In 1918, two brothers, wealthy from their oil‐related enterprises, decided to build homes adjacent to each other on South Peoria Avenue, at the southern edge of Tulsa. The Travis estates, nearly identical in plan, were of the same proportion and Italianate Renaissance Revival style, but differed in their architectural details and ornamentation as designed by Tulsa architect, Noble B. Fleming. The David R. Travis mansion, now home to the Tulsa Garden Center, features a hipped roof clad in red clay tile, while the Samuel R. Travis mansion, now home to the Tulsa Historical Society, is flat roofed, articulated with a full balustrade on all sides.
The exterior walls of the David R. Travis House are of multi‐wythe, load‐bearing brick of creamy yellow, with many details and decorative accents of cast stone, including columns, brackets, cornices, arches, lintels, and railings. The primary structural elements of the interior include metal pipe columns and dimensional wood framing. W.R. Grimshaw served as the general contractor for the project. When finished in 1919, the David R. Travis Mansion contained twenty‐one rooms, ten bathrooms, and a finished basement that included a ballroom, also used for Torah study and religious services; the four levels contained more than 12,500 square feet. The property also included a two‐story carriage house with three automobile or carriage bays; made of the same creamy yellow brick, the carriage house also featured a low‐pitched, hipped roof clad in clay tile, with wide overhanging eaves and boxed brackets, like the Italianate styled house.
The Travis home interior was opulently finished with a black‐and‐white marble floor, laid in a checkerboard pattern, in the grand foyer, ornate plaster moldings, and a grand staircase with terrazzo treads and risers, covered by a nine‐panel stained glass skylight. The library featured a gold leafed ceiling with a stenciled border and heavily‐paneled cabinets and bookcases. A massive fireplace occupied the dining room, which also featured a beautiful stenciled ceiling and Star of David moldings (since removed) at the doorways.
Symmetrical in plan, the house featured a curving, sunny breakfast room with arched windows on the north side, and an identically curving sunroom off the ballroom, to the south. According to their nephew Maury Travis, the adjacent homes of the brothers Samuel and David shared a tennis court, swimming pool, extensive truck (vegetable) gardens, and an automobile garage. The houses also shared a long driveway made of large cobblestones; it has been said that David Travis made his sons lay the paving stones, to expose them to the realities of hard labor.
After losing considerable wealth late in 1921, when the price of crude oil suddenly dropped, David Travis sold his home in order to pay off debts. James Arthur Hull and his wife Lina Jane purchased the house from Travis in 1923. Hull had entered the oil business in his home state of Pennsylvania, and gradually moved west as oil fields were developed in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas; in 1904 the Hulls moved to Independence, Kansas, before settling in Tulsa in 1908. In addition to his oil interests, Hull was one of the original directors of the Exchange National Bank (later the National Bank of Tulsa), which may have been connected to the Exchange Trust Company that held the lien on David Travis’s house.
Hull established the J.A. Hull Oil Company, which later was acquired by the larger Sinclair Prairie Oil Company. With their considerable wealth in banking and oil, the Hulls built the glass conservatory, designed by R.N. Black for the Lord & Burnham Company, in addition to the sunken garden near the conservatory in 1924; additional greenhouses on the property also are attributed to the Hulls.
Arthur Hull was very active with the Y.M.C.A. and founded the Tulsa Boys’ Home in 1919. A civic and business leader in Tulsa, Hull was not immune to the same boom‐and‐bust cycles that put the Travis mansion in his hands; the Hulls lost a considerable fortune in the stock market crash of 1929, and they sold the house and its additional gardens and greenhouses to George and Geraldine Snedden in 1932. They moved to 1306 East 17th Street, where Arthur Hull died in November 1944, aged 74, survived by Lina Jane and their son, J. DeWitt Hull.
George Snedden, the third owner of the Travis mansion, was a Pennsylvania native like the Hulls. At the age of 14, Snedden headed east to Walsenburg, Colorado, where he worked as a cowhand for five years; at age 19, he moved to the Indian Territory and found work in Sapulpa on a pipeline construction crew of the Laurel Oil & Gas Company. Snedden was one of Laurel’s biggest gasoline salesmen in 1914 and 1915, and he quickly worked his way up the ranks at the company, eventually becoming its vice president and general manager, when he left Laurel in 1918 and headed to Tulsa. Once in Tulsa, Snedden founded the Lorraine Petroleum Corporation, which later became the Inter‐Ocean Oil Corporation; he found great success in his oil exploration and drilled some of the largest producing wells of the day, before selling his interests to the British
American Oil Producing Company. Snedden also owned 400 acres near Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where he established a stock farm that produced shorthorn and white‐faced cattle and American saddle horses, many of which were exhibited at horse shows around North America. Like J. Arthur Hull, Snedden was associated with the board of the Tulsa Boys’ Home, and he served on the board of directors of the First National Bank of Tulsa.
