Category Archives: oklahoma

State Capitol Bank: The Bank of the Future

Oklahoma can look a lot like Mars, what with the red dirt blowing everywhere. And in Oklahoma City, there’s a whole conglomeration of UFOs, hovering on Lincoln Boulevard in a low formation. The curious building is actually a bank, and if it’s like no bank you’ve ever seen, the same was true for patrons back in 1964 when it opened, when a sign was planted in its yard that proclaimed: “THIS IS A BANK.” Someone later defaced the sign by adding a question mark after that statement.

The bank at 3900 North Lincoln Boulevard is now an Arvest, but when it started it was the State Capitol Bank. The space age design was by Robert Roloff of Bailey, Bozalis, Dickinson & Roloff, whose other big contribution to the mid-century architecture in Oklahoma City is the Buckminster Fuller-inspired Gold Dome on 23rd Street (once Route 66), which was also originally a bank, the Citizens State Bank. (It’s now a mix of things, including an Asian cultural center, bar, and business offices.)

Roloff was told to “make it so modern, your Gold Dome bank design will look like it was built in 1919,” and the bank president added that he wanted it “more like a cocktail lounge than a bank.” What he created was then the definitive “Bank of the Future,” complete with fancy new things like closed-circuit television and pods for each employee. Postcards were even made after its construction that proclaimed it as the “bank of the future,” likely by the same people who did the “Church of Tomorrow” postcard for the First Christian Church, also in Oklahoma City.

The bank with its 17 flying saucers got national attention, its photograph gracing the New York Times, and traffic by it was a nightmare. The daughter of the bank’s owner and her friend even danced on its roof in space suits, and a radio jingle ended with the words: “Bank for the future at the Bank of the Future!”

Everything at the place is round, from the hedges, to designs on the sidewalks, to the interior. There is even a round elevator, built into a seating area in the lobby, for accessing the deposit boxes in the basement. So you could sit on a round couch, push a button located by a lamp, and just slowly be lowered into the floor.

There have been significant changes to the architecture over the years, with the poles on which the UFOs used to stand being inclosed (just compare to this photograph by influential architectural photographer Julius Shulman). But I think it’s wonderful that it’s still in use and still mostly true to its original vision. I recommend checking out the State Capitol Bank as the sun sets for the green lights that illuminate it, so in the dark it still looks like aliens have landed in the Sooner State.

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Oklahoma State Firefighters Museum: History of Blaze-Battling in the Sooner State

Fire Engine

If you want to explore Oklahoma’s firefighting history, like its first shack of a fire station or the classy fire engines of the early 20th century, the Oklahoma State Firefighters Museum in Oklahoma City is really worth a visit. Also go if you just have an interest in small museums that are dense with all manner of curious object, or the way technology developed with America’s cities, or even if you just want to see some unexpected horse taxidermy. It’s all there within its two rooms, although it starts outside with some weather-worn old fire engines.

OKC Fire Department

Fire Engine

Shawnee Fire Department

I visited the museum with my mom while I was in Oklahoma City for the Thanksgiving holiday, as I’d seen it many times while on my way to the zoo which is right next door, but I’d never made it inside. The museum was opened in 1969 and is run by the Oklahoma State Firefighters Association, and is the only museum in the country to be owned and run by firefighters about firefighters.

Firefighters Memorial

Firefighters Memorial

Also outside the museum is the Oklahoma Fallen and Living Firefighters Memorial honoring Oklahoma firefighters, and the Wall of Valor, paying tribute to those who gave their lives while battling the flames. The memorial has a really powerful sculpture by Shahla Rahimi Reynolds of one firefighter giving his hand to another who dangles above the ground, both clinging to the remains of a roof on a structure that looks like it’s about to collapse.

Inside the Firefighters Museum

Inside the museum, the floors are packed with vintage firefighting vehicles and apparatus, and patches, photographs, wooden ladders, old alarm systems, resuscitators, fire hoses, and everything else you can think of related to firefighting history crowd the walls, ceilings, and cabinets, the majority donated by fire departments in the states, although some from individuals from around the world. The objects go back to the mid-1700s (obviously including things long before the Oklahoma firefighting tradition).

Don and Sam

You can’t miss Sam and Don, who are front and center and are taxidermy firefighting horses. They are hitched to a 19th century horse-drawn steam engine, which would carry water to the scene of a fire while someone perched on a tiny metal chair on the contraption, which weighed several thousand pounds when it was filled up.

Don

Don and Sam

Apparently Sam and Don were two draft horses who pulled the steam engine in the 19th century, and are now immortalized in the museum. I would love to know where they were before they were donated.

Hunneman Hand Pump

Here is another early firefighting gadget: the Hunneman Hand Pump from 1870. William C. Hunneman learned blacksmithing from none other than Paul Revere, and designed this hand pump to help combat the fires that would often consume early American towns. Water could be pumped from a container through the hose, improving vastly on the bucket brigades.

