Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.
Like a retro-futuristic scene straight out of a sci-fi Steampunk novel, Oklahoma has had some beautifully bizarre architectural creations through the years.
These extraordinary architectural creations can trace their roots back to 1944. That was the year that the Space Age officially began.
Even before that, the age was rooted as far back as the 1920 when the futurism movement began. Futurism epitomized beauty of the machine, speed, violence and change. When this movement swept across the nation, Oklahoma was still considered a young state. Inspired leaders, hoping to catch up with the rest of the nation, embraced this modernist approach.
Futurism led to the art deco movement of the late 1920s and 1930s. This was an era of vast change. The ideals and philosophies of futurism were expanded as air travel became more widespread. In addition to fast cars and streamlined trains on the ground, shiny airplanes and sleek airships began to dominate the skies.
Then, in June 1944, a German V-2 rocket became the first man-made object to enter space. This created a stir of excitement and brought about the beginnings of the Space Age. By 1957, with the launching of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union, the Space Age was in full bloom.
This spurred a vision of the future that was both absurd and wonderful. This was popularized in television during the mid to late 1960s with shows such as Flash Gordon (1954) The Jetsons (1962), and Dr. Who (1963). Gold and silver metallic fashion lines soon appeared, showcasing new styles with synthetic fibers.
Although Oklahoma was still considered conservative by the rest of the nation, it was home to many inspired architects and designers. There are a great range of architectural styles to be found throughout Oklahoma, ranging from Colonial to Art Deco, and to those inspired by fast-paced lifestyle and optimism of the space age.
Known as mid-century modern aesthetic, the space-age inspired buildings were generally constructed from the end of World War II until 1965. Many of these types of buildings can still be found in Oklahoma.
“Post-World War II, the whole complexion of the world changed. It was a leap forward and a major shift that crossed all aspects of our culture. From furniture to cars to our homes and buildings, the U.S. was manufacturing and building using different materials across a wide range of industries. It was a time full of possibility,”
— Stan Carroll, Oklahoma City Architect
The Gold Dome in Oklahoma City
The Gold Dome in Oklahoma City is perhaps the most well-known of all of the mid-century architectural delights to be found in the state. Resembling a misplaced UFO, the building remains one of the most fascinating points of interest along Oklahoma’s portion of Route 66. It can be found at the intersection of NW23rd Street and North Classen Boulevard.
Oklahoma City’s Gold dome has a great claim to fame. It was the fifth geodesic dome constructed in the world and the first one to ever be used by a bank. In 1958, Citizens State Bank began construction on their new facility. They wanted it to epitomize the beauty and vibe of the space age. The Oklahoman described it as “one of the nation’s most revolutionary bank designs.” The bank advertised it heavily as the “Bank of Tomorrow”.
Designed by architect Robert Roloff of Bailey, Bozalis, Dickinson & Roloff, the cost of construction reached around one million dollars. The geodesic dome design was created by futurist and architect, Buckminster Fuller. R. Buckminster Fuller’s pioneering designs earned him the title of “one of the greatest minds of our times”.
The dome consists of 625 gold anodized aluminum panels, with each panel weighing in at around 65 pounds. The panels average around 10 feet in length, covering an interior of around 27,000 square feet.
The new building had a spacious lobby that was decked out in a retro circular motief. This was repeated throughout the building, from the second floor railing to the terrazzo floor.
In 2001, the building was slated to be demolished. Bank One, now the owners of the building, deemed that repairs were too costly and had decided to sell the land to Walgreens. Fortunately, this never happened. Citizens rallied behind preservation efforts and formed a conservation group named "Citizens for the Golden Dome". Between 2001 and 2003, there was a massive effort to revitalize and preserve the building. The original cashier booths, ceiling, vault doors, safety deposit boxes, and floor were preserved.
Today, it still stands as a testament to the golden years of the space age. It was declared eligible to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.
The Church of Tomorrow
Rising up out of the surrounding countryside in Oklahoma City, this building could easily be transported into a retro-futuristic colony on the surface of Mars. Promoted as “The Church of Tomorrow”, the First Christian Church at NW 36th and Walker is one of the most unusual churches in the region.
Built in 1956 for the Disciples of Christ, the designer R. Duane Conner focused on smooth lines and space-age appeal. Conner, along with Fred Pojezny offered three different designs for the church, but the “Church of the Future” received the most attention. Both Conner and Pojenzy were members of the congregation.
The sanctuary is covered by a massive concrete dome and seats 1,200. The dome reaches up to a height of 110 feet and has no interior supports. It is capped with a 150 foot bell tower and natural gas torch. Inside, worshippers ascended to the seating by a large escalator. The technological wonders didn’t end there. Even the pulpit could be raised or lowered like an elevator. This created the feel of something simply out of this world.
Officially named “The First Christian Church of Tomorrow”, the complex includes the massive sanctuary, the four-story administrative building, and a 185-seat theater. The designs centered on circles. Both the main sanctuary and the “theater in the round” are both concentric rings, as is the entrance to the church. The massive carillon spire may be the only angular structure on the property but somehow it seems strangely fitting.