The Sneddens purchased the Travis mansion from the Hulls for the price of $25,000 on January 5, 1932; that summer, they hosted a garden party at their new home for the First Presbyterian Church, where George served as deacon. An article in the Tulsa World described the party as “modeled on the style of an old‐fashioned ice cream social and opened to the public. Activities would include everything from horseshoe pitching to croquet and swimming.” Like the prior occupants of the mansion, Snedden continued to be involved in many oil related businesses simultaneously, and at the time of his death on June 18, 1934, at age 48, Snedden was the president of the Producers Oil Company, the Arrow Drilling Company, and of Jackson, Wise & Snedden, Inc., another drilling enterprise. His widow Geraldine continued to live in the mansion at 2435 South Peoria Avenue until her death in 1949.
The Sneddens’ son, George W. Snedden, Jr., as executor of his mother’s estate, sold the house for $70,000 cash on October 11, 1950, to William Grove Skelly. Skelly was yet another oil magnate from Tulsa with origins in Pennsylvania, who worked his way from oilfield laborer to company president, starting in Pennsylvania and moving to Indiana, Illinois, Texas, and Kansas. He bought leases in the El Dorado Field in Kansas and established the Midland Refining Company, which was in production by 1917; he incorporated the Skelly Oil Company in 1919 and established its headquarters in Tulsa, and by 1923 the company had become one of the biggest producers of crude oil and manufacturers of gasoline. The Skelly Oil Company’s production of crude oil increased from 1.6 million barrels in 1920 to 8.75 million barrels in 1929, and the company had its own system of pipelines and refineries; the company had sales representation in eleven states, and by 1930 there were 471 Skelly Oil bulk and service stations, and more than 4,000 franchise dealers. Skelly spent a great deal of time in Oklahoma City and in Washington, D.C., representing the interests of the petroleum industry. He served as the president of the International Petroleum Exposition from 1925 until his death in 1957, and he also became involved in aircraft manufacturing, selling his Spartan Aircraft Company to J. Paul Getty in 1935.
As a major philanthropist and civic leader in Tulsa, Skelly had attempted to encourage the City of Tulsa to purchase the Travis home from the Snedden executors in 1950, when it first went on the market with an asking price of $25,000. The City did not respond to him, so Skelly held a press conference with reporters from the Tulsa World, informing them that he would buy the property from the Snedden estate, to hold it until such time that the City of Tulsa recognized its potential as a home to the Tulsa Garden Center. To Skelly, it was obvious that the magnificent Travis mansion, immediately adjacent to Woodward Park and the Municipal Rose Garden, was the ideal location for a public horticultural education center. After purchasing the house for cash in October 1950, Skelly owned it for four years—never living in it—until the City finally bought it and the surrounding 7½ acres from him on October 18, 1954, for $85,000.
The Tulsa Garden Center formally opened its doors to the public at an open house event on November 1, 1954, with many members of the more than one hundred garden clubs of Tulsa in attendance.
As the Tulsa Garden Center, Inc., set about organizing educational lectures, gardening classes, flower shows, and meetings for the more than one hundred garden clubs in the city, it quickly became apparent that more space was needed for these events, as well as for staff. In April 1956, the Tulsa Park Board announced plans to build a one‐story auditorium addition; ground was broken on the project on December 11, 1956, and construction of the 400‐seat auditorium was completed on May 1, 1957. The project was paid for with $75,000 in park bond funds, as well as $7,000 from the Park Board, and $3,000 from the Tulsa Garden Center.
Joseph R. Koberling, Jr., the former partner of Noble B. Fleming—the architect of the Travis brothers’ mansions—designed the Tulsa Garden Center auditorium. Koberling was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1900, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago in 1925. Likely attracted by the booming oil economy in Tulsa, Koberling located there and received his architectural license in 1928. In addition to his prior work with Fleming, Koberling designed the City Veterinary Clinic (1942) and the Oklahoma Osteopathic Hospital (1953), the Chamber of Commerce Building (1951, with Lennart Brandborg), and the Tulsa City County Library (1965, with Charles W. Ward). Koberling is also the architect of the modernist shelter and restroom building in Woodward Park, built of brick at around the same time as the Tulsa Garden Center auditorium addition, with a swooping, overhanging concrete roof.
Koberling’s auditorium utilized a similar creamy yellow brick as the original mansion, but the addition had a flat roof and steel casement windows. Although the construction of the auditorium required the demolition of one of the curved sunroom wings—the former breakfast room, on the north side of the house—the auditorium addition does not preclude the building’s status as a contributing resource to the Woodward Park and Gardens Historic District; rather, it was added within two years of the Garden Center’s occupancy and is directly associated with the Center’s enormous popularity and success as a cultural institution from its inception.
More on David R. Travis
David R. Rabinowitz was born in Lithuania in 1869 and emigrated to the United States in 1892 with his parents and siblings, including his brother Samuel, all arriving at Ellis Island, New York. The Rabinowitz family were Orthodox Jews, and the surname Rabinowitz translates to “son of a rabbi.” Although it is not known exactly when the family, or members of the family, left New York to head west, David Rabinowitz lived in Marietta, Ohio, before moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1914.
