For many years, Teresa Knox would drive by the stately home known as Harwelden and wonder, “What sort of person would own a place like that?”
Now, she knows. The answer is “someone exactly like me.”
Knox and her husband, Ivan Acosta, bought the four-story, 13,000-square-foot Collegiate Gothic-English Tudor mansion, which sits atop a city block-sized hill at 2210 S. Main St., in May.
It’s the second Tulsa landmark Knox and her husband have purchased through their company Hickory House Properties, LLC. In 2016, they took ownership of the Church Studio, 304 S. Trenton Ave., which in the early 1970s was the epicenter of a rock music renaissance led by Tulsa native Leon Russell.
“I really didn’t have any grand master plans when I decided to buy these places,” Knox said. “I rarely try to quantify my decisions — I usually just go with my gut and my instincts.”
Knox laughed, then said, “It’s probably not the healthiest way to work.”
But for Knox, such spontaneity has meant that a couple of important pieces of Tulsa’s history will have the chance at a new life, in ways that retain each building’s original character and function.
Harwelden, for example, is undergoing renovations that will transform the mansion’s second floor from a rabbit’s warren of offices that have served dozens of arts organizations for nearly 50 years into four luxury suites, each named for a particular flower or flowering tree.
The nearby carriage house, which in the past has housed the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the mansion’s caretaker, will become two additional suites.
The mansion’s main floor will be relatively unchanged, with the main room, or Grand Salon, available for events, such as weddings or performances; the catering kitchen space will be retained.
The basement will be turned into green room spaces where, for example, brides and grooms can prepare in private. The top floor will have studio and gallery spaces.
KKT Architects is the firm overseeing the Harwelden renovations.
“I just love what this place represents for Tulsa,” Knox said. “It’s really a part of the city’s history, back in those days when Tulsa truly was the Oil Capital of the World, and all the elegance that brings to mind.”
When the arts council first put the property on the market in 2017, Knox said the thought of making an offer on Harwelden never entered her mind. It wasn’t until she heard that the family that owns Bodean restaurant had entered into a contract to buy the house and convert it into a restaurant that she took an interest.
“I have to say, my heart just dropped when I heard about it,” she said. “I just didn’t think turning it into a restaurant was a good fit for the house and its history. And Bodean is one of my favorite restaurants.
“So once that deal fell through and it was back on the market, I had my real estate agent look into buying it,” Knox said.
Knox met with the Harwells’ granddaughter, Caroline Crain, who walked Knox through the mansion and recounted her memories of how it looked when it was still “Grandma’s house.”
“I wanted to re-create the original bedroom suites,” Knox said. “Of course, that meant tearing out a lot of what’s here because we need to put in plumbing for the bathrooms, sprinkler systems and other things. But we are doing all we can to preserve such things as the original ceilings, some of which are really lovely.
“I see this becoming a kind of luxury inn,” she said. “It’s not a bed and breakfast or a boutique hotel. It will be an alternative to a hotel — an ultra-luxury place that’s a little off the beaten path.”
Knox said the renovated Harwelden will officially open for business June 1. However, prior to that, the mansion will serve as the site for the 2019 Designer Showcase, where more than 50 local interior designers will have their way with the various rooms to benefit the Foundation for Tulsa Schools.
“We did set a few ground rules to ensure the designs were consistent with the architecture and time period of the mansion’s origin,” Knox said. “We want the look to align with the aesthetics and vision of the mansion’s future while honoring the past. And it’s an opportunity to make a difference in Tulsa’s education.”
Knox’s connection to her other major project, the Church Studio, is a little more concrete.
“Like a lot of Tulsans, I was a big Leon Russell fan,” she said. “I worked for a time at the Sunset Grill (a Brookside nightspot) and just wanted so much to be a part of the local music scene. Because when Leon was running the Church Studio, Tulsa went through a kind of musical renaissance. Musicians from Tulsa were making this city known all over the world.”
Like Harwelden, the Church Studio dates back to the city’s early boom days. It was constructed in 1915, and was one of Tulsa’s first integrated churches, serving a congregation that worked for the oil men and millionaires who attended the city’s downtown cathedrals.
In the early 1970s, Russell turned the church into a working recording studio and the headquarters for his Shelter Records label. A veritable “Who’s Who” of recording artists passed through the studio, including Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Twilley, JJ Cale and Tom Petty.
In 2017, the Church Studio was added to the National Register of Historic Places, in recognition of its role in Oklahoma and American popular culture.
“It was this creative workshop, this incubator of talent,” Knox said. “What was going on here during the 1970s was unique, and I’m pleased that it’s been recognized.”
The space itself has required extensive renovations.
“I went into this thinking that I would just be cleaning the place up,” Knox said, laughing. “But it just kind of took on a life of its own. These projects tend to do that.”
Knox’s plans for the studio is to remake it into a working recording studio, one that uses digital and analog recording equipment, as well as a community space and a performance space.
Lilly Architects, whose projects include the forthcoming Bob Dylan Center and OKPOP museum, is the designer of the Church Studio project.
It will also house Knox’s own collection of Tulsa music history memorabilia about the Church Studio and the artists who worked there.
“It’s so important for young people to realize what happened in the past, to honor it, and then to use that knowledge to set a great course for the future,” Knox said.