Inspired by his iconic design for New York’s World Trade Center, architect Minoru Yamasaki once envisioned a scaled-down version of the Twin Towers for downtown Tulsa and presented a cardboard model of the project in the early 1970s .
A 30-story building would serve as the headquarters of the Williams companies while the other would house the offices of what was then still called the National Bank of Tulsa, the future Bank of Oklahoma.
Looking at the model, however, CEO John Williams took one building and stacked it on top of the other to show Yamasaki what he wanted the project to look like.
At least that’s one side of the story.
In a 1973 interview with the Tulsa World, Yamasaki offered a less dramatic explanation for the evolution of the Williams Center. And it was related to working as an architect in New York.
The original plans for the World Trade Center, unveiled in the early 1960s, included a low-rise building stretching 900 feet along the banks of the East River. But with astronomical real estate prices in Lower Manhattan, the design proved financially out of reach.
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New York officials fired the original architects and hired Yamasaki to develop a new project, which became the famous 110-story towers that dominated the Manhattan skyline until destroyed by the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Similarly in Tulsa, Yamasaki wanted to make more efficient use of space. Why waste land on two mid-rise buildings when a taller skyscraper would work just as well?
The final 52-story design, now known as the Bank of Oklahoma Tower, looks remarkably like a half-size version of the old World Trade Center. But when Williams decided to build just one tower, it raised the question of what to do with the construction site for the second building, which had already been cleared.
Part of the area has become the Williams Green, a shady oasis with a scenic pond near Third Street and Boston Avenue. And in 1973, Williams and Tulsa philanthropist Leta Chapman proposed a plan for the rest of the site: They would raise half the funds to build a new performing arts center if Tulsa voters approved a bond issue $14 million for the other half.
It was an afterthought for land that had been intended for something else, but it offered the city a relatively inexpensive way to replace the aging Municipal Theater, which had opened in 1914 and was falling into disrepair.
Yamasaki’s blocky, windowless design for the PAC, devised during the oil crisis, was intended to conserve energy while housing four theaters, a studio, and a large reception hall in a compact package. But it’s not exactly what most people would call beautiful.
“I love Tulsa and I love this facility,” PAC CEO Mark Frie told Tulsa World recently. “But to be honest, the Tulsa PAC doesn’t look like a welcoming place.”
The Performing Arts Center opened on March 19, 1977, with the Tulsa Philharmonic playing backup by jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald. Forty-five years later, it’s time for a major renovation or maybe even a whole new venue, says Frie.
The city council recently approved $5.5 million for urgent repairs, but that can’t solve the real problem: Yamasaki’s design simply doesn’t meet modern needs.
The PAC, for example, only has a loading dock and a freight elevator for Broadway tours that can travel with 20 tractor-trailers.
“The logistics are kind of a nightmare,” says Frie.
“If we don’t step up our game, I don’t know how long we can continue to be the home of the performing arts.”
Tulsa stumbled upon the chance to build the first PAC. The next one may not be so easy.