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Art Deco's Place Along Route 66

The architecture along Route 66 varies dramatically from city to city and sometimes building to building! From turn of the century cinema theaters that stood before the Mother Road zipped through town to midcentury gas stations that arrived just before the interstate drew away its motorists, Route 66 could be considered a mobile museum of American architecture.

One consistent style from Chicago to Santa Monica is Art Deco. It flourished in the 1920s-30s, when the first Route 66 alignments were identified. The style is characterized by symmetry, extravagant ornamentation, and strong geometric shapes inside and out. It represented opulence, glamour, and faith in technology – a far departure from the organic themes of nature in Art Nouveau, its predecessor. The outbreak of World War II ushered in a notion of patriotic frugality and austerity that put an end to the lavish motifs of Art Deco, but much of this architecture survives around the globe. Many notable examples reside in the United States.

Perhaps surprisingly, Tulsa, Oklahoma is home to a significant assortment of Art Deco structures along its original alignment of the Mother Road. Once known as the “Terra Cotta City,” Tulsa’s downtown boomed in the 1920s, thanks to the wealth and spendthrift natures of the town’s oil barons. They had money to spend, and Art Deco was in vogue. Two of the most prominent examples are the Philtower Building and Philcade Building. They complement one another with two forms of Art Deco design – bold ornamentation for the Philtower and Egyptian-styled terra cotta for the Philcade. The Blue Dome, the first 24 hour gas station in Oklahoma, was a welcome site for Route 66 travelers needing a fill up. It is now being restored to its former glory. The Art Deco façade of the Warehouse Market was saved from being demolished, and continues to delight travelers with its terra cotta exterior. Downtown Tulsa is littered with such architectural gems, and offers many Art Deco walking tours for interested tourists. With each passing year, the city continues to preserve more and more of these elegant and functional works of art.

While motoring down the early alignments of Route 66, roll down the windows and take a gander at the Art Deco buildings you pass by. They represent just as distinctive a thread in the fabric of American history as the Mother Road itself.

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