Story and photography by Melanie Votaw
Tulsa – Indian Culture and Art Deco
I’m well-traveled enough to know that a city like Tulsa, Oklahoma is cosmopolitan and progressive, but I had no idea how much I would fall in love with the city and surrounding towns. And this comes from someone who took a nasty fall her last day there. While bleeding a bit on a residential street, I was forced to rely upon the kindness of strangers in true Blanche DuBois fashion… and very kind they were.
In fact, after I was patched up by some locals, they drove me to the Philbrook Museum of Art, where I was headed at the time of my fall. The museum personnel insisted on removing my bandages and providing me with what they felt were better dressings. Then, the Philbrook was the perfect place to recover from the shock of falling. The art collection is impressive, but the building itself is enough to make you fully exhale. It’s an Italian Renaissance villa right smack dab in the middle of Tulsa with 23 acres of gorgeous gardens. Completed in 1927 for oil magnate Waite Phillips, the 72-room estate was gifted by the family to the city in 1938.
My favorite museum in Tulsa, however, is the Gilcrease Museum, which houses the most extensive collection of American Indian artifacts I have ever seen. In fact, only about six percent of the collection is ever on view at a time. Oilman and part Creek Indian Thomas Gilcrease (1890-1962) collected the artifacts and created the museum, which, like the Philbrook, is surrounded by 23 acres of gardens. Besides the Indian art and artifacts, some of which are catalogued on computers and numbered in drawers on the museum’s lower floor, the Gilcrease has numerous Revolutionary and Civil War era treasures such as a letter signed by Thomas Jefferson and original casts of Abraham Lincoln’s face and hand. I feel privileged to have been there.
Not far outside of Tulsa are more sites that are not to be missed, including historic Route 66, the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, and his beautiful birthplace on Lake Oologah. Built in 1875, Rogers’ childhood house is one of the few remaining examples of an Indian Territory frontier building from before the territory became part of Oklahoma. Rogers was famous for his funny sayings, for his fancy cowboy rope tricks in vaudeville and early films, and for his Cherokee Indian heritage. He once said, “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.” The details of his life, which ended in a plane crash in 1935, are more interesting than you might think, and the museum includes an actor who plays Rogers, complete with rope tricks.
About 50 miles from Tulsa is Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation. I was very excited to visit this territory. Where else are you likely to see signs in both English and the Cherokee language, including a Stop sign? The Cherokee Nation is working hard to educate tourists about their history and culture. I visited the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum, Oklahoma’s oldest public building, and was treated to a sneak preview of the Cherokee National Prison Museum, which officially opens in the spring of 2012. The prison was the only penitentiary in the Indian Territory from 1875 to 1901.
The Cherokee National Museum in Tahlequah, which chronicles the Trail of Tears, was a moving experience. What the various Indian nations endured when they were forced to relocate from the southeast in 1830 is almost impossible to fathom. Thousands of them died of starvation, exposure, or disease as they walked for miles over rough terrain in treacherous weather. A total of 15,000 Cherokee were relocated, and 4,000 of them died during the move. It was very gratifying to see the Cherokee Nation flourishing in so many ways today and so proud of their heritage. Nevertheless, the effects of this tragedy are still felt by many other tribes, some of which were almost wiped out during the Trail of Tears.
One of the most fun sites within the Cherokee Nation is on the grounds of the Cherokee Heritage Center and is called “Ancient Village.” It’s a complete reproduction of an early 1700s Cherokee township. Members of the Nation are on hand in traditional dress to show how to carve arrowheads, for example, or use a blow gun. If you’re traveling with kids, they will absolutely love this.
I stayed in two very different hotels while in Tulsa. The first was the large Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which was formerly the Cherokee Nation Casino & Resort. I loved the row of giant, colorful guitar sculptures at the entrance to the hotel. The room, which was decorated in black and white, was luxurious and funky with Indian art and a radio that was playing classic rock when I entered. The hotel contains a large gaming floor, three places to dine, including a Toby Keith’s restaurant, a gym, a pool, and a theater that hosts big name rock bands. I had dinner with a group at La Cucina, the property’s Italian restaurant. I recommend that you have a meal there if you stay in this hotel. One of the options is choosing your favorite kind of pasta and sauce to order, adding ingredients such as chicken, sausage, or vegetables. The Hard Rock is located on the outskirts of Tulsa.
My other hotel was the Ambassador, a lovely historical property near downtown that was built in 1929 as a temporary residence for oil barons while they waited for their mansions to be built. It was constructed by General Patrick Hurley who later became U.S. Ambassador to China.
My room at the Ambassador was very large with all the amenities you would expect of a luxury property. I especially appreciated the expanded vanity area in the bath. The staff was very kind to me during my stay, and they provided me with van transportation, which is available to guests to and from the airport as well as to nearby destinations. A completely non-smoking hotel, the Ambassador is also pet-friendly. There are a fitness and business center and a fine restaurant called Chalkboard on the premises. I had the house pecan salad with mixed baby greens, bing cherries, dried apple crisps, candied pecans, goat cheese, and raspberry vinaigrette. Room rates are quite reasonable for a hotel of this quality and rooms of this size at just $200 to about $300.
If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised to learn that Tulsa has one of the largest collections of art deco architecture in the U.S. Even a sign I saw for a dry cleaner was art deco, but my favorite example was the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, a stunning building that caught my imagination during an impromptu stroll. I spent about 45 minutes circling it to take photographs from different angles and was eventually invited inside. Built in 1929, the building is considered the first example of strictly American church architecture. Unfortunately, there is some dispute as to who actually designed the building.
I also attended the Tulsa Film Festival while in town. This is a relatively new festival but was very well-organized. I met a filmmaker from Los Angeles while there, and an Australian friend’s film was screened, so it attracted people from around the world. The most interesting aspect of this particular festival that sets it apart from others, however, is its devotion to Native American filmmakers and stories. You don’t see these types of films very often in a festival in New York, for example, and I’m happy that these artists have a forum like this to showcase their work.
I simply can’t say enough positive about Tulsa and the nearby Cherokee Nation. If you have the chance to visit this part of the country, do it, especially if you’re a lover of culture and history.
© January 2012 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.