country and specifically what has happened in Tulsa over its history. We're coming up upon the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. It completely obliterated the very entrepreneurial and wonderful black community that existed north of our downtown. It was called Black Wall Street because it was basically a mini Wall Street that the Black community had come around and created this whole neighborhood that was thriving economically and socially.
And, there was a riot that turned into a massacre and so the whole area had just been obliterated. It was even bombed. Later on, in the 70s and 80s though, the black community had rebuilt it after the massacre. It was again taken through urban renewal and eminent domain for a university. But that collective university never fully built it out.
And so, we met some folks when we first moved here that were involved in social issues, but also had found this connection between the built environments. We obviously had a lot in common and a lot to talk about, and it was through, our recent teaching stint at Notre Dame and we had talked about what we did in Notre Dame , let's bring that here. How can you help us bring Notre Dame here to work with our community?
That area is just this blank slate right now. Right adjacent to our downtown. The thought was let's bring in Notre Dame and talk about this concept of, how can we build and how can we recreate, how can we heal what has happened?
And how can we make good on this? And what does that look like? So locally spent about six months with our colleagues here, reaching out to people and talking about fundraising to help offset the costs for the students to come, networking with people to talk about the opportunity.
And there was a huge positive response locally. We had over eighty people show up at the charrette meetings. it's a very grassroots thing that the neighborhood association's located next to this site spearheaded - we didn't really wait for the city to fund it or for any entity to step up. We relied on folks that really were interested in letting the community dream a bit here. Though it wasn't an official process or plan that would be adopted by the city,
it had a huge turnout and it became the catalyst for a lot of really great conversations and a lot of great ideas that are now being seriously looked at and a number of issues that Tulsa is exploring right now and is pursuing, from incremental development to how do you build local strength and opportunities for local entrepreneurship?
And then thinking about the growth of this neighborhood to affordable housing, to highways, to boulevards. Prior to this, people had maybe heard about walkability and that sort of thing, but it became this platform to really engage on a very genuine level. It's brought a lot of good here.
Anthony Catania: [00:12:49] When working with the community, how do you approach the idea of neighborhood improvement and new development in a way that is inclusive of the residents that are already a part of the community, but also as a way for the community to grow and prosper in the future?
John Griffin: [00:13:09] We're starting to see from, again, a grassroots initiative, small groups coming together to give tools to new developers, to young developers, to those working at a very small, incremental scale, which is incredibly exciting. That's a big component of this, is allowing people to build local wealth themselves. So both in taking advantage of master planning areas where you can do small lots and do small infill, building types on those lots, to -
Jen mentioned these nonprofit developers. There's one in particular, Crossover Community, and they're doing this very thing. It's a church community that they have a health clinic that they started. They've been doing tutoring and work in the local schools. And now one branch of this group is going in and not just redeveloping in neighborhoods.
But they're using local talent, local builders, developers, giving skills training to go and do this work themselves, and then go and build and implement. And so we'd love to see that replicated on a larger scale. One of the reasons why we're so hopeful for this work in Greenwood, in North Tulsa, in particular, around historic Black Wall Street, where there's this incredible opportunity there to become a national model, really, for this work both in combination with community land trusts and with incremental development, to build something that's going to create wealth for the longterm.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:14:31] For the local community. Yeah. Which is crazy given the history, because that's how Black Wall Street was created the first time and was rebuilt afterwards. So, there's a lot of opportunities out there and hopefully Tulsa can end up showcasing and utilizing and setting up some of these models that can really provide an opportunity and answer for other communities to learn from.
Kellen Krause: [00:14:53] Thinking about the scale of the neighborhood, do you suppose that as long as you get the bones of the neighborhood correct, perhaps the scale of the city at large, how dense it is, is it as big as New York City, millions of people, or is it a sort of middle ground... is Tulsa around 500,000, 400,000, or if it's 30,000 some suburb in the middle of the country -
is there an ideal density that affects the neighborhood and the quality of life in your neighborhood?
Jennifer Griffin: [00:15:28] In order to support a walkable, mixed-use lifestyle, right, you have to have a certain number of people within walking distance of those mix of uses to economically support them. That's a math equation, right? That's not just what do you want it to be? There's a certain catchment area that these stores need to have people patronizing them to survive. And that has to be within walking distance.
What does that density look like and the physicality? What does that neighborhood feel like when you have 6,000 people per square mile or 40,000 people per square mile?
There's some really wonderful Tulsa-scale neighborhoods that that density is attained. It's through good planning and understanding. How do you attain that density, but a scale that's appropriate to the community, that you're in?
I teach an urban design course here and I like to show a picture of what, a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood that can support itself looks like. And I often show a picture of Chicago. Some of neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and say, look, that's a scale that doesn't feel out of place here in Tulsa, but has grocery stores and a library and a school. It has the stuff that you need to make a neighborhood work, but it's done in a way that doesn't look like downtown Dubai.
It still feels comfortable. It's showing people what that physically looks like through precedent and through other places that helps them overcome this density fear. And then showing them the tools of ways to increase the density of a neighborhood that doesn't make it seem out of scale or scary.
You begin to show them these building types exist in Tulsa, right? The six flat, the duplex, the fourplex, the cottage courtyard, they actually exist here.
