South and West and Mountains: Michael and Dan Explore Arkansas and Oklahoma
Daniel Emberley, September 2013
Crystal Bridges, the art museum created by a Walmart heiress, had opened in Arkansas. There was tons of Art Deco in Tulsa, and a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel just north of there. Most importantly, we had a pair of tickets on Frontier that had to be used up by January. The Gods clearly intended us to visit Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Arkansas has incredible moments of beauty, but wanting to be more Southern than Alabama, manages to hide those good things. Oklahoma is much more beautiful and interesting, very much the West, happily rich on oil and gas revenues. Except for a rainy day in Hot Springs, weather was a gorgeous sunny 70-90 the entire trip.
Short story, if you’re in this part of the country there are places to stop and savor. As a sociological exploration, it was intriguing. However, it doesn’t need two weeks of vacation. Details follow for those so inclined.
The closest Frontier could get us to the Ozarks on a nonstop from National was Kansas City. They have one flight each way each day, so we left D.C. at 7PM, landed at Kansas City International, and hopped the hotel shuttle to the Holiday Inn Express Kansas City Airport.
I’d been to Kansas City a few times before, but it was new for Michael. This has been and could again be a beautiful, successful city that is easy to live in. It would be a great place to raise kids. Right now, like a lot of cities that did well with big industry, it’s lagging. The legacy it offers is great: beautiful homes, a realistic downtown and a major park system sprinkled by fountains. We picked up our rental and drove in to the Kansas City Art Institute. This is one of the country’s great art colleges, with a campus surrounded by gracious Edwardian homes. Adjacent is the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. An unfortunate building, with an okay collection of art from the last forty years. Their temporary show was good, oversize photos by Laura McPhee of Idaho ranchers.
The gem of Kansas City is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Founded by the owner of the Kansas City Star, its Beaux Arts main building has long housed one of the nation’s best collections of Chinese art, excellent European and American painting, and the only Caravaggio on the continent. They recently opened an addition designed by Steven Holl that I was eager to see. We followed the galleries as they descended into the hillside. The result is a series of small pavilions that pierce the park to bring light into galleries, while allowing the original structure to crown the crest regally. Sculpture is installed on the roofs of the addition, as well as around the park grounds, including a fun set of Claes Oldenburg badminton shuttlecocks. New galleries house contemporary art and photography, ending in an interior court dedicated to sculpture and a fountain by Isamu Noguchi that is stunning. We left the Noguchi court and cut across the park to the original entrance. Lunch was fantastic, farm-to-table seafood stew, gouda sandwich, and eggplant parmagiana in a European courtyard. Fortified, we conquered the period rooms, Chinese mural, Indian temple, and European and American art from a medieval cloister to today. Our favorite period room came from The Lindens, a Massachusetts colonial home that was disassembled and moved to D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood in the early 20th century.
We drove the few blocks south to Country Club Plaza. The Plaza is one of the first themed retail and residential neighborhoods, the masterpiece of developer J.C. Nichols. It’s still one of the best areas of the city, with Spanish Revival buildings and fountains evoking the spirit of Seville on the prairie. Our friend Amy grew up near here, and says the Plaza was where you went to find J.C. Penney, Sears, and Fannie Farmer. Today the commercial segment has gone upscale, with the Banana Republic-Williams-Sonoma-Starbucks mix you find in Harvard Square and Georgetown.
Union Station remains the Amtrak stop for Kansas City, but in a small percent of the real estate. The rest has been turned into restaurants, Science City and several smaller museums. A walkway leads to Crown Center. The Center was built as one of the first and best mixed use complexes in the 1970’s. Dreadful white stone Modernism, but a shopping mall that still works and the world headquarters of Hallmark Cards. The Hallmark Visitors Center was a little hard to find from within the mall, but is fun, cool, and free. If you want to see every Keepsake Ornament ever made, or how a greeting card is developed, or push a button to make a complimentary gift wrap bow, this is where to come. We only gave it thirty minutes, but could easily have spent another hour.
New Yorker writer Calvin Trilling sang the praises of Arthur Bryant’s his entire life. It has branches across the city, we stopped into the original location on Brooklyn Avenue for bbq on Wonder Bread. Okay, but we’re biased in favor of Texas ‘q.
Liberty Memorial has towered over Penn Valley Park since the 1920’s, an Art Deco monument to those lost in World War I. In the 1970’s it had become a major center for gay cruising, but in the last decade was renovated into the country’s official museum of the First World War. The sculpture and grounds are well restored, with the museum inserted into space below the Memorial. Great view of downtown. Better than we expected, but perhaps not worth the entry fee.
Drove to Center Market for lunch. This is a real city market, with farmers in the middle and bricks-and-mortar restaurants/stores on the periphery. Got subs at a terrific Italian store. The Market is also home to a museum dedicated to the Steamship Arabia, a salvaged commercial vessel that sank on the Missouri River in the 1800’s.
We skipped the Arabia in favor of Corinthian Hall, the former home of Robert Long. Long was a lumber baron who stripped the forests of Arkansas to serve mining camps and growing cities in the 1890’s. After realizing he’d cut the last Southern long-leaf pine, Long helped create the idea of sustainability forestry. The home is a Beaux Arts pile that Kansas City used as a science and history museum until they moved science to Union Station. The mansion is being renovated, but the grounds and few rooms open pretty fabulous. One Long daughter married a Navy admiral and lived in the D.C. mansion that is now the Maret School, the other was one of the great horse racers of the 20th Century, commemorated at Madison Square Garden. Who knew? Driving around the adjacent Scarritt Point neighborhood we saw a doe and buck happily munching someone’s front lawn, a tribute to Kansas City’s extensive park system.
