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How to navigate the streets, scenes, and slang of Tulsa’s core

Doug Summers

Exploring the maze of history and legend in downtown’s underground tunnels

Construction of downtown’s underground tunnels began in 1929 under the auspices of Waite Phillips and were originally intended to transport materials between the Philtower and Philcade Building via an 80-foot subterranean pathway under South Boston Avenue.

By some accounts, Phillips feared he would be targeted in a kidnaping for ransom in the 1930s and used the tunnels for safe passage between the buildings. During the Prohibition era, which continued in Oklahoma until 1959, the tunnels likely served as a thoroughfare for bootleggers.

Teri French, founder of the Paranormal Investigation Team of Tulsa, includes a passage in “Tulsa’s Haunted Memories” about two boys who claimed “the underground tunnels were the site of satanic rituals, where animal sacrifices would take place” and that “it was common to find remnants of such rituals, as well as punk and goth bands playing music there.”

Time magazine investigated in 1971: “On certain nights over the past two years, residents along a street in downtown Tulsa, Okla., have heard puzzling, ghostly wisps of guitar music floating up from beneath the pavement.”

Time discovered a group of teenagers who go underground on weekends—not for ritualistic sacrifice, but rather “to play their music, smoke, and relax.”

“We’re not disturbing anybody,” a student at Tulsa Junior College said. “We have these giant underground openings that nobody uses. It’s like something the city gave us without knowing it.”

“I do my best playing down there,” another man said.

In total, the buried byways connect eight buildings, three parking garages, several restaurants, and a hotel. The tunnels, in combination with above-ground skyways, make it possible to walk from First and Main to Fifth and Boston without stepping on a street.

Tulsa Foundation for Architecture will lead a Tulsa Underground Tunnels tour on August 12, and Tours of Tulsa offers private tours all year long.

To our credit

Historic tax incentive restoring downtown

Oklahoma’s Historic Tax Credit program has been a behind-the-scenes superhero, helping save and repair downtown Tulsa’s historic buildings by matching Federal tax credits
for certified restoration of historic properties.

The program has benefited 77 historic buildings in the state, like the Tulsa Paper Company warehouse (now the Woody Guthrie Center), old City Hall (now Aloft hotel), Ward Building (now Sisserou’s), Mayo Hotel, among many others. Nearly a quarter of those 77 projects occurred here, with $230 million invested in Tulsa buildings through the program from 2001–2015.

Most structural revitalization projects that occurred in the last 15 years were only possible through this incentive.

A 2016 study by Tulsa Foundation of Architecture concluded that “as a fiscally responsible tax incentive … [the] program has been remarkably successful in creating jobs, in generating tax revenues at the state and local levels, and in increasing the understanding and appreciation of the wonderful history of Oklahoma as represented in its historic buildings.”

Still, despite the program’s tremendous benefits to Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma—including the creation of more than 3,000 jobs—legislature attempts to cut the program every year.

Find Tulsa Foundation of Architecture’s full study on historic tax credits at tulsaarchitecture.org.