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Five Stories from Downtown Tulsa's Heyday

BY Michael Staires, http://www.mstaires.com

We’re at the intersection of 5th Street and Boston Avenue in Tulsa. The year is 1927 and Tulsa has been crowned “The Oil Capital of the World!” 

Mayo Hotel 

Look down the block to the west, you’ll see the Mayo Hotel, the large red brick building with the lit letters M-A-Y-O up on the roof.

In 1927, the Mayo Hotel was a “host” hotel, hosting a constant flow of celebrities, politicians and other VIP’s who made their way through Tulsa. J. Paul Getty, who was the richest man in the world in the early 1900’s, was once a resident of the hotel. 

The flow of oil throughout the area brought a constant flow of money and money attracted people from all over. In fact, if you think of Tulsa as a Monopoly board, people with money, no matter where they were from, wanted to own their own piece of Tulsa. In 1927 investors were spending more than $1 million every month building downtown Tulsa.

Looking down the block again, the beige building next to the Mayo Hotel is the Mayo Building. Today the building houses loft apartments, but in 1927 it was the Mayo brothers furniture store. You could go up the elevator to one floor and buy all your living room furniture, go to another floor to buy your bedroom furniture, and then complete your shopping list by going to another floor to buy your casket.

320 South Boston Building

Notice the cream colored building to the left with the interesting looking windows at the top. That’s known as the 320 South Boston Building. This building has had many names in its history. Originally this building housed the Exchange National Bank.

When the Farmer’s Exchange Bank was preparing to close its doors, a group of oilmen decided to pool their money and take over the bank. In an effort to distance themselves from what they believed were negative connotations that came with the word “farmers,” they decided to shorten the name to simply Exchange Bank and they built this building in 1917. It became known as the Oil Man’s bank. During the years, it’s name changed again to the National Bank of Tulsa. Today, the building houses a branch of the Bank of Oklahoma. 

In 1929, with a newly added tower, this became the tallest building in Tulsa’s young skyline. In those days, no matter where you lived in Tulsa, your momma would send you out in the morning to look up and find that tower. If the windows of the tower were shining green, you knew that good weather was forecasted. If the beacon was red, you knew that a big change in temperature was on the way. When the red light began to flash, it meant look out, for severe weather was on its way. In 2016 the building will celebrate its 100-year anniversary, and the word is they’re bringing the weather beacon back! 

Waite Phillips

Because we’re standing right on the corner between the Philtower and the Philcade Building, it’s time to talk about their namesake, Waite Phillips. Waite first moved to Oklahoma in the early 1900’s with his brother Frank. They settled in Bartlesville where Frank started Phillips 66 Oil Company. Frank made millions. Meanwhile, Waite met and fell in love with Genevieve Elliot. More than anything Waite wanted to marry Genevieve, but Genevieve’s father wouldn’t allow it until Waite made money of his own.

With that motivation, Waite left Bartlesville and made his way south to Okmulgee, Oklahoma where he started an oil company of his own. Just 10 short years later, Waite was able to sell all his holdings for more than $23 million. Now he had the money to marry Genevieve. It was time to move to the big city of Tulsa and begin living the life of a true oil baron.

Miss Jackson in the Philtower

Waite needed a grand office fitting his new status. He built the Gothic-styled Philtower in 1928 and moved his office into the top floor. Since it was built it’s been known as “The Queen of the Tulsa Skyline.” The lobby resembles a cathedral even down to the cathedral chandeliers hanging from the carved ceiling. And speaking of the ceiling, it was quarried and carved in Italy and shipped over in pieces. You can still see the fronts of the small shops that once lined the lobby of the Philtower.

It was in one of these small spaces that a woman known as Miss Jackson opened her first dress shop in Tulsa. She didn’t simply sell dresses off the shelf. She sold custom designer dresses and would host receptions to display the newest styles. The wealthy men of town would gather in her shop to see what Miss Jackson had to offer. They’d simply point out which styles they desired for their wives and tell Miss Jackson to “put it on my tab.” 

Miss Jackson began to acquire quite a collection of tabs built up over the months. The bank across the street came one day telling her it was time to pay her note at the bank. The girls of the shop were concerned, knowing Miss Jackson didn’t have the cash to pay off the loans. Not rattled, Miss Jackson just told the girls to grab up all those boxes of tabs and follow her across the street to the bank.

Defiantly, she told the bankers she’d be happy to pay her loan as soon as they paid their tabs. In fact, she reminded them that she was even holding boxes of tabs for dresses that these men had purchased for their mistresses over the years! The men quickly paid their tabs and Miss Jackson promptly paid off her loans.

Miss Jackson in Utica Square

Another story about Miss Jackson. She kept her store in the lobby of the Philtower until the early 60’s when a man named Walter Helmerich came calling. He had purchased an old golf driving range at the corner of 21st Street and Utica Avenue. He planted 300 trees and had the intention of building a shopping center on the site. But once built, he was having trouble getting folks to travel so far to the south to shop.

At the time, the primary shopping district for the city was between 4th and 5th Streets on Main Street. In those days folks enjoyed getting all dressed up in their nicest clothes and shopping downtown. To go all the way to 21st and Utica to shop was unheard of.

Mr. Helmerich was able to convince Miss Jackson to take the gamble and move her store to his new shopping center. Her dress shop, Miss Jackson’s, became the very first “cornerstone store” at Utica Square and helped make 21st and Utica a shopping destination. Sadly, the store closed at the end of 2015.

An Early Tulsa Star is Born

Up in the top of the Philtower was an early day powerful radio station with the call letters KVOO. They employed a young man, a student at the nearby Central High School, to sweep the floors and do odd jobs around their offices and studios.

But it was this young man’s dream to do much more than just sweep floors. He wanted to be on the radio. Soon the managers at the station allowed this young man to read the news on weekends. Gradually, they entrusted him with more and more airtime. They liked his voice and so did the audience. His mature voice, poise and timing were spot-on. 

It wasn’t long before they realized this young man was much too valuable to just sweep floors and the station traded his broom for a microphone full time. He began to not only read the news but also give his thoughts on the day’s occurrences. One newscast turned into three and soon his show grew in popularity beyond KVOO and was syndicated around the world. This young man’s name was Paul Harvey.


Stories provided by Tours of Tulsa. For more information or to schedule a custom tour, contact Kelly at http://www.toursoftulsa.com/.