Drove south through Missouri to Joplin. Rolling farmland as you’d expect, but boring after a few hours. Skipped the George Washington Carver birthplace (three foot high log walls mark the site, eh), and checked into the Candlewood Suites Joplin.
Why Joplin? One of my favorite American artists is Thomas Hart Benton. His last mural, from the 1970’s but looking like a piece from the WPA, was done for Joplin’s Brutalist city hall. When the city government moved into a renovated department store downtown they moved the mural, too, and had Benton’s son do a complimentary piece on the city’s Route 66 heritage. The town looked more prosperous than we would have expected. Joplin is close to the Arkansas border and the Walmart corporate headquarters in Bentonville. We suspect the financial health we saw in the next few days was due to overflow from Walmart and Tysons Foods.
We saw more of that wealth in the Arkansas town of Bella Vista. This looks like a golf-retirement community that’s aimed at the very affluent, all built since the 1980’s. Part of the complex is the E. Fay Jones-designed Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel. Derivative of Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel, the Cooper is approached by a beautiful wooded drive. You park a short woodland walk away. The chapel itself is a rough stone foundation surmounted by soaring black steel Gothic ribs and glass panels. The effect is of being in the reverse of a conservatory, where the pews are sited within the forest. You feel great spiritual connection with almost no religious symbolism. A beautiful building well worth seeing.
Into Bentonville for Crystal Bridges. For the last fifteen years Alice Walton has been inflating the price of America art as she assembled a museum-worthy collection. It is a good but conservative, lots of landscapes, portraits, and abstract work, nothing that would confront or cause you to question. Beautifully hung in galleries that Canadian-Israeli-Cambridge-based Moshe Safdie designed for her. The site is a wooded creek valley, where four bridge structures house galleries, restaurant, and administration; art and nature are rarely more than a few paces from each other. I thought from the reviews that it was a big gimmick, but it works beautifully. Like the Getty Malibu, you don’t see the museum until you leave your car, enter an elevator, and descend into the valley. Lovely. The outstanding restaurant served us shrimp on mesclun, cornbread and beans, and an Ozark banh mi (coleslaw and pulled pork on a baguette) with a view of the creek. The museum proper is surrounded by hiking trails, we walked a couple back to the gift shop and car.
Downtown Bentonville looks like every courthouse center that Walmart has put out of business, except successful, the winner-take-all capital of contemporary capitalism. Pretty. An original Sam Walton five-and-dime has been restored to the Walmart Visitors Center. Good exhibits tell the history of the corporation’s growth, complimented by a small Walmart designed as a gift shop and a soda fountain. The Walmart we think of only came into existence in the late 1980’s; prior to that it was a Southern-rural phenomenon. Interesting.
The 21st Century Museum Hotel is a branch of a chain that we saw in Louisville, KY. In new construction this time, rather than a renovation, but with the same blend of Manhattan cosmopolitanism, cutting edge art, and hotel prices too high for us to partake of. After seeing the decent show of Cuban art (had we seen some of this in Louisville?) we took a break in the cocktail lounge.
Checked into the Holiday Inn Express, and walked across the lot to a Zaxby’s Fried Chicken. A local chain, worth stopping in if you see one.
I mentioned E. Fay Jones above – so who is he? Arkansas’s greatest architect, a Pritzker Prize winner who was heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. Unlike most star architects today, he stayed home, teaching at the University of Arkansas. It’s rare to see his work outside the state. His most famous building is Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs. Wood instead of Cooper Chapel’s steel, similar Gothic arches, wooded setting, stone base. Even the drive into a parking lot then walk through the woods similar. This time, though, a Texas Christian tour group had pulled in ahead of us. We were greeted by one of Thorncrown’s ministers to the general public, who gave an inspirational story of the chapel’s creation, played the organ, and sang a hymn. Still lovely, and a good way of seeing the different ways people experience Jones’ creations. We forget that not everyone is an architectural tourist <smile>.
Eureka Springs is famous for its Ozark art colony. Umm, yeah. A pretty town on a very hilly site, like Ellicott City, Maryland, only more mountainous. Cool sidewalks that turn into stairs take you up the mountain to another set of streets. The shops are unexceptional, the usual candle/t-shirt emporia, or smoke shops, or places selling old junk pretending to be antiques. The one place we saw that was selling good design was Twice Born, a Christian-message t-shirt shop. A major stop on the Christian tourist circuit (see? You didn’t know there was such a thing. That’s why we travel!), Eureka Springs’ night life revolves around an outdoor performance of Christ’s last week, the New Great Passion Play. Featuring the world’s tallest statue of Jesus.
We pushed on to Mountain View, self-proclaimed Folk Music Capital of the World. Our first stop was the Arkansas Craft Guild and Gallery. Some decent craft, but not of as good quality as we’d seen in the Smokies. On the other hand, the prices were only half as high. The Ozarks reminded us a lot of the Great Smokey Mountains, right down to the clouds of mist rising from the forest. We talked with the nice lesbian shop owner about which made more sense for us given our limited time, Ozark Folk Center State Park or Blanchard Springs Caverns. The State Park has craftspeople making the same kind of things we saw in the shop, but given that it was late afternoon on a Tuesday, she didn’t think there would be many people working. The Caverns, however, she recommended if only for the walk to the springs.
