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First Christian Church, Tonkawa, OK

September 14, 2016


The Christian church at Tonkawa, Oklahoma is a close cousin of the Methodist church in nearby Woodward [if you think 136 miles is “nearby”] Sadly, it hasn’t fared nearly as well. Both are now serving other denominations and both have improved access, but Tonkawa’s new entry shows poor understanding of Andrea Palladio and its cantilevered “Prairie School” cornices are gone, probably the result of combined construction and maintenance issues. It’s difficult to say whether any stained glass survives — or whether there was any in the first place. So much for authenticity.

Is I considered this building, however, and the similar design at Woodward, it was natural to wonder how these two fine Prairie School buildings came to be in what was then the new state of Oklahoma. In those heady days of celebration, its communities strove for equality with their older neighbors, particularly in Kansas and Texas. About the time these were built, William Wells had already brought the influence of Louis Sullivan and Wright to Oklahoma City and Sullivanesque ornament graced Tulsa’s Central National Bank. New state; new style.

But architectural history craves a smoking gun — a more direct chain of evidence that may have resulted in the Woodward and Tonkawa churches. While responding to a student query this afternoon, I almost literally stumbled on two candidates for source material: a church and an unbuilt bank, both in Minnesota and both designed by architects Purcell & Elmslie; both were also published in the pages of The Western Architect magazine in January 1915. Until the dates of the Oklahoma projects are determined, this is just enlightened speculation.


Oddly, it’s the unbuilt bank that has a stronger similarity, not the church. Incidentally, I flipped the bank perspective left-for-right for emphasis. See what I mean?

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