Districts in the National Register of Historic Places
Whittier Square Historic District
Period of Significance: 1914 – 1965
More information: District Boundary Map
Whittier Square was Tulsa’s first suburban shopping center. It is located on land originally held by the Creek Nation, which the nation awarded to Alvin T. Hodge and his wife in an allotment deed in 1903. East First Street was originally named “Hodge” for him. Before he sold the land that would become Gillette-Hall Addition (or Whittier Square) in 1906, it was part of Hodge’s large cattle pasture which ran from Elgin in the downtown area, east to Lewis Avenue.
Whittier Square began on the northeast edge of Tulsa at Admiral Boulevard, Admiral Place and Lewis Avenue, near the Tulsa Fairgrounds, which were established in 1915. This was an area almost in the country with dairy and poultry businesses and a mule trading company nearby. The Tulsa Home for Indigents was just east of the fairgrounds.
Lewis Avenue, which ran north-south through the Gillette-Hall Addition, was a busy street because the east-west farm/market road (Federal Boulevard) was heavily used as farmers moved goods into Tulsa from Siloam Springs. Federal Boulevard junctioned with Lewis and then turned south. Federal Boulevard was the dividing line between Creek and Cherokee Nation land, with Cherokee to the north and Creek to the south. Federal was renamed Admiral Place in the 1920s.
The shopping center’s early growth was aided by the 1909 Tulsa Street Railway (TSR) First Street line from downtown to the heart of the new and rapidly growing neighborhood. When the First Street line reached Lewis Avenue, it turned south before turning east at Seventh Street on its way to Kendall College (renamed the University of Tulsa in 1920).
John Greenleaf Whittier School was constructed in 1916, at 46 North Lewis Avenue, which further encouraged residents to move to the area. A post office substation located on North Lewis in 1924 and Cleveland Middle School opened in 1926. The East Second Street Library was constructed in 1931, at 2537 E. Second Street and it remained as an important community member until it was replaced by the current library which opened in 2000.
Whittier Square was already an important shopping destination when Route 66 was designated a federal highway in 1926. Route 66 ran west toward Tulsa along Admiral Place which dead-ended at South Lewis. The route turned south on Lewis to Second Street, where it turned west toward downtown Tulsa — meaning the highway went right through the middle of Whittier Square.
Whittier Square was certainly a significant travel point along the Route, providing travelers access to car care, restaurants and grocery stores. In 1929, the Circle Cinema opened, providing a welcome entertainment venue to locals and travelers along Route 66. Some of the more well-known and long time businesses in Whittier Square were Anderson Dry Goods (c.1926-1946), Cox’s Department Store (c. 1940-1955), Safeway (c. 1940-1950), Meigs Cleaners (c. 1956-1978), and Ferguson’s Bakery (c.1936-1965), which introduced sliced bread to the city under the name of Handy Bread.
A long time business owner, John Swinney noted that “at its peak, the expanded Whittier Square Shopping Center was home for more than 100 businesses which provided a wide range of goods and services to the surrounding community.”
The area was important during World War II because of the Tulsa Bomber Plant (Douglas Aircraft Company) to the north. Buses would pick up workers near Whittier Square to take them to various shifts. However, changes in the status of Whittier Square began after World War II. During the post-war’s strong economic period, many residents in the Gillette-Hall addition moved further away into newer areas of Tulsa. Owners often kept their small houses and rented them or sometimes sold them, but these neighborhood houses were not as desirable as they once were.
Perhaps more disturbing to Whittier Square was the development of Interstate 244, which begin in 1965. The exits were placed such that they didn't directly funnel traffic onto Lewis Avenue, but instead onto Delaware Avenue to the east and Utica Avenue to the west. In a twist of fate, Whittier Square prospered from Route 66 highway traffic but struggled after being bypassed by the new expressway built in nearly the same location.
It also did not help that the Whittier Square neighborhood was rezoned in the 1960s from single family to multi-family use. The city hoped to encourage dense development, but the effect was to change the nature of the neighborhood from single family ownership to multi-family rentals, often managed by absentee or inattentive landlords. The neighborhood became an area where residents would stay for a few years and move on. The customer base changed as did the types of businesses in Whittier Square. In the 1970s and 80s, adult-oriented businesses thrived.
In the 1990s, multiple efforts by local residents and merchants formed plans to reclaim the Square. Through multiple studies, task forces, improvement districts, and very persistent community support, Whittier Square has seen revitalization with new sidewalks and streetscaping. The adult-oriented businesses were encouraged to leave. The Circle Cinema, once a neighborhood favorite, became an independent film theater and reopened in 2009. In 2010, through active community involvement, Whittier Square was admitted to the Oklahoma Main Street Program.
The Whittier Square Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 15, 2012 under Criterion A for significance in Community Planning and Development. Its NRIS number is 12000348.
- Representation in Existing Surveys
- National Register of Historic Places — June 15, 2012
- Route 66 and Associated Resources in Oklahoma, 1926-1970