We followed her advice, and drove up to Blanchard Springs. These are run by the U.S. Forest Service, and seem to be a similar experience to what we had in Carlsbad and Mammoth Cave. The ranger on deck, though, didn’t seem too eager to lead a tour. Instead we continued on the shopkeeper’s lead, got the driving map of the Park, and headed to the Springs Walk. This was an easy and beautiful hike. In a few weeks the autumn color was going to be lovely, and there is lots to do here if one is into camping, mountain biking, hunting, or fishing.
I am not my brother David, however, so we headed south. We crossed the Little Red River on Greer’s Ferry Dam, admired the reservoir, and drove to Heber Springs. Specifically, the Holiday Inn Express, on the grounds of the Southridge Village Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. We were wondering what an HIX was doing in this less populous part of Arkansas; it seems to house people visiting their elderly parents. Across the parking lot was El Rey, with decent Mexican food, including vegetarian fajitas and an all-you-can-eat special of the usual suspects (taco, burrito, enchilada, chile releno). There are lots of Mexican restaurants in this area, some local chains, some national chains, and many one offs. They seem to be an indicator of an aluminum factory, chicken processing plant, or other industry. Whatever the reason, they’re inexpensive, unexpected, and delicious.
Most of Arkansas had been less than hoped; we thought about titling this report “Arkansas: Why Bother?” It’s worth stopping at Crystal Bridges if you’re driving through, or at our stop today, Petit Jean State Park. This is a jewel of a State Park, one of the most fabulous we’ve been in. Begun in the 1920’s, it had extensive infrastructure built by FDR’s CCC, augmented by Winthrop Rockefeller, who donated his former retreat as a conference center. Petit Jean, according to myth, was the fiancé of a French explorer. She cut her hair, smuggled herself on board her lover’s ship, and was not discovered until here, as she died in the Ouachita Mountains. It sounds like a cover story for an explorer who fell in love with a cabin boy to me. The drive through the park is outstanding. The woods here are interesting combinations of evergreen and deciduous trees, different than we’re used to in the East, but from a sightseeing pullout look like the same expanse of green forest. It’s worth stopping at the Cedar Falls overlook (the hike to the falls itself is two hours, but the overlook hike just five minutes), and at Bear Cave to “thread the needle”. Bear Cave is a former stream bed that nature abandoned. You walk through a labyrinth of tall stone outcroppings on a well blazed path that takes your breath away. Or maybe we were just hungry. The restaurant at Mather Lodge served us fried chicken, chicken fried steak, green beans, potatoes, white bread, rolls, and salt water cornbread (a cousin of hushpuppies) with a view of the valley. My kind of camping.
Upriver is the town of Russellville, home of the Arkansas River Visitors Center. The river divides the Ozark Mountains to the north from the Ouachitas in the center of the state. The Army Corps of Engineers opened the river to navigation and irrigation via a series of dams. Old exhibits, probably from the 1960’s, and older thinking about the environment, but a great place to get a look at the dams and locks that make Tulsa, Oklahoma, an inland port.
Many of the roads we’d traveled were labeled Arkansas Scenic Byways. Somewhere along the way we drove on the Butterfield Stage, Heritage Trail, Golf Trail, Civil War Trail, Trail of Tears, and others, often overlapping. Some nice views, but most of these were just farmland or forest. Little Rock was ahead of us on the Route 7 Byway.
Since it was late afternoon we went straight to the Historic Arkansas Museum downtown. A collection of houses from Arkansas history, and a few galleries of shows that really don’t hang together. We were going to see history exhibits here, at the Old State House Museum, and scattered in Little Rock, but unlike most states there is not one good museum telling their history. One good gallery, recently installed, is on the Quapaw, Osage, and Caddo Indian tribes that were here before European discovery. Perhaps this will be the start of a narrative at this museum. We walked a bit around the downtown, which reminded us of Richmond, Virginia: it wants to be an interesting, dynamic city, but is just an old downtown that people flee at 5PM for the suburbs.
We joined the commute south to Bryant, about ten miles out, for a Holiday Inn Express. This was just north of Bauxite, a settlement whose name tells you the importance of aluminum to the local economy. Bauxite is the ore that, with cheap electricity from a dammed Arkansas River, is turned into Reynolds Wrap.
The hotel was so below standard that we checked out, despite knowing we were going to be in Little Rock an additional night. That’s the first time that’s ever happened.
Most of the tourism action in Little Rock is along the river downtown. We parked by Clinton Library and walked toward the River Market area. Nice use of a flood plain, well landscaped. I’d thought about walking the full circuit on both sides of the river, but the bridge by Clinton was closed, and the full run is sixteen miles. Arkansas Game & Fish Commission runs the Witt Stephens Central Arkansas Nature Center, which gave us cool insight on animals we’d mainly end up seeing as road kill on the trip. I have a warm spot in my heart for armadillos, the mascot of my dormitory at Chicago.
