Like ghosts of a future that never arrived, the United States is littered with space age relics that landed in the 1940s to 1960s in the form of diners, banks, motels, and other commercial architecture. While the futuristic style definitely made its mark on the big coastal cities, like with Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center in New York and Los Angeles International Airport’s Theme Building, it was also popular in a much more unexpected locale: on the Mars-like red earth of Oklahoma. Despite being a rather conservative place, the state fostered some pretty wild architecture, and you can still see its remnants as quiet oddities in the cityscapes. Oklahoma City especially has wonderful examples of this retrofuture trend, known as “Googie” architecture.
The “Googie” name was originally meant to be derisive by its critics, and referred to a (now gone) West Hollywood coffee shop of the same name. However, it’s likely the architects working out west in Oklahoma weren’t thinking of the term when they were building their atomic age structures, but they were thinking of the future promised by space travel, widespread automobiles, and sudden leaps in science (the atomic bomb being the most staggering), and of an architecture to reflect it. And no matter the critics’ views, the public was indefatigably curious about these peculiar structures.
When the First Christian Church opened in 1956, hundreds stopped their cars daily outside to see the “Egg Church,” nicknamed for its dome of thin concrete that rises up 110 feet with no interior supports (others called it “Space Headquarters”). Inside, the pulpit could be lifted and lowered, just like an elevator, and a flame lit by natural glass topped its 150 foot-tall bell tower. Designed by R. Duane Conner, the whimsical house of worship even appeared in Life Magazine, and a postcard was issued declaring it the “Church of Tomorrow.” However, its futuristic design wasn’t perfect, as apparently the dome created an awful echo, so that when the pastor talked it sounded “as though God were repeating every word he said, only much louder,” and an amplifying system had to be installed to talk through instead.
Also reaching to the sky, the Founders Bank built in 1964 was distinguished by its two arches that climb to 50 feet over an angled roof that appears to float (originally a glass wall encircled the entire thing so it looked much more gravity-defying, but the design was modified some decades later). Designed by Oklahoma City-born architect Robert Alan Bowlby while he was with Bailey, Bozalis, Dickinson, and Roloff (a firm responsible for quite a few of the futuristic buildings in the city), its airy form even attracted modernist architectural photographer Julius Shulman.
The United Founders Life Tower, completed in 1964, looks like a stranded relic from the Jetsons. In fact, some even claimed it inspired the cartoon TV show, which premiered the same year construction started in 1962, although they were likely just sourced from the same frenzy for the stargazing aesthetic (this was just a year after President Kennedy had announced we’d go to the moon, after all). Designed by Hudgins, Thompson, Ball & Associates, the building has an incredible 10 sides and up at the top of its 20 stories is a revolving platform restaurant (an idea added later in the building process after executives from the United Founders Life Insurance Company visited the Space Needle at the Seattle World’s Fair).
The “Gold Dome” as it’s known was built on Route 66 in 1956 as the Citizens State Bank. Containing 625 aluminum panels and designed by Bailey, Bozalis, Dickinson, and Roloff, it was the fifth building in the world to be constructed as a geodesic dome, a structural invention of the famous futurist Buckminster Fuller. However, the lead architect for the celestial sphere, Robert Roloff, wasn’t done with extraterrestrial design, and his next bank would be his most outlandish, and possibly the most cosmic creation to touch down in 1960s Oklahoma.
Directed to “make [the bank] so modern, your Gold Dome bank design will look like it was built in 1919,” Roloff designed what looked not so much like a bank as an alien invasion. In fact, when the State Capitol Bank opened in 1964, a sign was put out front to clarify that “This is a Bank” (some witty person later added a question mark to that statement). The weirdest bank in the state, maybe the world, was enthusiastically proclaimed the “Bank of the Future” by its owner (their radio jingle even sang out: “Bank for the future at the Bank of the Future!”). People either loved or loathed it, and the gridlock traffic from gawkers certainly was encouraged by the bank owner’s daughter and her friend dressing in space suits and dancing on the roof during those first frenzied weeks.
This Googie architecture, or whatever you may call these borderline follies of mid-century design, unfortunately did have some structural and leaking problems with their adventurous shapes and heavy use of glass, so the Bank of the Future has had adjustments over the years, most notably in its once transparent towers being closed in. This has grounded the 17 flying saucers a bit from their former Googie glory (here’s a look into the past, courtesy Julius Shulman again), but some eerie green lighting still makes them look out of this world.
The inside of the bank is just as mind-bending, as Roloff had been told to “make it more like a cocktail lounge than a bank,” and a round waiting area was actually designed to be an elevator that went down to the basement deposit boxes with the touch of a button discretely installed by a lamp.
Eventually, the mineral wealth from oil that had driven the boom in construction dried up and the architecture in the state subdued for a while, as it did elsewhere in the country as the novelty of the whimsical futurism faded. Yet what’s strange is that living in Oklahoma, these crazy buildings kind of blend in. This is partly because with money again appearing in the state, this time through natural gas, contemporary architects are doing some outrageous things in Oklahoma City. The Chesapeake Boathouse built in 2006 looks as otherworldly as anything built in the 1960s, and the SkyDance Bridge opened last year was designed to look like an abstract scissor-tail flycatcher (the state bird), but could just as easily be a pathway to the moon. Whether it’s the wide open skies begging for spaceships to land or just the available space for experimenting, something makes the architects in Oklahoma a little more adventurous than the rest of the West.