Boston Avenue United Methodist Church
U.S. National Register of Historic Places, August 31, 1978
U.S. National Historic Landmark, 1999
New building commissioned to meet the growing needs of the existing Boston Avenue Methodist-Episcopal Church - South congregation. The congregation had been founded in 1893 in Tulsa. It purchased land at the site of the building in 1906, and constructed a larger church, which the congregation had outgrown by the 1920s, leading to the launch of a new building campaign in 1924.
1926: Building committee consults Adah Robinson, art teacher at a local school and for the church's education programs, who offered to devise a design with the architect of her choosing: Bruce Goff of Rush, Endacott & Rush.
June 26, 1926: Church contracts with Rush, Endacott & Rush.
May 16, 1927: Groundbreaking
June 9, 1929: official opening
Statuary by Robert Garrison, another former student of Robinson's.
1965: Children's Building added
1993: additional land purchased for parking
1993: new mosiacs added to the Great Hall
2000: Columbarium added
2002: Jubilee Center multipurpose facility added
2004: land purchased and landscaped for an adjacent church park
Boston Avenue United Methodist Church is a religious facility whose most prominent feature from afar is its 14-story office and bell tower (258 feet tall), which is adjoined to the circular, 1,800-seat sanctuary. Attached to the rear (east) of the sanctuary is a vaulted-ceiling "Great Hall" or "Social Lobby," used for special religious services and social functions. To the east of the hall is an education wing.
The exterior is characterized by stepped and angled vertical lines, terminating in abstracted Gothic motifs, ribbing and crenellations, reflecting the young Goff's interest in Art Deco and particularly the work of Eliel Saarinen. Scultpures represent religious figures, including figures in Methodist church history, and flowers native to the area. The tower is topped by a sharply angular metal and glass sculptural element that Robinson said represented hands
raised up and outstretched in prayer.
The Boston Avenue Methodist Church was built on a site occupied by the congregation in a predecessor building since 1906 at the southern edge of Tulsa's commercial downtown. Boston Avenue, running from the heart of downtown, changes course at the site, and the location of the tower and the facade makes them an emphatic terminus to the avenue, from far or near. The placement of the round sanctuary exterior takes advantage of the open space surrounding it at the intersection of three streets.
Histories indicate that the height of the tower was a response to the desire of members of the building committee that it be taller than the spires of the nearby Holy Family Cathedral (Roman Catholic).
The steel-framed building is clad in Indiana limestone, with terra cotta spandrels and extensive detailing in metal (copper), terra cotta and glass. It was constructed by W.S. Bellows Corp. of Houston, Texas.
The Boston Avenue church is notable for the significant planning for social and educational facilities in addition to the worship space, indicative of the extensive social functions that the prosperous congregation saw itself as carrying out.
Boston Avenue Methodist Church has been widely noted since its construction as a bold innovation in the use of modern architecture in a church. Writing in Western Architect in 1929, sculptor Alfonso Iannelli hailed it as a "voice of the Twentieth Century," and the following year, critic and advocate of modernism Sheldon Cheney called it "the most provocative American example of different church building." It is not merely the novelty of the use of Art Deco in a church, but, its use to create a remarkable unity of design bearing a spiritual message. Robinson, a Quaker, reportedly undertook an exhaustive study of Methodist history, tenets, and corresponding symbolism, which is embedded in small-scale detail work as well as in the overall massing: atop the soaring thrust of the tower, copper and glass finials represent, according to Robinson, "open" praying hands, "confident of the receptivity of Divine Grace."
Even as the design harnesses modern styles to express traditional religious principles, it also introduces modern ideas of religious life. Goff later recalled that having a circular sanctuaryat the time was considered "irreligious" and "sinful," apparently for making a priority of the comfort and convenience of the congregant, as opposed to sitting in "hard pews" with a poor view. (The circular sanctuary was also an idea he acknowledged deriving from Louis Sullivan's St. Paul's Chapel in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.) Goff said the same applied to having a driveway leading up to the entrance, as the church dies.
Neo-Gothic decor, and a more abstracted echo of Gothic in Art Deco was, through the work of Goff as well as others, already a marked feature of the architecture, particularly downtown, of Tulsa, a young city that grew rapidly as an oil boom town in the 1920s. The design of the church built on and amplified this local architectural identity. Perhaps none of the city's downtown towers is so immediately and distantly recognizable, save the 52-story BOK Tower by Minoru Yamasaki.
In fact, the incorporation of what is essentially a skyscraper itself into the religious program of the church is itself a striking innovation of this church. The commercial skyscraper was by this time emerging as the signature form of modern architecture, and the prime vehicle of architectural prestige. With its use of the tower, the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church claimed these developments for religious architecture.
The building was also a critical achievement in the early career of Bruce Goff. It was his biggest commission to date, and the first to attract major national, and international, comment, including a feature in Architectural Record in 1929. With its undulating vertical lines and intricate angular details, applied at all scales, it was a grand platform for visual themes that Goff would continue to elaborate on and vary for decades to come.
Boston Avenue United Methodist Church is one of two Methodist churches in downtown Tulsa, owing to a mid-19th century split in Methodism in the U.S. into northern and southern churches over the issue of slavery. The Methodist Episcopal Church-South, to which the Boston Avenue congregation belonged, had split off in protest over disciplinary action taken against a bishop for owning slaves. The two conferences were reunited in 1939.
The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Boston Avenue United Methodist Church is a major, innovative example of the thoughtful application of modern design to meet the practical needs and spiritual ideals of an American religious congregation. It is one of the most prominent and substantial buildings composing the Art Deco architectural heritage that defined Tulsa's growth into a sizeable city, and an outstanding example among all U.S. Art Deco architecture for its thorough and unified design. It is a seminal work by, and one of the most substantial standing projects of, architect Bruce Goff.
“The Boston Avenue Methodist-Episcopal Church, South, Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Architectural Record 66 (December 1929), pp. 519-26.
Cook, Jeffrey. The Architecture of Bruce Goff. St. Albans, Hertfordshire: Crosby Lockwood Staples, 1978.
De Long, David G. Bruce Goff: Toward Absolute Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988.
De Long, David Gilson. The Architecture of Bruce Goff: Buildings and Projects 1916-1977. New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1966.
Iannelli, Alphonso, “The Boston Avenue Methodist Church, of Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Western Architect 38 (October 1929), pp. 173-74, 190.
Welch, Philip B., ed. Goff on Goff. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
Tulsa Art Deco. Tulsa Foundation for Architecture, 2001.
"Boston Avenue Methodist Church," National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1978.
"Boston Avenue Church Controversy Lives," Tulsa World, Feb. 29, 1996
"Aspiring Avenue Church Remains Unique," Tulsa World, July 24, 1996
Oklahoma Historical Society, “Robinson, Ada Matilda (1882-1962),” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture, 2007 , accessed April 30, 2012.
Boston Avenue United Methodist Church website: http://bostonavenue.org/tour.html