James Polshek has done an elegant design for the Clinton Library, with the main room loosely based on a library at Trinity College in Dublin. Unlike most presidential libraries, the money here seems to have gone into the archives and School of Government, not a lot of rah-rah-America exhibits. A decent presentation of the issues, challenges, and successes of the Clinton presidency.
Past the School (a nicely renovated former Choctaw Train Station) is world headquarters for Heifer International. You know Heifer as the people who want you to send a cow to Haiti for Christmas. Or a pig, or flock of chickens. We were impressed with the exhibits, which make you want to contribute not just cash, but your time to help their projects.
In a surprising act of noncommercial modesty, the Clinton Library Gift Shop is not in the Library space at all, but a shuttle bus ride up river in the River Market complex. We hopped the shuttle, shopped, and cased the Market. It is very well done, a pleasant way to kill a few hours urbanely. We got lunch at Flying Fish, a restaurant themed as a catfish shack whose claim to fame is the Billy Bass Adoption Center. Remember Billy Bass, the plastic singing fish on a plaque that was a popular gag gift a few years back? The restaurant has hundreds of them, mercifully with the batteries removed. The shrimp, trout, and hushpuppies were excellent, and the portions enormous.
The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies is another anchor of the neighborhood. Run by their library system, we were going to blow it off, but the craft store/gallery at street level seduced us in. Some great local pottery, jewelry, and less great graphic art. A few doors down in the Market proper are several food court-like stations. When I asked the artisanal popsicle maker if she could dip my grapefruit-mint pop in Belgian chocolate, she said “why not?” Delicious.
Little Rock Central High School was the scene of President Eisenhower’s confrontation with Governor Faubus over integrating Little Rock. Or maybe about nine kids who tried to go to the best high school in their city, and needed the National Guard to make it possible. The Park Service does a good job translating the story into contemporary relevance at a center adjacent to the school. What you never hear in the history is how beautiful the building is, one of the great public schools this country has built. It’s still an active high school, but visitors can walk the grounds, following the steps of the kids who made the news.
The Arkansas State Capitol is truly boring. Twice Arkansas has had the opportunity to build a capitol, once in the 1820’s and again in the 1900’s. Each time construction was done on the cheap, and never bothered with any commemorative or uplifting decoration of the spaces. What a shame. If you’re in Little Rock, skip it.
Hoping for better, we drove downhill to the Old State House Museum. This was the original Jacksonian Greek Revival capitol, built in brick and poorly at that. It looks great, but extensive preservation efforts cannot counter the original construction. Interior programming is haphazard: galleries on the history of the building, of the legislature, of Arkansas in the movies, and gowns of the governors’ wives. Donatella Versace, those wives need you.
We drove across the Arkansas River to North Little Rock. Their public library has a pavilion designed by Fay Jones, something they only realized was important a few years ago. Michael went inside to use the bathroom and I sat on the library steps to call La Quinta for a room for that evening. As I finished up I was surprised to see a librarian shooing me away from the building. I mean, a public library, in a public park, and you can’t sit on the steps? Whatever, we laughed and left.
A few blocks away is North Little Rock’s Argenta Arts District. This is a couple of blocks of a funky artists’0 community in a driving-oriented suburb. Pretty, Michael really liked it. We were able to get cheesecake and locally-crafted t-shirts at the Argenta Market.
This was the most disappointing day of the trip. It rained buckets all the night before, and continued to rain intermittently over the day. It’s possible we might have liked Hot Springs if we’d been able to drive up into the surrounding mountains and hike around. But we couldn’t, so we didn’t.
Once this was a great resort city, where the rich and famous came to rest, take “the cure”, and gamble. Everyone else came to watch. It looks like that world died in the 1960’s, I’m guessing when airfares made going to Las Vegas possible instead of the train/drive to Hot Springs. The National Park Service has custody of nine historic bathhouses on the main drag, one of which still functions as a spa. The hotels that fed off that are gone or decaying. We thought that Detroit was the only place we could see “ruins porn”, photos of recently vital buildings now in decay, but in the Contemporary Art Museum in the former Ozark Bathhouse we saw a local photographer doing the same. T-shirt shops and a few places trying to hold on as art galleries. A waste of a great natural setting.
On the plus side, it IS a great setting. Hot mineral water comes up in several fountains in and behind the bathhouses, ready for tasting. There is a lovely brick garden walk with a view of the Ouachitas. After lunch at a pancake house we gave up on downtown, and tried Oaklawn, the horse track. This is almost entirely reconfigured as a casino. The tobacco smoke and desperation drove us out. We ended up walking the Hot Springs Mall, which looked like it hit its heyday in 1988.
Crater of Diamonds State Park is about an hour away. This is the only park in the world where the public can come in, dig for diamonds, and walk away with what they find. It is a big dirt pile bulldozed daily to make it easy for tourists to “mine”. On a rainy day it would have been a mud pit, we decided we couldn’t face it. Instead we fled town for a Holiday Inn Express in the suburb of Malvern. Dinner at the surprisingly good Denton’s Trot Line Express, a former fast food joint selling fried catfish, hush puppies, tomato pickle, peach cobbler, and more shrimp than we could eat.
This was a big driving day; we had to get from central Arkansas to central Oklahoma. Fortunately, much of the drive was gorgeous. Two hours west of Hot Springs in the town of Mena is the start of the Talimena Scenic Drive. Also known as AR Highway 88, which becomes OK Highway 1. The two state highway departments, building on earlier work by the CCC, created the road in the 1960’s on the crest of the Ouachita Mountains. In 1988 the Forest Service rebranded it as a scenic drive. There are 26 pullouts, each more lovely than the next. Like the Skyline Drive without the services or traffic.