Fire Dept. 1

This rickety structure is the Fort Supply Fire House from 1864, the first fire station to be built in what would become Oklahoma. Something tells me the “keep out” sign isn’t original, although with the free map you can get at the tourist office on the door.

Antique Fire Helmet

Antique Fire Helmet

Antique Fire Helmet

I had never seen antique fire helmets before, and had no idea they could be so elaborate, or that they were once made of leather and metal. I suppose protecting your head was worth the discomfort from the heat. We also saw early firefighting coats made of rubber.

Vintage Fire Engines

The 13 old fire engines are especially great, including this 1913 White engine used by the Lawton Fire Department. It looked like there had been a lot of serious restoration work on these things and they shined like new.

Antique Fire Engine

Antique Fire Engine

Here is a lovely 1919 Seagrave that was used by the Guthrie Fire Department.

Fire Engines

Antique Fire Extinguishers

You could spend quite a bit of time at the Firefighters Museum, examining the objects and appreciating just how far technology has come in being able to not just transport water and people to the flames, but also in protecting those brave firefighting people and finding new innovations in extinguishing and containing flames. Of course, firefighters don’t just fight fires these days, and the museum also has an exhibit on the Murrah Building bombing. I’m so glad I was finally able to see the museum, and that even in a place like Oklahoma City that I have thoroughly explored, that there will always be something new to discover, even if it’s from the 19th century.

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Bruce Goff’s Hopewell Baptist Church

Bruce Goff designed some of the most creative works of 20th century architecture, but unfortunately many of them are now in disrepair. Over the winter holidays, I decided to go see his Hopewell Baptist Church in Edmond, which displays his love for organic forms and innovative uses of materials, including using oil field discards like the drill pipes holding the teepee-shaped structure. Scrap metal and locally-found stones were also incorporated, and even some pie tins were made into light fixtures. Lucky enough, I just happened to be circling the building with my camera when the current pastor of the church invited me to see the inside.

I wish a photograph could do justice to the inside of the Hopewell Baptist Church. It felt impossibly vast compared to how it looked from the outside, and the light coming in from the star window at the top was stunning. I actually grew up going to another Bruce Goff designed-church in Bartlesville, Redeemer Lutheran, and I remember it also bringing in this sense of reverence through natural light. The Hopewell Baptist Church was completed in 1951 and has been empty since 1989, and funds are currently being looked for to restore it.

The church was actually built by volunteer members of the congregation at the time, so not only does it reference Oklahoma’s history of oil through the materials and the American Indian culture through its shape, but the hands of the people are all over it. After its completion, it was featured in Time magazine in 1955, and named “Best Rural Church of the Year” in 1959 by the Oklahoma Baptist General Convention (no small feat for a heavily Baptist state like Oklahoma, I’m sure). Unfortunately, a decline in Hopewell and the leaking of the building caused the congregation to move to a less glamorous metal siding building next door.

The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, and I greatly hope that the congregation is able to raise the funds to preserve this amazing structure. (You can donate here.) Too many Bruce Goff buildings have met an untimely end, from Shin’en Kan in Bartlesville destroyed by arson, to the bizarre and disturbing fate of the Bavinger House in Norman. The poor Play Tower in Bartlesville was even rammed with a stolen tractor a couple of years ago, almost resulting in it being dismantled. Oklahoma has a surprising amount of stunning mid-century architecture, yet too often its preservation has been non-existant.

However, it definitely seems that the Hopewell Baptist congregation has not given up on their beautiful church, and I couldn’t thank the friendly pastor enough for letting me see this masterpiece from the inside. Even if it’s not in the best shape, the fact that the church is still standing is remarkable, and you can still see Goff’s genius in its form. Goff himself had a rather tragic life, resigning from his position at the University of Oklahoma after a possibly-manipulated sex scandal (being gay in the 1950s in Oklahoma wasn’t exactly accepted by the community), although he left to create some of his most striking work. He was invited back to teach at OU in 1981, but unfortunately died only a short time after. You might remember that I happened upon his grave in Chicago at Graceland Cemetery, where a piece of the distinctive blue glass that once decorated Shin’en Kan topped his memorial marker.

Although Goff isn’t a household name, his influence on the imagination of architects has endured. I remember mentioning his name to an older architect I met through my job in New York and his eyes immediately lighting up, and then telling me how he’d traveled all the way to Oklahoma once just to see some of the architect’s work. If you live in Oklahoma and have never taken the time to drive by some of Goff’s existing buildings, I really recommend it. They are truly unique and womderfully strange, yet somehow still embody the odd energy of Oklahoma, which is always adept at working with the materials it has and embracing the lively spirit of its land.