This story originally contained an incorrect name. The story has been corrected.

Tulsa architect Gary Sparks has a special interest in his latest project, the new Wesley Foundation center at Oklahoma State University.

In the 1960s, the center let him live rent free in a Spartan room in the basement, which enabled him to stay in architecture school at OSU.

“Had I not found that, I would not have been able to stay in school, and very likely would never have gone back,” Sparks said in an interview in his office at Sparks Reed Architecture & Interiors.

Sparks moved to Tulsa from Alabama in 1960 to work on the construction of the Keystone Dam, but when he got here, no jobs were available. He took a grueling summer job baling hay for 2 cents a bail.

A friend got him interested in architecture, and that fall he enrolled at OSU.

Without help from his parents, who didn’t see the value of a higher education, he was able to make enough money working construction each summer to pay for school for the following year, but after his sophomore year, he came up short.

“I didn’t have enough money to make it through the school year. My plan was to try to find really cheap housing,” Sparks said.

Someone suggested he talk to the Wesley Foundation, the OSU United Methodist campus ministry.

They offered him a tiny room in the basement with concrete walls and floor, and one small window, in exchange for opening and closing the center each day, and cleaning up after the students who used it. He accepted the job and lived there for his junior year.

He also worked at a nearby women’s dormitory cafeteria, in exchange for food.

“I didn’t have much of a social life — no extra money, no car, no girlfriend; I didn’t date,” he said.

“I was consumed about trying to get through school.”

When he wasn’t working or in class, he was in the design studio at the school of architecture, working nights and weekends on projects.

And Sparks got another benefit of staying at the center, he said.

“Living there renewed my hunger to find out who this Jesus is. ... I wanted to find out more about this person, but I was so busy I didn’t have the time.”

In 1966 he graduated, got married and got drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, serving in Germany.

In 1968, he and his new wife settled down in Tulsa.

When they were expecting their first child, Sparks said, he realized: “I don’t know anything about raising children. I need to find a really good church where I can learn how to be husband and a father.”

His OSU experience inclined him toward Methodism.

They began to attend First United Methodist Church in downtown Tulsa.

“We soaked it up like sponges. That’s where our Christian walk really began,” he said.

They have been there ever since.

Sparks went to work for an architectural firm in Tulsa.

Among his first clients were Chester Cadieux and Burt Holmes, who asked him to design a store to sell gasoline that people would pump themselves, and also groceries.

“I said, ‘It’ll never work; no one will fill their own gas tank and go and buy eggs at a gas station,’” Sparks said.

But he designed the store, and then many more for QuikTrip, as the highly successful chain spread to now some 600 stores.

Throughout his career, Sparks said, he has focused on designing buildings aimed at improving mind, body and spirit, buildings used for education, sports, health care, churches.

He was well-known at OSU, where he designed the $45 million Gallagher-Iba Arena expansion and renovation, and the $250 million Boone Pickens Stadium upgrade, so it was natural that the Wesley Foundation turned to him when it needed a new building.

In October, he watched the demolition of the old Wesley Center, where he had lived in the 1960s.

“It was kind of emotional, but it was in such bad shape it needed to come down,” he said.

And he designed the new center on the same prime spot just off of campus, a $7.3 million, three-story building with an open, attractive lower level, “something to draw students in,” a coffee shop, study and meeting areas, offices and on the third floor, housing for students. Construction is expected to begin in late January or February and take 18 months to complete.

“This project is really near and dear to my heart,” Sparks said. “I felt like I had a debt to the Wesley Foundation, for giving me a place to live.”

The Rev. Michael Bartley, director of the Wesley Foundation at OSU, said he worked closely with Sparks to develop a building that would meet their ministry goals, including offering space for hospitality, worship, healing and wholeness, leadership training, and developing community.

It is being paid for largely by private donations, he said.

He said the old center, built in 1957, was inadequate and expensive to maintain.

The Wesley Foundation has been at OSU since 1909.

Bill Sherman


Twitter: @bshermantulsa