Of course, no services means you end hungry in Talihina, Oklahoma. Hours of driving, first on backwoods roads to Macalester, then on highway, took us through Oklahoma’s “Green Country”. It was cool to see the land change from mountains to rolling hills to red dirt flats as we approached Oklahoma City.
Our reward was the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. An excellent collection of Impressionist painting, work of the American West, Native, and contemporary art. The Native American competes with the collections in Phoenix and Taos. D.C. architect Hugh Newell Jacobson doubled the museum with nine of his trademark “Monopoly Houses” arranged like a tic-tac-toe board. Shouldn’t work, but does brilliantly.
We retreated to the La Quinta in Norman, changed, and walked two shopping malls up the freeway to join friends for dinner. Ari Berkowitz and I were undergrads at Chicago. He’s now a professor of neuroscience at the University; his wife Marshall has worked in public health for local government as well as the school. Many of our best burger and steak recommendations came from Marshall, who swallowed her public health scruples to gather info for us. Thanks! We ate at Misal, a South Asian restaurant, which was excellent. It was great to catch up and talk to educated adults.
We found Oklahoma City beautiful. Red dirt, lots of buildings of local red stone, flat but not unpleasingly so, highways that work with service roads like Houston. Lots of subdivisions and fast food, and blocks laid out way too big to work for anything other than cars. I think the weather would kill us (literally, Ari and Marshall recently installed a “hidey-hole”, a cellar to wait out tornadoes and storms), but we liked what we saw.
The architect of note in Oklahoma is Bruce Goff. He was working as an untrained but professional architect at age 12. He designed many Art Deco buildings around Tulsa, was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, and enlisted with the SeaBees in World War II. Post-war he created the School of Architecture at University of Oklahoma, and developed his own unique style. Aside from a pavilion at L.A. County Museum of Art and a few houses around Chicago and Massachusetts, you have to come to Oklahoma to see his work. Tragically, he was not shy about being gay, was entrapped with a teenager by a developer he opposed, and dismissed from the University in disgrace. Then forced to leave Norman entirely. He lived for many years north of Tulsa, but never again had the practice that his talent deserved.
Goff’s most important building, the Bavinger House, had been nearby, but neglected by its owner was destroyed by a tornado a few years ago. Still up, though, is the OU-owned Ledbetter House. Very cool, Prairie-low, with 1950’s Moderne touches, and two funky round awnings that hung like giant parasols to cover the entry drive and patio. Mature Goff work is noted for his use of unusual and inexpensive materials; here, diamond-shaped panes of glass were originally ashtrays bought from the local five-and-dime. Like no other home we’ve seen.
We had been having problems with the tire pressure warning light on the car, so drove up to Will Rogers Airport to exchange it at the Hertz there. Eh, the replacement had the same problem, suspect it is a model issue. Drove northwest through the suburban-acting (but still legally part of OKC) Lake Overholser neighborhood, and on to Route 66 Park. The city created this park to commemorate their place on the Route; nice concrete and tile work map major stops on the highway from Santa Monica to Chicago. We liked the lakeside terrace and landscaping, but it is totally a park you need to drive to, not a part of a neighborhood.
We got lunch on Classen Avenue, OKC’s Asian District. Actually, a Vietnamese district, but we’re not ones to quibble. Excellent papaya salad, broken rice, and noodles. From there it was a short drive to the Paseo Arts District. The Paseo had been developed by J.C. Nichols (Kansas City, the Plaza: pay attention! There will be a quiz!) as a more Mexican-themed attempt at same, but in OKC it didn’t really fly. The buildings are now filled with artists’ studios, funky shopping, bars, and restaurants. Fun.
Finally got into downtown. Way too much parking, lots of boring 1970’s concrete box skyscrapers. But, with oil prices high this decade, successful. We parked at the Art Deco/Beaux Arts Municipal Center for the Oklahoma Arts Center. It’s a great new museum building, but the institution is still building its collection. Their big hit is a gallery of Dale Chihuly glass. In the 1990’s Chihuly had one of his installation shows traveling the country; when it got here, the Museum bought the whole show outright, and it’s stayed. If you saw the show that was in Richmond last year, you’ve seen the art. The traveling show at the moment, and presumably NOT for sale to oil tycoons, was of Italian Old Masters from the Glasgow Museum. We think we saw these two years ago at Kelvingrove, but there they were overwhelmed, here you could appreciate them more easily.
We walked the few blocks to the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Don’t. The blocks are enormous, the sun is harsh, and there are no trees. We found the Memorial unfortunate. It didn’t help that we entered through a 1970’s Brutalist concrete garden that survived the bombing of the Murrah Building. The Memorial is disjointed: a grass field, a reflecting pool, glass chairs to commemorate the dead. Not sure if the design fails, or if history has passed it: when it was built, the bombing in Oklahoma City was the greatest act of terrorism on American soil. 9-11 and two decades later, the event is sadly easier to comprehend, and the efforts to commemorate it appeared more histrionic than explanatory. There is a museum next door that we chose not to pay to go into; perhaps it would have helped make sense of the space.