They were built a hundred years ago and they're loved and they're beautiful and they're occupied. We can start building that way again and our neighborhoods can again have those densities that are needed to support the mix of uses. Metro scale is important. But you gotta make sure you get the granular scale right and understand that as well.
Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro: [00:17:16] So speaking of building new traditional buildings again, as traditional architects, what has been your experience in Tulsa? What is the scene like for traditional architecture there?
John Griffin: [00:17:29] There's not been this strong, ideological current in Tulsa where the architectural elite have grabbed hold of the conversation and said, every new building must be a reflection of this, that, and the other. So one can come in and very reasonably have a conversation about traditional architecture.
We've been very fortunate to be involved in several multifamily projects that typically would be skinned in something that was throw away material of some kind when they said, 'no, all four facades are important. This is going to contribute to a walkable main street setting.
Let's do this all in brick.' That's been great. The people are just very common sense oriented. So sure. Let's, let's talk, bring them to the table and they get that. So you get a mix of, of architecture, but you don't get people really battling each other and fighting and saying, 'well, I can't believe you did something that looks like it was from the 1920s.'
But at the same time, there's a, there's a real respect there where no one's saying we can't do anything - a modernist type building either. We do have a real legacy of mid-century modernism, a lot of great examples of those very futuristic type buildings here that people love as well.
So that's all part of the mix.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:18:40] The interesting thing is, so in our neighborhood, what you get is these cycles, but a variety of building types actually, and materials. In our neighborhood, there's mansions built in the 1920s right next to two bedroom starter homes It's a really good mix in terms of social demographics, economics in a neighborhood, that also helps it financially survive as, as a neighborhood. It's been interesting. You have very traditional looking craftsman vernacular homes, built wood with siding next to these amazing brick manor homes with ston e details all mixed up at once.
There's a lot of variety here, at least in the traditional neighborhoods. And once you get beyond that, it's probably similar to what you find in other cities in their suburban areas. But , in the traditional neighborhoods, there's quite a bit of variety and the craftsmanship that you see in the details.
John Griffin: [00:19:30] Then in Tulsa, a lot of the older homes, on the bigger scale, once the two story homes would have a covered porch and then on the second floor a screened-in sleeping porch. So just as a way of people would beat the heat thing and they'd actually sleep outside there. And so a lot of those you still see in place. They're just often enclosed now, glazed in, but you have these little rooms over porches that are a nice feature that we hadn't run across too much before. There's quite a bit of prairie style, but predominantly craftsman, what you find the most of.
And then you get these wonderful classical moments like the Philbrook Museum This is a now civic building, once private, which is just an absolute jewel for the city. It was donated to the city to become a museum, but was built by the Phillips family. Waite Phillips was an oil businessman who built this residence in then what was considered the suburbs, in the outskirts of the city, this private Italianate Villa. It references Villa Lante and has some fantastic moments and some of the best gardens, certainly in the region. People are drawn there from all over, more so just for the setting and the architecture or the story of the place. It has all kinds of cool little things about it. They built a glass block dance floor into one of the wings that then opens on to an outdoor terrace that had rotating colored lights underneath.
Part of their lifestyle and what they had been exposed to in Europe.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:20:55] It was like a hundred years ago. Pretty cool.
John Griffin: [00:20:58] Yeah, a wonderful investment that was then given to the city. In our day unrivaled in terms of the amount of wealth that was here locally and the building tradition that was taking place and unfolding. People now use and enjoy that all the time. That's just amazing that we have that as part of our legacy.
Tulsa is the perfect home for us and where we are now. Not that we couldn't see ourselves having continued to live in Brooklyn. That was equally a wonderful experience. It just is meshing well with where circumstances have brought us. It would be an encouragement to others though, too, in seeking to plug in, maybe a city returning where you've grown up or to really be able to connect and make a difference.
Jennifer Griffin: [00:21:41] We can walk to downtown , we can walk to museums, we can ride our bike to great parks.
And yet we can see family.
John Griffin: [00:21:49] You're stepping into the unknown a little bit. There's some risk in doing it, but it's incredibly rewarding: connecting, being engaged at a smaller scale.
Kellen Krause: [00:21:58] A neighborhood's identity is defined by the community which inhabits it and the experience and character of its buildings and streets. The pronounced Bruce Goff tower beckons us together. And Greenwood's former glory reminds us of the opportunities that could be for all. A traditional city's architectural and urban character crystallize shared local values that in turn shape its citizens, which can lead to human flourishing or just as powerfully prevent it.
This effect is why John and Jennifer Griffin are working so diligently to build places that matter by returning to traditional principles of design. Tulsa today embodies the desire to live in a bustling community and economy with as much beauty as its inhabitants can muster. It's a city we live in.
Vibrant and full of life.
At Home is a production of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, a national nonprofit, promoting the practice, understanding, and appreciation of classical design. To become a member and learn about additional programming visit classicist.org. This episode was edited and produced by me, Kellen Kraus, Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro and Justin Kegley with additional editing by Mollie Wohlforth.
Many thanks to our sponsor Historical Concepts. Find them online at historicalconcepts.com or on Instagram @historicalconcepts.
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