For Teresa Holder, the exhibit now on display at Oklahoma State University’s Gardiner Art Gallery in Stillwater is not some academic exercise.
It’s the culmination of a quest that Holder, the gallery’s director, has been pursuing for years.
The exhibit’s title is self-explanatory — “That Damn Art Woman: Adah Robinson, Bruce Goff and the Controversy over the Design of the Boston Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church South,” which was the congregation’s name in the early part of the 20th century.
The building at the corner of 13th Street and Boston Avenue is one of Tulsa’s most iconic structures, considered a masterpiece of ecclesiastical Art Deco architecture that continues to inspire awe and admiration.
It also continues to inspire arguments about who deserves the credit for such a creation — Adah Robinson, a University of Tulsa art instructor who was approached by church members to submit a possible design for the new building it was planning; or Bruce Goff, then a young draftsman with the Tulsa architectural firm of Endicott, Rush & Endicott and a former student of Robinson’s.
“I grew up hearing that Adah Robinson designed Boston Avenue,” Holder said. “When I was growing up, my family would often visit Tulsa and usually at some point we would drive past the church. My mother would always point it out, and say, ‘Look at what Miss Adah did.’ ”
Holder would later get the opportunity to “look at what Miss Adah did” from the inside when her father spent his final year as a Methodist minister working at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church.
“I would often go exploring in the church building — and would often end up getting into trouble,” she said, laughing. “But I always heard that the church had been designed by Adah Robinson.”
Until, that is, she went away to college, where in the art history classes she took the person credited with the design of the Art Deco masterpiece was architect Goff.
“That was just how it was taught,” Holder said. “I remember someone coming to do a talk on Bruce Goff’s house designs, and when the subject of Boston Avenue came up, the lecturer said that ‘no reputable research shows that this high school art teacher could have designed this,’ and all the professors were just nodding along in agreement.
“So I just had to know — to find out for myself what the truth was,” she said. “I thought it would be an easy thing to do.”
Instead, it took Holder several years, digging through archives at the church, the Chicago Art Institute and the Smithsonian Institution to find as much original material relating to the design and building of Boston Avenue United Methodist.
“I kept digger deeper because I didn’t want to miss anything,” Holder said. “It’s interesting the things that still pop up and things that disappear. When I was talking with one person, they mentioned that there was a diary Adah Robinson kept about her work on the church. But when I finally gained access to where this diary was to have been stored, the box was empty. And no one knows what might have happened to that diary.”
The exhibit itself is primarily a series of panels displaying documents, letters, photographs and other memorabilia that creates a timeline following the church’s design and construction.
“I’m just presenting the documents as they were presented to me,” Holder said. “I tried to go back to the source, to the original documents. I came across some things, like letters, that I don’t think anyone had paid attention to before.”
Holder said that, over the course of researching this topic, her own opinion as to the truth fluctuated.
“I suppose I was looking for a ‘smoking gun,’ one thing that would give the decisive answer,” she said. “But this isn’t any smoking gun. It’s all the little details and how they add up.”
Holder said she also endeavored to keep her opinions out of the exhibit.
“I want people to see this exhibit and form their own opinion about what happened,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to present entire documents, rather than pick a few sentences here and there to prove a point. It’s all up to the viewer.”
The gallery will host a reception beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, with Holder giving a curator’s talk about the exhibit beginning at 3 p.m.
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