We drove through Bricktown, OKC’s emulation of Denver’s LoDo, pizzerias and bars servicing sports stadiums. Eh. Got on the freeway south back to Norman, where we enjoyed the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Excellent displays on evolution, Oklahoma’s natural history, and the cultures of the area’s original tribes and the “immigrant” tribes that the U.S. resettled here after the Trail of Tears. Ducked back into Fred Jones for a last quick look at the Impressionists, then on to Braum’s for dinner. Braum’s is like Friendly’s, a local chain that started as a dairy farm that is now a combination ice cream parlor, restaurant, and grocery store. Great burgers and ice cream.
Most beef in the United States finds its way through Oklahoma City. The Stock Yards are amazing. Once you find them. Stockyards City is not hard to locate, right off the freeway, where you can buy everything it takes to run a ranch, including the ranch. Then you drive into the Yards themselves, and it’s like an office park where the only people who came to work drove pickups. Knowing this was a tourist attraction, but confused at the lack of attraction, I walked into a 1970’s factory-looking office building, introduced myself to the nice women working in one of the cattle companies, and asked if we were in the right place. They laughed, pointed me through the building, across a parking lot, and to a catwalk. Halfway across we started hearing moos, and by the time we climbed the catwalk we were over the most complex market I’ve ever seen. There are corrals as far as the eye can see, with cowboys in golf carts and on horseback waving purple flags to move groups of 10-30 cattle. These cattle looked good: healthy, happy, like they’d spent their entire lives being bred for this day to be judged and bought. Which they were. The catwalk runs into another anonymous building, the auction room. It looks like a small high school auditorium. The bleachers are mainly empty, just a few wives and tourists. The stands closer down are full of ranchers, or buyers, rich-looking people in pristine cowboy garb. On stage is an auctioneer who makes me sound slow and quiet, rattling off prices and descriptions so fast it took me several minutes to understand he was speaking English. He’s supported by four AquaNetted women filling out bid forms and keying them into a system that I suspect is being read around the world. In between the auctioneer’s stage and the seating is a dirt semicircle. Cowboys open a garage door at one end, send in a small herd, they’re bid on, and before the cattle can realize they’re in a dead end, the other garage door opens to send them to the pens of their new owners. It’s amazing, like a secret society maintaining the marketplace in American beef. I knew there were auctions, but never realized the animals walked through the bidding floor.
The Oklahoma State Capitol is suitable for a state with as much oil and gas money as they’ve got coming in. Most of the building went up in 1917, but they only completed the dome in 2002. Lots of egg tempera mural work, much of it by local realist painter Charles Banks Wilson. The usual commemoration of great residents (Will Rogers, the founder of Kerr McGee Oil Services, Sequoyah) and state history, in brilliant colors only a few years old.
Oklahoma is famous for its hamburgers. They fry onions first, then fry the burger in the onions. We tried them at Irma's on NW 63rd. The burger was good, but the green beans in bacon fat I got as a replacement for fries were even better. We walked off the fat and carbs in Mesta Park. If we were to relocate to OKC, this is where we’d want to live. Perle Mesta was a Washington socialite, threw great parties in the 1940’s, Truman named her his ambassador to Liechtenstein. Irving Berlin wrote the musical “Call Me Madam” about her. Her high life was financed by Daddy’s Oklahoma oil money; she lived for a year in this streetcar area of OKC. In D.C. she lived in the building at the end of our block at 18th and Massachusetts. Gracious Edwardian homes, beautifully maintained. Totally worth a walk around even Oklahoma City’s huge blocks.
The Oklahoma History Center was built in 2005 to designs by Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum, and feels like the lobby of a football stadium. It presents a good overview of the state. Not as good as Indiana’s history museum, but much better than Arkansas’. An excellent display on Native American tribes, another on Sooner-and-after Anglo history. A good gallery on Oklahoma in the movies. Did you know Brad Pitt, Blake Edwards, Ron Howard, and Alfre Woodard were all born here? The wedding scene from the musical “Oklahoma!” plays on continuous loop, but not in an annoying way. Lots of info on Hollywood production and back-of-the-house, completely worthwhile.
Back in Norman, we took advantage of the late afternoon to walk around the lovely OU campus. Why OU instead of UO? Makes as little sense as the cheer “Boomer Sooner!”, but better to accept than fight it. Gothic in red brick, a style Frank Lloyd Wright dubbed “Cherokee Gothic”, which makes no sense. Pleasant despite the bright sun and lack of shade. We were disappointed at the School of Architecture to find no mention of Goff, although a colleague who went to school here says Goff’s drawings were all over the halls. Shopped for Sooner stuff, but the design was generic, like it was produced by an agency that did the same thing for every football college. A shame.
Turner Highway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa has a speed limit of 80MPH, the fastest we’ve ever seen. We kept at a more moderate pace, but people are clearly used to pushing that limit. Before we got to Tulsa we stopped in Sapulpa. This was the home of Frankoma Pottery, a line sold widely in the 1950’s and 60’s and frequently found in antique shops. The address I had was a vacant construction pad, apparently production had stopped just last year. Still, we were glad we stopped here, for lunch at Freddie’s BBQ was a revelation. In the play “Green Grow the Lilacs”, and the musical “Oklahoma!” based on it, there’s a Lebanese peddler named Ali Hassam. That always seemed bizarre to me, but Sapulpa is not far from Claremore, where the play is set, and Ali Hassam’s descendants have opened a BBQ joint. Fantastic ribs, also bbq bologna, served with lemony tabouleh and cinnamon-stuffed cabbage as options with the usual cole slaw and Wonder Bread. In a particularly Midwestern touch, the hummus comes with Saltines in place of pita.
