The Architectural Inspiration for Oral Roberts University

One of the most common questions I have been asked in my role as a historian and archivist at Oral Roberts University is, “Why the futuristic look of the university?” Some architecture scholars have studied the campus trying to divine its secrets, noting it as a classic example of Mid-Century Modernist style.[1] But where did ORU’s unique design ideas come from? I have some insights I would like to share on this question.

Oral Robert came to Tulsa in 1947.  His ministry first operated out of his house until they could no longer keep up with the mail and he opened a small building in Tulsa.

But soon, with his popularity growing and his large ministry staff, Roberts decided to build a massive headquarters building at 12th and Boulder. The colossal square, windowless building was designed by Tulsa architect, Cecil Stanfield and was built in 1958.  The large square building was donned with diamonds, which symbolized “broken arrows, the symbol of peace.”

In 1962, Oral began to shift from tent ministry to world ministry and decided to open an evangelism training school in Tulsa called “The Oral Roberts University School of Evangelism.” He chose a property at 81st and Lewis, which at the time was a cattle ranch way outside of town. Roberts asked Stanfield again if he wanted take on the project, but he declined.

Working for Stanfield was a young protégé named Frank Wallace, who eagerly jumped at the chance to design the new facilities.  The first building was the Timko Barton and the two residence halls Braxton and Shakarian, which formed a U-shape campus. The new building contained space for hosting conferences, classrooms and two dorm rooms to house those who would attend the “University of Evangelism.”  The design was mid-century modern, but wasn’t overly radical for the time. Today that building is called Timko-Barton and houses the Music department.  

However, by 1964, the idea of a short-term evangelism training school had shifted to a full-fledged university. Plans for additional academic buildings began to surface in OREA publications. Timko-Barton was tabbed to house the new Graduate School of Theology. Roberts also unveiled a master plan for new buildings including a Library, classrooms, and sports area, each designed by Frank Wallace.

The first drawings of the proposed campus in 1964 were radically futuristic. See this cover of an early ORU magazine called “Outreach” featuring a crown-like concept of the prayer tower. I am sure the futuristic design seemed quite progressive to many of his old-time Pentecostal ministry base.

The next set of drawings captured some of these same ideas, but now featured a complex of buildings with high white columns. The feature building was triangular in shape (no doubt reflecting the Trinity) and contained the main library and classrooms. The John D. Messick Learning Resourced Center (named after the first provost) has continued to serve this function even till today.

The triangular building featured white columns that seemed to reach to the heavens and large porches.  A Tulsa World article by Michael Overall describes the Learning Resources Building this way,

“[Wallace] designed it as a triangle to represent the Holy Trinity, with gold tinting that resembles the color of honey and cream-colored columns that start wide at the top and grow narrow as they come down, like streams of milk pouring off the roof. Wallace envisioned ORU as a land flowing with milk and honey.” [2}

The futuristic feel of ORU’s buildings matched Oral’s positive message of faith and his belief that “all things were possible.”  Seeing this modernistic style certainly portrays that sense of optimism well.  ORU was going to be a place of possibility and miracles.

The Future and the World’s Fair

Where did Wallace get his inspiration for the unique ORU style? Was it simply from the genius mind of Frank Wallace, who dreamed up the futuristic architecture to match his eccentric and optimistic client? Or could it have been revealed to Oral when he famously walked the grounds and prayed in the Spirit? In 2016, Margaret Grubiack gave me some clues when in her research where she accredited the World’s Fair as inspiration. I have become convinced she is right, but for some different reasons than simply observing architectural styles. I think I found some convincing evidence that this is true.

In my three years as Director of the HSRC and now the Archives, I have learned that nothing in an archive is there by accident.  In a file of various materials in the Holy Spirit Research Center, I happened upon an old magazine that seemed out of place. It was a full color magazine with pictures of the buildings that were built for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. When I found it, I felt like it was an odd thing to have in a library on the Holy Spirit.  I placed it on a shelf and forgot about it. Then one day, wondering about ORU’s architecture, I decided to thumb through it and I discovered this photo.