During the 1910s in Ohio, David Rabinowitz had owned a metals manufacturing business that supplied parts for drilling and exploration equipment utilized in the booming oil industry in Oklahoma and Texas, and it is likely that he headed to Tulsa to be closer to his customers and to become more directly involved in the oil business himself. David changed his surname, recorded as “Rabinovitz,” and that of his wife, Rosie, and children George, Abraham, Lewis, and Sadie, to Travis on December 1, 1914. It is not known why the surname “Travis” was selected, although it has been suggested that the surname was meant to reflect the scholarly and rabbinic family of Treves, which has its origins in fourteenth‐century France.
David Travis and his brother, Samuel, were founding members of the B’nai Emunah congregation, which constructed the first synagogue in Tulsa in 1916, at 11th Street and Boulder Avenue. The brothers were very close, remaining so as their oil wealth grew, and in 1918‐19 they built similar Italian Renaissance Revival‐styled mansions adjacent to each other on South Peoria Avenue. Samuel R. Travis had purchased the land from Helen M. Woodward for $2,400 in February 1917; in September 1919, as the brothers were finishing their houses, Samuel deeded 5.42 acres to his brother David, and an undivided one‐half interest in 25 acres to sister‐in‐law Rosie Travis.
Early in 1922, the brothers left congregation B’nai Emunah, along with their like‐minded brother‐in‐law Hyman Appleman (husband of their sister Anna), and formed a new Orthodox congregation named Ohel Jacob. According to handwritten notes in the collection of the Tulsa Garden Center, the families were not pleased with B’nai Emunah’s interpretation of some Jewish laws, and they were particularly upset that men and women were no longer segregated in the synagogue, with women and children relegated to the balcony. The final break occurred one Sabbath, when a visiting rabbi discovered that the supposedly kosher butcher had used a knife with a knick in its blade, in violation of Jewish dietary laws; this so angered the Travis brothers and the Appleman family that they purportedly walked into the sanctuary, took the Torah that they had donated to the congregation, and walked out of the synagogue with it. The Ohel Jacob congregation may have met for Torah study and services in the basement of David Travis’s home between April 1922 and June 1923, when he lost his house.
In order to maintain his opulent lifestyle and to further invest in the oil business, David Travis mortgaged his grand home at 2415 South Peoria Avenue for $200,000 to the Exchange Trust Company, on January 16, 1921. According to nephew Maury Travis, uncles David and Samuel began to lose substantial wealth beginning in December 1921, when the price of crude oil dropped from four dollars per barrel to only $1.25 per barrel within one week; shortly thereafter, the banks with which they had loans threatened to foreclose on their oil leases in Pawhuska, north of Tulsa. The brothers decided to keep their oil prospects, and instead sell their palatial homes. David Travis sold his home to J. Arthur Hull and his wife on June 29, 1923; Samuel Travis sold the Hulls an adjacent 3.652 acres around the brothers’ shared driveway on October 26, 1923.
Even as his fortunes changed, David Travis was undeterred. He served as the president of the Gled Oil Company, established in 1922, which developed the South Mannford oilfield in Creek County, in 1925. The name “Gled” was taken from the letters of his son’s names, George and Louis, his son‐in‐law Eugene Solow, and his own name. He and his wife Rosie moved to a house at 1626 South Denver, and at some point in 1925, he and brother Samuel compromised over some interpretations and returned to Congregation B’nai Emunah. David served as the president of the congregation from 1925 to 1928, and then again from 1929 to 1932. David R. Travis remained a respected member of the Jewish community in Tulsa until he retired from the Gled Oil Company in 1948. He and wife Rosie decided to move to the newly‐recognized State of Israel, along with brother Samuel and his wife; David and Rosie first lived in Jerusalem, then Tel Aviv, but they decided to return to the United States and settle in New York, where Rosie died. David then remarried and moved to Denver, Colorado, before settling in Tucson, Arizona, where he died in November 1958, after a short illness at age 89. He was survived by his second wife, Hattie Kleinman Travis, his daughter Sadie Travis Solow, and his three sons Louis, George, and Marshall Travis, along with two brothers and three sisters. David R. Travis was buried near his brother, Samuel, and their parents, on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem.
More on Noble B. Fleming
Noble B. Fleming was born in Oklahoma City, Indian Territory, in 1892. He apprenticed to the Oklahoma City architectural firm of Hook & Park, and established his own practice in Tulsa beginning in 1918, with his houses for the Travis brothers. Fleming partnered with J.C. Thompson from 1919 to 1921 and received his architectural license in Oklahoma in 1925; he worked on his own until 1928, designing the Tri‐State (Silvey) Building on Main, between 6th and 7th streets, in 1927, and the Thomas Cadillac Building at 10th and Boston in 1928 (both now demolished). Fleming partnered with A.C. Fabry in 1928, but their practice lasted only for one year; once again practicing on his own, Fleming designed the Genet Building on Boston Avenue, between 9th and 10th streets, in 1930 (now demolished). In 1933, Fleming partnered with Joseph R. Koberling, Jr., and the firm lasted until Fleming’s death in 1937. During the Great Depression, Fleming & Koberling completed many projects for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), including schools and city halls; among their projects are the Vinita City Hall in Vinita, Oklahoma, and the Blue Jacket High School in Blue Jacket, Oklahoma, both of 1935.