In Tulsa we headed for the Philbrook Museum of Art, one of the country’s best art-museums-in-a-mansion. Waite Phillips, one of the founders of Phillips 66, had the house designed in Mediterranean Revival by Edward Delk, architect of Kansas City’s Plaza. Tons of craft tiles, expensive stone, and Spanish-like details. Some of the rooms have been converted into galleries, some are restored as the Phillips family lived in them. Good collections of American craft, Native American, and contemporary art. The gardens take your breath away. Laid out by Hare & Hare, the firm who did Rice University’s campus, they are a combination of Italian fountain and more natural English styles, scattered with sculpture installations. A tempietto and summer house accent two separate formal walks.
Down the Arkansas River is the town of Jenks, which has a great selection of antique shops on Main Street. Jenks restored our faith in ourselves as shoppers, with more well stocked, well displayed stores than we could visit. Bought a nice Frankoma casserole, and came close to several other purchases, the prices were excellent. We need to look at how long the drive is from Houston.
Highway Tulsa is even more like Houston than Oklahoma City had been. Suspect there’s an oil industry connection, or maybe it’s just the age when the cities built their freeways.
Tulsa is known for great Art Deco architecture. The city came into its first oil fortunes just as Deco was evolving. A great example is Boston Avenue United Methodist Church. This looks almost Mormon, with skyscraper angels, gold tiling, and streamlining. The nice church ladies in the office did not seem surprised to see tourists, gave us a map of the building, and asked a custodian to flip the lights on for us. I can’t believe they let us wander the building unescorted. It had been designed by a member of the congregation, artist and teacher Adah Robinson. She turned to one of her young students, Bruce Goff, to formalize drawings and work with contractors and the city. The resulting collaboration is stunning. The semicircular sanctuary is lined by Frank-Lloyd-Wright-like rose and sky blue stained glass of stylized Oklahoma flowers, facing a huge white and gold mosaic behind the altar. Later additions to the building respect the original styling and blend beautifully. A major work of Art Deco, we were essentially handed the keys and left to enjoy it.
Six blocks north through downtown we parked next to the Tulsa Club, another Goff Deco treasure, abandoned for two decades. I’d pulled an Art Deco walking tour off Downtown Tulsa Unlimited’s website. Many of these buildings have been incorporated into larger 1970’s Skidmore-like concrete towers, but all welcomed us in to check out their lobbies and admire their exterior decoration. Notable were the pseudo-Egyptian Pythian Building and the Philcade. The latter’s interior shopping arcade is especially well preserved; it houses independent craftspeople with pop-up stores. Didn’t expect any shopping in an oil-company downtown, was surprised at the quality and uniqueness of what is available. Not sure any of it will survive the next energy recession, but it’s fun while it’s here.
There are several things we like about Tulsa. One is the great tree cover; nonprofit Up with Trees has successfully covered the city with shade. Another is the naming of the streets: from the crossing of First and Main streets are named alphabetically east and west, with Western cities to the west (Boulder, Cheyenne, Denver) and Eastern to the east (Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit). There’s nothing like an orderly grid to make you feel like you know where you are.
Just north of the railroad tracks from downtown is the Brady Arts District. Trendy bars, restaurants, shops, galleries, and new museums and parks. Most of the action is on Brady between Main and Cincinnati. The draw for us was the Tulsa Glassblowing Studio, a streetfront shop teaching hot glass in a row of funky retail, including the great Glacier Confection chocolatier. We got lunch at Hey Mambo, whose pizza oven does amazing carmelizing things with sausage and mushrooms. A couple blocks south is “The Center of the World”, marked by an odd rusting sculpture. From a specific yard-square site here anything you say is echoed back: from the downtown skyscrapers? From the sunken train tracks? Never got a good explanation, but cool. Checked out the food trucks on Guthrie Green and some of the galleries. We skipped the Philbrook’s annex here in favor of the Woody Guthrie Center. All either of us knew about Woody Guthrie was “This Land is Your Land”. The Center holds his archives and a large floor of video, sound, and visual exhibits on his life and work. At one kiosk you can choose from a variety of performers singing his songs, we skipped Odetta and Joan Baez in favor of Frankie Valentino and Annette Funiciello doing “This Land” on a 1960’s variety show. Hilarious, a nice humor break in a story that’s inspirational and sad, about the Great Depression, union busting, World War II, and Guthrie’s early death to Huntington’s Disease.
The University of Tulsa runs the Gilcrease Museum. I’d expected this to be on campus, but the site is the former home of Thomas Gilcrease, at the top of a hill surrounded by grounds and parking. Maybe the University is adjacent, but we never saw it. It’s a funky 1970’s building reminiscent of D.C.’s Kreeger in style. Gilcrease was part Creek Nation, which gave him access to rich finds when oil was discovered. The Museum has the best collection of Plains Indian art and anthropology we’ve seen, also great art of the American West. It’s well interpreted, with a funky bark mulch “excavation pit” for kids to “dig” for their own archaeological finds. They had recently sent a show of their holdings Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, and installed the show again here, with the original Italian/English labels. Fascinating.
