A Tulsa, Okla., Building, Once a Model T Dealership, Is Transformed into a Co-Working Space

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Downtown Tulsa, Okla., could be described as a ghost town after the oil bust of the 1980s. [See “Back from the Dead”, March-April 2014 issue, page 22, for more background on the city’s boom to bust.] However, artists—who tend to see possibilities where others don’t—continued to make their homes and open their galleries in Tulsa’s downtown Brady Arts District. Located between the Inner Dispersal Loop, a vital highway surrounding downtown Tulsa, and the Santa Fe Railway, the Brady Arts District was established when the Brady Theater opened its doors in 1914, followed by Cain’s Ballroom in the 1920s. (Both venues still host concerts today.) In addition to these concert venues, galleries and artsy shops, some industrial businesses and a few bars and restaurants made a go of it in the district. The rest of the Brady Arts District could, at best, be defined as worn down.

Recognizing a healthy downtown is fundamental to a city and its suburbs, Tulsa leaders created Vision 2025 in 2003. The one-penny, 13-year increase in the Tulsa County Sales Tax funds economic development and capital improvements. As of April 2016, total sales tax receipts exceeded $683 million. (In April 2016, Tulsa County citizens voted to extend the Vision program for another 13 years.) By partnering with visionaries from the private sector, the Brady Arts District, especially, has experienced exponential growth.

Billionaire philanthropist George Kaiser is one of the visionaries who has expanded development through the George Kaiser Family Foundation while keeping the Brady Arts District’s fundamental character in place. Among the foundation’s notable projects is the Universal Ford Building, which was originally constructed in 1917 as a Model T dealership. Having worked with the George Kaiser Family Foundation on projects in the district for nine years, Chris Lilly, principal of Lilly Architects, Tulsa, was chosen to be the architect for the Universal Ford Building’s rehabilitation.

The building sits on one of the last intact tracts of historic Main Street in downtown Tulsa. As such, the George Kaiser Family Foundation was focused on developing it in a way that made sense for the up-and-coming community. Lilly notes the foundation’s original intent was to turn the Universal Ford Building into multifamily units to continue introducing a mix of residential and commercial spaces to the neighborhood. But as the project moved forward, a new idea emerged for an entrepreneurial hub called 36 Degrees North, or 36°N.

“The 36°N organization actually evolved with the project and Aaron Miller, who’s a program officer for the George Kaiser Family Foundation,” Lilly says. Today, 36°N is supported by the George Kaiser Family Foundation; Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, which primarily aids entrepreneurialism; and the Tulsa Regional Chamber. The Tulsa Technology Center, University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University are educational supporters of the co-working space.

Startup Spot

In 2015, WalletHub, a website that describes itself as an “artificially intelligent financial advisor designed to leave your wallet full”, named Tulsa the ninth best city in the U.S. to start a business, based on data from the U.S. Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Venture Capital Association and more. This isn’t the first time Tulsa has been recognized as an entrepreneurial hotbed. In fact, the city has a number of programs and groups supporting the entrepreneurial spirit, including The Forge, a startup incubator established by the Tulsa Young Professionals group and run by the Tulsa Regional Chamber; Kitchen66, an incubator for those interested in the food industry; and the Tulsa Startup Series, a bimonthly pitch competition and annual demo day led by Tulsa Community College and the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation. However, a lot of entrepreneurs didn’t know about the re- sources available to them; therefore, it only seemed natural to create a basecamp for Tulsa’s entrepreneurs to gather, learn and motivate one another. 36°N is that place.

Shanese Slaton, 36°N operations manager, says the name 36°N is the literal destination of the physical space that was created within the Universal Ford Building; it’s the latitude line that runs through Tulsa. Today, about 38 different industries are represented within 36°N, including food and service companies, brick and mortar stores, energy companies and consultants. There
are 48 desks and seven offices within the space. These are almost full and have a waiting list. In addition, 36°N offers a co-working membership, which allows people to come in and co-work anywhere within the space, including in a living room, lounge area, and at tables and chairs spread out in other rooms. “Everything here is on a month-to-month basis so there’s a low cost of entry if you’re starting your own business and you don’t want to worry about a six-month or year-long commitment,” Slaton says. “That also means you never know when a desk might come available.”

36°N also hosts events and workshops geared toward helping businesses grow. The events are sponsored by non-profits, universities and other partner groups. (View a calendar of events.) “We just finished hosting 200 OK, which is one of the largest tech conferences in Oklahoma,” Slaton adds. “We had more than 100 people in the space just for the conference. They brought in technology speakers, talking about coding and what is coming up in the industry. We enjoyed that and look forward to hosting more conferences like it.”
Slaton says the beauty of 36°N is the networking and peer groups that have been created within its walls. “I think this is a great place to meet like-minded people who are here to grow and work and operate their businesses more efficiently,” she says. “You often find these synergies of someone saying,‘This is what I just went through and this is how I handled it’ and another saying, ‘I just went through that and this is what I did’. We’re not an incubator but we want to expedite the process for companies to grow, whether that means to grow and fail and then pivot and try again or to grow faster than they would have without us.”

Live, Work, Play

Before its retrofit and after it was abandoned by Ford, the Universal Ford Building had been used for miscellaneous storage but basically had been vacant for the past 20 years. Fortunately, the cast-in-place concrete construction had aged well and, structurally, the building was in good shape. The majority of the 37,000-square-foot facility was wide-open space, so Lilly Architects was challenged to maintain the original, historic character of a raw, concrete building while interjecting new elements and modern uses.
The location of the 11,000-square-foot 36°N space is in an area of the building once considered the back-of-house—an area in which mechanics worked in the Model T dealership. “There used to be a railroad spur that came off the south side of the building, so they were actually able to unload the Model T’s directly into the facility,” Lilly explains. “There was a historic freight lift that went all the way to the roof, and that’s all cast-in-place concrete, so they were able to actually park Model T’s on the roof for overflow storage. There was a large ramp that was in the building, which was taken out and infilled to allow for its current use.”