This unique mix of space-age buildings can be found at 3700 N. Walker Avenue in Oklahoma City.
The Sooner Park Playtower
Like an otherworldly extra-terrestrial observation tower, Bartlesville’s Playtower was certainly inspired by the space age. Built in 1963, the tower was designed by architect Bruce Goff. Goff was an architect who, in many ways, paralleled that of Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, a 1951 Life Magazine article stated that he was “one of the few U.S. architects whom Frank Lloyd Wright considers creative..” Goff’s styles tended to the organic, eclectic, and flamboyant, sharply going against traditional building styles.
The Playtower reflects this, and more. The mid-century structure showcases a strong appeal towards the futuristic designs that were prevailing during the 1960s. It was commissioned as a gift to neighborhood children. Somewhat whimsical, the Playtower originally included large sand pit at the base that measured some 50’ in diameter. Within the frame of the sand pit was a 6-foot high mobius strip constructed of steel fencing. According to Goff, the mobius play feature featured “a continuous strip of steel fence with welded rods to stand on or hang from both sides of the strip. This makes use of the famous mathematical principle for twisting a straight strip of material which has two sides or surfaces so that when it is twisted and the ends are fastened, the strip becomes continuous and with only one surface! This is very mysterious to the children and to their parents!”
Rising up from where the sand pit was is a large 360 degree spiral staircase that resembles a DNA strand. At the top is a large observation room. When inside, it feels like being inside a large faraday cage. Goff stated that “the play-tower-climber consists of a circular spiral steel stairway on which they [children] can jump up and down and run up and down, safely enclosed in a steel fencing cylinder raising 50’ up to the observation and rest platform in a spherical spatial space commanding views of the park and the town nearby.”
The entire structure cost around $7,000 to construct and remained a popular destination point in Bartlesville for many years. With so much use, and being exposed to the elements, the structure began to decay over the years. In 2014, a large preservation project was completed, which returned the Playtower to its former glory. While the sand pit and mobius sculpture are gone, the City of Bartlesville hope to restore those one day in the future as well.
The Playtower can be found at Sooner Park in Bartlesville.
The Bank of the Future
At 3900 N. Lincoln Blvd, a series of 17 flying saucers can be seen floating seemingly in mid air. Don’t worry; it’s not an alien invasion. It’s just a bank.
Then again, calling this mid-century architectural masterpiece just a bank is like comparing matchbox cars to a full size Ferrari. Built in 1964, it was another creation of Robert Roloff. Just around five years earlier, this was the same firm that designed the Citizens State Bank Gold Dome building in 1958. When going over initial plans, publisher J. Leland Gourley, owner of the newly chartered bank told Roloff to “make it so modern, your Gold Dome bank design will look like it was built in 1919.”
The designs he came back with were simply out of this world. Work began and within a couple years’s one of the most fascinating mid-century buildings emerged.
This was, at the time, a true “Bank of the Future”. The 17 “flying saucers” were supported by rounded floor to ceiling glass columns. Closed-circuit televisions, called “TV tellers” were installed. These were the first of its kind west of the Mississippi River. Each employee were stationed in work pods. Customers could take a futuristic round elevator, known as the “floating air lobby” to the basement to access their safety deposit boxes. This elevator is built into a seating area in the lobby. To access the safety deposit boxes, customers could simply press a button and be lowered, still seated, into the safety deposit vault. From the exterior to the spacious lobby, everything featured round, smooth lines.
The building was so different that at first they had trouble attracting customers. After a few weeks, signs were put out front that read “This is a bank”. Soon, it began to receive national recognition, even having a photo in the New York Times. So popular was the bank that Gourley’s daughter and her friend would dress up in space suits and dance on the roof of the building.
At a cost of $500,000, this has remained one of the most iconic mid-century architectural creations in Oklahoma. Today, the building still functions as it did back in 1964. It was once known as the State Capitol Bank and now, as Arvest Bank.
The Founders Bank Building in Oklahoma City
The futuristic Founders National Bank Building in Oklahoma City resembles a scene straight out of the Jetsons. The two large supporting arches and sweeping curves of the building inspire thoughts of futuristic space travel.
Built in 1964, the building was designed by Bob Bowlby, a student of the famous architect Bruce Goff. The building is anchored by two 50-foot arches, resembling that of a massive suspension bridge. These arches enabled the architect to remove the need for any interior walls, leaving a spacious bank lobby.
Although one of the smaller buildings on this list, the Founders National Bank Building is still impressive. Since it was constructed, the large glass windows were enclosed, however, it still retains it’s mid-century space-age appeal. It can be found at 5701 N. May Ave. in Oklahoma City.
Encyclopedia of nineteenth-century photography
Published by Taylor & Francis, 2008
Midcentury Houses Today
By Jeffrey L. Matz, Cristina A. Ross, Michael Biondo and Lorenzo Ottaviani
Published by Monacelli Press
Oklahoma Historical Society (Detailed Histories)
© 2018 Eric Standridge