The first half of the twentieth century in Tulsa smelled of oil, ambition, and cold, hard cash. The Tulsa Oil Boom earned the city the right to call itself the “Oil Capital of the World,” and many a man who came to the city seeking his fortune went to bed a bum and woke up a millionaire. The evidence of this success—opulent mansions, extravagant city-towers, and sprawling, lavish estates—sprang up across the Oklahoma landscape like brick-and-mortar wildflowers. Among these was a triad of buildings (of varying levels of eponymous creativity) commissioned by oil magnate Waite Phillips and his wife, Genevieve: Philtower, Villa Philmonte, and Villa Philbrook.
Though all three of these evidenced the opulence of their namesake, the last of these, Villa Philbrook, was an unabashed testament to the trademark superfluity of oil money: an expansive Italian Renaissance Villa modeled after the Villa Lante in Rome, complete with seventy-two rooms, twenty-three acres of meticulously landscaped gardens, and a ten-foot-deep swimming pool, all built to serve as a place for the two Phillips children—then ten and sixteen—to entertain their friends.
Fortunately for the city of Tulsa, the Phillips were apparently as capricious as they were indulgent, for less than eleven years after Villa Philbrook’s completion, they donated the entire mansion, part and parcel, to the city with only the vague request that it be used as an arts and cultural center. The broad corridors, spacious halls, and grand rooms of the villa leant themselves well to their new purpose, making the transition from private home to museum relatively painless, and it wasn’t long before the newly minted Philbrook Museum was well on its way to being one of the most highly-regarded museums in Oklahoma.
Today, the museum houses nine rich and varied collections from around the globe, each one unique and more impressive than the next. Visitors will find an eclectic mix of traditional and modern art and artifacts, from priceless pieces brought through antiquity from Egyptian, Roman, and Etruscan civilizations to the artful geometry and gynic curls of Picasso and O’Keeffe. The extensive Asian Collection boasts Edo period paintings, ceramics, and carvings, the African Collection, artistic iterations from over 120 African groups, and the American Collection and American Indian Collections capture every moment of the nation’s artistic past and present through paintings, pottery, and textiles.
Just outside the villa’s walls, the gardens, although perhaps once intended to be merely a charming accent to the museum’s collections, are works of art in their own right. With twenty-three acres of mixed formal and informal landscaping, the ever-changing tapestry of the gardens provide the perfect counterpoint to the frozen beauty of the museum’s interior, a lush and vibrant landscape that encourages visitors to not only observe, but to interact, with its diurnally changing displays.
Whereas many museums may rely on their contents to tell their story, the Philbrook Museum is unique; it’s not merely a vessel in which to house its collections, but is the very embodiment of the city that it serves. Within its walls, an impressive array of archaeological, ethnographic, and artistic exhibits pay homage to global contributions, but perhaps even more impressive than these are the walls themselves: silent testaments to the history of the museum, the city, the industry, and the men who made it what it was.
See Philbrook Museum Photos Here