The dealership’s west facade contained the original showroom, which featured a mosaic tile floor where Model T’s would be lined up along the windows. “That would have been where you came in and sat down,” Lilly explains. “There’s an old fireplace that people would have sat at to finalize their transactions to purchase a car.”

Lilly Architects and the building owner decided the expanse of mosaic floor, which was restored, would be the perfect location for what has become the Prairie Artisan Ales brew pub, a nice amenity for the 36°N co-workers to flesh out ideas after the workday is through. The fireplace also has been restored with an insert gas, ventless unit.

“This area was basically a large volume of space that we tried to break down without dividing,” Lilly recalls. “We designed a dining ellipse on one side with a couple booths in it, which breaks up the volume that you walk through. Then there’s the bar in which we actually use a foeder, an 8-foot-wide by 9-foot-tall beer-brewing barrel, as the bar’s centerpiece. It has 20 taps coming out of it, and the bar is on a radius around that.” A larger dining space and private dining area round out the brew pub.

On the second floor of the building, Lilly Architects created 23 apartments, consisting of studios and one- and two-bedroom units, many of which are for the Tulsa Artist Fellowship Program, which is a George Kaiser Family Foundation-sponsored program. It encourages artists from all over the world to come to Tulsa to live and work.

Office Space

Coordination among trades and an open line of communication between stakeholders served Lilly well. “We allowed decisions to evolve and change, as necessary, as the process proceeded,” he remembers.

The building’s envelope was improved with new stucco and brickwork repairs. The team retained the original steel windows, which were repaired in place. “There are over 2,000 individually glazed window units that are insulated that have been put into those steel window frames,” Lilly says. Window treatments and shades protect the workspaces from glare.

Electric lighting within the building is LED. “We went with a direct/indirect primarily
for the open office space, so it’s a suspended system that shines out of the bottom of the fixture and shines out of the top to reflect off the ceiling,” Lilly states. “In the offices, we actually have a lay-in 2 by 4 troffer. We’ve been really pleased with the performance and color temperature of it.”

Lilly and his team discovered metal panels and drywall covering large wooden doors on the south facade. “Most of them were five-panel doors with divided lites up above that basically accordion-open,” Lilly explains. “Those large openings would open from column to column. When we uncovered them, we incorporated them into the design documents and they have been recreated exactly like they were.”

To create flexible desk space for the open-office layout of 36°N, as well as link up six conference rooms, a cable-management system was necessary that didn’t require trenching or drilling into the 100-year-old concrete structure. In-carpet wireways were installed throughout the open-office workspace and conference rooms. The wireways provide workers access to power, audiovisual and data connections. As 36°N continues to grow and evolve, the ADA-compliant cabling easily can be reconfigured.

Lilly notes:“We didn’t want to have to soft cut large blocks of concrete to be able to get the data for the project to work, so the wireways were a great alternative to not having to do that from a timeline standpoint and also from a cost standpoint.”

Acoustics also were important to the stakeholders because of the addition of apartments upstairs with potentially 24-hour facilities below. An acoustic vibration isolation system was installed beneath the concrete slab to provide separation between the apartments and the tenants on the first floor. “Having a lot of people working in a large, open space also makes acoustics critical,” Lilly adds. “We worked with an acoustic consultant, who recommended absorptive panels on the ceiling. The carpet and fabrics and other materials we picked for the furniture all work in concert to provide the adequate absorption to an otherwise all-hard-surface environment.”

The George Kaiser Family Foundation and Lilly Architects also were rehabilitating the Fox Building, which was built in 1906 and is the Brady Arts District’s oldest building, during the Universal Ford Building’s retrofit. Consequently, the team created one chilled- and hot-water central plant to heat and cool both buildings.

“We used the roof of the Universal Ford Building because it’s all cast-in-place concrete, so it had the structural capacity to locate the equipment there,” Lilly notes. “We piped down the alley to the Fox Building to utilize that same system. There’s built-in redundancy in case one of the units has an issue. The entire alley was redone, as well, so it worked out well.”

If These Walls Could Talk

Construction at the Universal Ford Building took about 18 months and was completed at the end of 2015. To Lilly, the job was particularly significant because it was the first major project for Lilly Architects after becoming an entrepreneur himself. “I think just the fact that it ties into Tulsa’s history not only as an older building on Main Street, but the fact that it was a Ford dealership and how transformational the Model T was to the world and how it affected how our cities work,” he says. “I think it’s a great thing to highlight this building and the fact that it does have a strong connectivity to a company and an idea that really transformed the world.”

Now, the Universal Ford Building is reinvented for another generation of economic engines.

Retrofit Team

Architect: Lilly Architects, Tulsa, Okla.
Acoustical Engineer: JEAcoustics, Austin, Texas
Civil and Structural Engineer: Wallace Engineering, Tulsa
M/E/P Engineer: MPW Engineering, Tulsa
Owner’s Representative: Stonebridge Group, Tulsa

Materials

Carpet: Design Journey, Chok Tile, color 99760, from Shaw Contract
Base: Standard Cove, color black, from Roppe
Paint: Alabaster SW7008 from Sherwin-Williams
Countertops: Solid surface, color deep anthracite, from Corian
In-carpet Wireways: Connectrac
Ceiling: Tectum Inc.
Lighting: Axis, Cree, Juno, Tech Lighting and Tivoli