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New 'Building Tulsa' book hopes to inspire historic preservation and civic pride


On a Sunday morning in July 1970, District Judge Fred Nelson walked through a cloud of dust on Boulder Avenue and assured a Tulsa Tribune reporter that he had no regrets.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the judge had refused to grant a restraining order that would have saved the Medical Arts Building, an 11-story art deco masterpiece that stood on the southwest corner of Boulder Avenue and Sixth Street.

Now it was a pile of rubble, brought down in a few seconds by 153 pounds of carefully placed explosives.

“Remarkable,” Nelson declared. “Quite impressive.”

Luckily, the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture has preserved several stunningly detailed drawings of the Medical Arts Building by well-known Tulsa architect Joseph Koberling, who designed it in 1927.

The drawings are true works of art. But the building itself didn’t survive long enough for my generation to see it.

Order 'Building Tulsa'

The Tulsa World has published an all-new hardcover coffee-table book celebrating some of the best and most significant architecture in the city.

Order now at

“Building Tulsa: The Story of A City and Its World-Class Architecture” is written by Tulsa World Staff Writer Michael Overall. The 160-page book tells the story of how the pioneers and tycoons who came here wanted a city they could be proud of. They set out to make some of the most lavish and creative architecture in the country.

Urban-renewal projects, especially during the 1960s and ’70s, demolished large swaths of downtown Tulsa, in some cases razing entire city blocks. Other buildings fell victim to fires.

When the Tulsa World decided to work on a book about the city’s world-class architecture, the original plan included several chapters on “lost treasures,” including the Medical Arts Building and other gems such as the Hotel Tulsa, demolished in 1973 and replaced by the Performing Arts Center, and the Tulsa Coliseum, which burned to the ground in 1952 and has been nothing but a parking lot ever since.

The book, of course, evolved over time, as all projects do. And after several philosophical discussions, we decided to leave out any buildings that have been torn down or are still abandoned.

Medical Arts Building

One of Tulsa’s largest and, at the time, most celebrated art deco masterpieces, the Medical Arts Building, opened in the late 1920s on the corner of Sixth Street and Boulder Avenue, where it mainly housed doctor offices. Beryl Ford Collection/Tulsa Historical Society & Museum

For one thing, we wanted to celebrate what we have gained as a city, not mourn what we have lost. More importantly, we hope the book will instill a greater sense of pride in our beautiful city and inspire a more concerted effort to preserve and restore the architectural legacy that we have inherited.

The book, “Building Tulsa,” includes several chapters on restoration projects that have saved some of our most significant landmarks, including the Hotel Ambassador, which helped renew interest in downtown revitalization when it reopened in 1999; the Mayo Hotel, which sat vacant for more than 20 years before a $40 million restoration in 2009; and the recent renovation of the magnificent Tulsa Club.

The Medical Arts Building surely could have been a part of downtown’s 21st-century revival too, if only city officials hadn’t been in such a hurry to get rid of an “old,” “outdated” “eyesore.”

Tulsa regrets the loss even if Judge Nelson didn’t.

Medical Arts Building archived drawing

The Tulsa Foundation for Architecture has preserved original architectural drawings of the demolished Medical Arts Building, designed by well-known Tulsa architect Joseph Koberling in 1927. Tulsa World file

Let’s learn from that mistake.

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Michael Overall


Twitter: @MichaelOverall2

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