This is the 1933 Federal Building at the World’s Fair. The three towers were fluted, triangle in shape, and represented the three houses of government. Immediately I noticed their resemblance to the City of Faith. Intrigued by the similarities, I searched the internet to find out more about the building. I was shocked to find the postcard from the 1933 World’s Fair below. Its resemblance to the City of Faith, particularly from this angle, was remarkable to me.

The Federal Building towers were all the same size. But what is interesting about the angel of this photo is it gives the impression that the center tower is taller than the two side towers. Is it possible that the City of Faith towers were designed with the center tower as prominent because of a photo of the Federal Building? Its hard to say for sure. But there is more.

The second thing you notice about this photo is that all three towers come from a common spalling base topped with gold dome. This is similar to the City of Faith, whose gold windowed base ties the three towers together and spans beyond the towers.

Third, note that the color of the flutes on the towers of the Federal Building drawing is remarkably similar the white/gold color scheme of the City of Faith.  The white/gold scheme was a signature already of the campus. But the fact that the sides were golden flutes is similar to the Federal building. Finally, notice that both the Federal Building and the City of Faith towers themselves were triangular, only Oral’s two smaller towers were reversed with flat face toward the front. This triangle shape is significant because it seems to me that most tower buildings are square. All of these factors together suggest to me that this 1933 World’s Fair building may have been an inspiration for the City of Faith towers. And that inspiration may have come from the very magazine I found.

Other World’s Fair Similarities

But there are more connections to the World’s Fair as inspiration for buildings on campus. For example, this is a photo of a Soviet Union building at the 1959 World’s Fair.

Compare that with the Howard Auditorium and its famous gold dome with geometric shapes. While these types of modular buildings were not uncommon, it seems likely that this may have been where the idea for the geodesic dome building may have come from.

Another example of World’s Fair architecture is the Prayer Tower. As mentioned above, the first design was a shaped like a traditional crown. Somewhere between 1964 and 1967, the design of the prayer tower changed from the futuristic crown design to a “cross” design with a crown of thorns.

Margaret Gubiack pointed out that the prayer tower may be modeled after the Seattle Space Needle designed by John Graham Jr. for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. [3] There is some resemblance, for sure, but I wasn’t convinced. That was until I found picture from the 1962 World’s Fair of the Space Needle, also in the HSRC files. Turns out, Grubiack was right. Once again, the archive gave me the clue to connect the dots.

Oral Robert’s Visits the World’s Fair

The discovery that Oral Roberts and Frank Wallace were inspired by the World’s Fair futuristic and modernist designs should not surprise us at all. Oral Roberts was the most forward thinker and innovator perhaps in the Christian tradition. Despite his Pentecostal faith and premillennial eschatology, Roberts did not share a pessimistic outlook on the world or the future. His positive message that “God is a Good God” and his belief in miracles was proof that Oral saw possibilities where others in the evangelical tradition could not.

The connection to World’s Fair is supported by the fact that Oral went to several World’s Fairs in that era. As part of Oral Robert’s growing literature outreach to the world, Oral sent an evangelistic team to the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels Belgium. See the cover of the October 1958 Abundant Life.

Roberts’ director of literature, Howard Griffin, was deeply impressed by the “awesome and wonderful architecture.” But what impressed him even more was the “milling multitudes of people babbling in their own language.”  Griffin said he discovered “modern-day Babel.” (Abundant Life, Oct 1958). The futuristic architecture and global nature of the World’s Fair was so inspirational to Oral that he decided his ministry would be present at very World’s Fair.

In 1962, Oral Roberts came to Seattle to do a Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship meeting at the exact same time as the Seattle World’s Fair was going on. There he visited the Fair and no doubt saw the 600 foot Seattle Space Needle towering over the complex. This would have been right during the time he was designing the new campus at 81st and Lewis.

A year later, the first buildings on campus were started to take their futuristic design.  Coincidence?  Probably not.

