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The man who built Tulsa

Unbeknownst to many Tulsa natives and non-natives alike, the city ORU calls home holds a rich history that goes deeper than the old buildings of downtown.

As the second largest city in Oklahoma, Tulsa was settled from 1828 to 1836 and in 1901, oil was discovered. Tulsa was quickly nicknamed the “Oil Capital of the World” and people flocked to the city in search of riches as the oil industry in America continued to boom.

One such man, named Waite Phillips, made Tulsa the object of his heart. This oil baron is considered one of Tulsa’s greatest philanthropists and his namesake is preserved by the Philbrook Museum of Art. Phillips built a mansion complete with a massive, intricate garden for himself and his wife Genevieve. He later donated the home, called Villa Philbrook, to the city.

It opened its doors as the museum in 1939 and there are now two locations citywide. The original is in midtown and the newer is in downtown Tulsa. The Philbrook is free for ORU students and the location in midtown features much of the Phillips’ historic furniture and living amenities.

Phillips is also known for his oil headquarters in downtown Tulsa, the Philtower and Philcade. These two iconic buildings mirror each other on Fifth and Boston, sticking out from the small crowd of office complexes with their green tops and true 1920s-esque designs.

The Phillips legacy lives on in Tulsa, through the known and mysterious. Some have ventured farther into the history of the Phillips’ beautiful buildings and found one of Tulsa’s best kept secrets: the underground tunnels. While these tunnels now connect many of Tulsa’s skyscrapers, they were originally constructed to connect the Philtower and Philcade.

Waite Phillips had the tunnels constructed in 1929 so that he could move from the penthouse where he lived, located in the Philcade, to his office in the Philtower, for both safety and ease. The streets connecting the two buildings were very busy in the 20s and 30s and millionaires were worried about being kidnapped and held for ransom for their fortune. Thus, the construction and additions of the tunnels continued and soon became known as the “millionaire highway.”

Today, the tunnels connect eight buildings, some smaller businesses, a few parking garages, a major hotel and many cafes in downtown Tulsa. While many of the entrances to the tunnels are guarded by security or small cafe kitchens, a simple Google search for “Tulsa tunnels” will reveal that it is still possible to access and travel by the tunnels. There are even a few YouTube videos documenting how to find and navigate the tunnels for any brave and curious souls seeking a more hands-on Tulsa experience. As long as there is no trespassing on private property, touring the tunnels of downtown Tulsa is a great way to learn more about the history of the city and one of its favorite public benefactors.

Phillips also donated the Philtower building to the city of Tulsa and after donating their mansion in 1938, the Phillips family moved into the penthouse of the Philcade Building. He sold the building in 1942 and it is now used as an office building for multiple businesses.

The city that made him rich is sprinkled with the Phillips legacy, inviting natives and non-natives alike to go a little deeper into the culture and experience the fascinating underbelly of one of America’s oldest cities.