The neighborhood near the Philbrook, Brookside, had intrigued us when we drove through yesterday. We went back for a coffee break. A little Chevy Chase, a little Dupont, but with Oklahoma friendliness.
Bartlesville, Oklahoma is an hour north of Tulsa. Site of the original Oklahoma oil discovery and headquarters of Phillips Petroleum (now merged with Conoco). There are several Phillips tourism options here, including Frank Phillips downtown home and a corporate history museum. We chose Woolaroc, Frank’s ranch retreat. The museum grew out of a plane that was the first to fly non-stop from California to Hawaii. Phillips parked the plane on his ranch, and tourists began coming to see it. Over time he added Native American objects and material culture relating to Phillips 66. He stocked the ranch with animals from around the world; descendants of the ones who survived still roam the grounds. It’s fantastic: you check in at the front gate, and are told not to get out of your car until you get to the museum. You drive through paddocks where you get up close and personal with llamas, water buffalo, ostrich, zebras, bison, hummingbirds, butterflies, sheep, and emus. The museum’s a little tired, like the exhibits haven’t had a good cleaning since Mr. Phillips died. It’s a good, old, loved collection, with a great set of Navajo blankets.
Lunch at Murphy’s Steakhouse, a classic steak-salad-potato combo, $25 for both of us, and two of the best steaks we’ve ever had.
Our draw in Bartlesville was the Price Tower Art Center. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Harold Price’s oil technology company (Price invented a successful method for sealing the joints between shafts of pipe going into an oil hole). It is one of only two skyscrapers Wright designed that were ever built. It is also one of only two hotels designed by Wright that you can stay in. The hotel (The Inn at Price Tower) and art center were renovated about a decade ago; a planned new art center by Zaha Hadid hasn’t gotten off the ground.
We checked in, and were delighted. Wright designed the building with offices on one side and duplex residential units on the other. We were on the top residential floor, two story windows, original copper shades, views (as much as there is) of downtown Bartlesville. Original bathrooms, so small; tiny stairs that only Wright could feel comfortable walking, up to an open bedroom loft. Nicely redone finishes, and new furniture/TV/kitchen. The room came with a complimentary tour of the Tower, so we dropped our bags and met the guide in the lobby. She worked here for the Price Company, so had both Wright history and inside stories on how the building functioned under Price and Phillips, who bought it later. Wright talked about Price Tower’s design as being like a tree, with a central core (elevators) supporting cantilevered floors. What went unmentioned was that the design was planned for New York’s Lower East Side, made no concessions to its Oklahoma setting, and was inappropriate for its intended use. Who needed apartments on the prairie? And why keep four stacks of elevators for a building that only needed two, which meant squeezing the shafts into the smallest elevators we’ve seen outside Madrid?
The guide also had great input on our new friend Goff, who moved to the 9th floor suite when he got kicked out of Norman. Some of Goff’s best buildings were for Price’s children, one of whom married a woman from Japan and assembled a brilliant collection of Japanese art. The Price Collection show at National Gallery a few years back was his. Sadly, the estate Goff designed for them, Shinkansen, was lost to arson just as people were talking about restoring it.
For my belated birthday dinner Michael treated me to the top floor restaurant, Copper. The sunset in the patinated copper screens was lovely, and the burger, salad, martini, spinach dip and cheesecake a great meal. After dinner we took a walk around downtown, checked out the Community Center built by Wright’s students, and took in geek night at the local fantasy gaming store. When Michael started talking about Bartlesville as a retirement option I shuddered and hurried him back to the hotel.
Our waitress had let us know that the band we saw setting up was for karaoke night. Unfortunately, we were going to be sleeping one level below, and were concerned with the bad covers of 80’s Metal bands at 10PM. Not to worry, this is Oklahoma, and by 11PM the party crowd had closed up shop and left us to an easy rest.
Breakfast was from a self-service bar in the former employee cafeteria, a beautiful space with exterior terraces on the 16th Floor. Very laid back and easy.
We had to drive north and east through Kansas to get to the Kansas City Airport. I had planned on our stopping at one of two Tallgrass Prairie Preserves, either in Pawhuska, Oklahoma run by the Nature Conservancy, or in Strong City, Kansas, run by the National Park Service. Ari and Marshall’s daughter had recently been to Pawhuska. I’d asked how she liked it, and Marshall’s quick response “bring bug spray” had resonated with Michael. He exercised his rarely-used veto. We thought about Wichita, but I couldn’t find a single thing there worth stopping for.
Instead we did Topeka. There is an important John Stewart Curry mural of abolitionist John Brown in the Kansas State Capitol, and Tiffany windows at their First Presbyterian Church. We didn’t see them. Instead, we drove to the Kansas Museum of History, which doubles as the Kansas State Archives. All of Kansas history on a single floor, from Natives to pioneers, the battles over slavery, growth of agriculture and industry, and World War II. Then nothing. Sam Brownback? Bob Dole? You’d think they didn’t exist. There was a cool look at the Oregon, Santa Fe, and other trails used to settle the west, most of which crossed Kansas after crossing the Missouri River near Kansas City.
We thought about seeing more in Topeka, but felt touristed out, and drove the next 1.5 hours straight to the Holiday Inn Express we’d stayed in our first two nights at KCI.