The Iconic Style of Minoru Yamasaki

Natives to Tulsa know that the Bank of Oklahoma tower resembles the famous World Trade Center towers in New York City.  This is because they were designed by the same architect, Minoru Yamasaki.

As mentioned, years before he built those iconic buildings, Yamasaki was also a World’s Fair architect.  At the base of the Seattle World’s Fair Space Needle was the Space Complex buildings built by Yamasaki. Yamasaki’s signature designs featured high arches, futuristic design and white columns, seen below.

Yamasaki was the ultimate modernist-humanist. His designs conveyed a sense of possibility and human achievement as his buildings featured tall pillars that reached for the sky. An example of Yamasaki’s work is the Northwestern National Insurance Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota built in 1961.

Look familiar? It should. It has a remarkable resemblance to the design of the Learning Resources Center, the first building built as part of the official University.

But, there are two more features in the LRC design that are also similar features of Yamasaki. As Professor Dale Allen Gyure documents, Minoru was known for this design of interlocking circles (painted gold) that covered the windows like this 1955 design in Detroit Michigan as seen below

( Photo credit: Dale Allen Gyure).

Compare this with the very similar feature that covers widows of the LRC and dons the outside of the dorms. If this weren’t enough to convince one that Yamasaki was the inspiration for the design of ORU, check out the design of the roofline of one of the McGregor Building at Wayne State built by Yamasaki between 1958-1964. It is very similar to the LRC peaks.

All of these designs were built during the exact same era as Wallace was designing and building ORU. And, of course, it also cant be a coincidence that his name is Min-ORU, can it? (Ok. That’s stretching it. But I just found it humorous). It shows that Yamasaki was indeed a large influence on the architectural imagination of Frank Wallace.

Conclusion

The architecture of ORU has earned the University national fame and at one time, ORU was the number one tourist attraction in Oklahoma.  ORU made Frank Wallace famous and his unique designs is part of the Oral Roberts’ legacy. The genius of the futuristic look just adds to ORU’s “expect a miracle” ethos. But Wallace and Roberts may have had some inspiration for ORU’s unique look. ORU reflects the futuristic architecture of Mid-Century Modernists found in the World’s Fair and architects like Minoru Yamasaki. These positive, upward and futuristic designs appear to be the inspiration the LRC design, the original crown prayer tower, and many of the other buildings on the new ORU campus.

Just as Oral Roberts saw first hand that the World’s Fair represented the future and the possibility of global ministry, I believe he was trying to use it a model for what ORU would become. A global community that is optimistic about the gospel’s ability to reach the “uttermost bounds of the earth.” Of course there is no way to know for sure. Now that both Roberts and Wallace have passed away, they have taken that secret with them. But thanks to the secrets of the ORU Archive, we now have some clues as to their inspiration.

(All ORU photos are credited to ORU Media department)


[1] See Margaret M. Grubiak, “An Architecture for the Electronic Church: Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” in Technology and Culture, 57, no 2 (April 2016), 380-413.

[2] Michael Overall, “Tulsa architect Frank Wallace never became famous, but his buildings did.” Tulsa World 6 April 2020, https://tulsaworld.com/news/local/michael-overall-tulsa-architect-frank-wallace-never-became-famous-but-his-buildings-did/article_cc5a0b3d-daa4-59d4-a3a3-6575f1429f26.html

[3] Gubiak, “An Architecture for the Electronic Church: Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” 389. Grubiak had already published her article on ORU’s architecture when I began researching this topic. She noted some of the similarities to the Worlds Fair, Seattle Space Needle, and hinted that Yamasaki may have been Wallace’s inspiration. But she did not give the building examples that I have found as evidence, which I used to make the case even stronger. Never the less, her work on this is the most authoritative study to date.

2 thoughts on “The Architectural Inspiration for Oral Roberts University

  1. Thanks for the research
    Frank was a unique guy !
    As building was going on, he and Oral would change building ideas on the spot
    Exteriors once agreed upon, for the part
    Were not changed.
    Interior was changed often.
    The library was my job along with all auditoriums in the G C
    Dr McClendan was in on classroom design.
    All had to be approved by Frank and O R!

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