2017 Tulsa Tunnel Tours
This coming Saturday, February 11, 2017 the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture will once again host its remarkably popular tour of Tulsa’s downtown tunnel system. Last year, well over 1,000 people satisfied their curiosity about what lurks under downtown’s streets and sidewalks. This year, I was honored to be invited to participate by signing books, answering questions, and telling a few stories as a part of the tour. In preparation for what will, once again, be a huge event, I thought I’d share an excerpt from 4th & Boston: Heart of the Magic Empire that tells the story of how the city’s public tunnel system got its start.
Tulsa’s first and most interesting tunnel under downtown was a private passageway built by oilman Waite Phillips c.1931 as a secret connection between his Philtower and Philcade buildings at 5th & Boston. It would take another 23 years for Tulsa’s first public access tunnel to be dug.
The Turner Turnpike, connecting Tulsa and Oklahoma City, opened in May of 1953, underscoring the inexorable relationship between the automobile and commerce. As suburbs expanded and individual automobile ownership skyrocketed, downtown businesses found themselves crippled by congestion and a lack of parking. Accommodating the customer’s automobile was synonymous with accommodating the customer. To that end, NBT (National Bank of Tulsa—known today as BOK) committed themselves to leadership in meeting the needs of their most mobile customers.
Although it had not yet been tried in Tulsa, [NBT] President Bradshaw confidently believed that “motorbanking” was the solution. While NBT’s first attempt moved the bank in the right direction, it fell short of the familiar convenience of drive-through banking known today.
In January of 1954, NBT purchased a one-half interest in the old YMCA building at the northwest corner of 4th & Cincinnati, across from City Hall. The bank demolished the 1914 structure and leased the lot to the National Autoramp Corporation for the construction of a six-story parking garage with a 412-vehicle capacity that gave NBT customers top priority. The ground level became home to the NBT Motorbank, two walk-up teller windows and a well-lit pedestrian tunnel that ran under Boston Avenue to provide the customer with a safe, all-weather trek between her car and the main bank.
Instead of drive-through lanes, however, the 1954 Motorbank consisted of four parking stalls, each served by a teller window. Getting in was relatively easy, but leaving required backing out into a tight space with a limited view of incoming traffic. A uniformed guard was on site to guide patrons through the process, but it soon became obvious that a better solution was needed.
Opened in September of 1964, NBT’s second Motorbank between Boston and Cincinnati on the south side of 3rd Street was a true drive-through with four lanes and room for forty cars to wait in line. Proving far more practical and useful to customers, it stayed in service until the bank relocated to the new 52 story BOK Tower in 1975. Also in 1975, Tulsa’s last tunnel was added under 3rd Street to connect the Williams parking complex hidden beneath the Williams Center Greens to the 320 South Boston Building.