One of the most innovative architectural structures in the Midwest, Shin’en Kan was a house unparalleled. Bruce Goff designed it in 1956, employing his usual avant-garde approach and whimsical artistic style. He attached rows of glass ashtrays to the windows, providing a kaleidoscopic impression, and constructed walls from pieces of coal. The floor itself rose and descended, often upholstered, to create built-in furniture pieces. The ceilings were covered with feathers. It was a place as festive and creative as the woman who would introduce it to tourists and students decades later.
Cheryl Babcock loved to entertain, both at Shin’en Kan and at home.
Kay Wilson, long-time close friend of Babcock, can attest to it. “She was a great decorator, loved colors and putting things together. Although it was about as far as you could get from what she would have wanted for her own home—she loved the authentic Williamsburg era—she understood that different people liked different things. She was fun.”
Wilson met Babcock at a Christmas party in 1980, and they become close friends. “She was probably the funniest person I ever knew, although the things we would laugh about I don’t think anyone else would find funny. We were both a little off-center.”
Babcock’s love for entertaining made her job as site representative at Shin’en Kan a snug niche for her. People from all over the world came to see the house. In 2003, the New York Times ran a story about two Manhattan architects who chose Shin’en Kan for their wedding ceremony.
“Different groups had meetings there,” Wilson recalls. “She loved when the OU students would come. And she was very clever about making it more than just a tour by providing a break with soft drinks and cookies.”
The adjectives admirers have assigned to Shin’en Kan—imaginative, outgoing, unique, innovative—are the same kinds of words people use to describe Babcock, who was eager to inspire all newcomers.
In fact, it was her generosity that paved the way for her close friendship with Wilson. “My son became ill, and she was the first person who showed up with lots of food and wanted to help,” she remembers. Babcock continued to bring gifts and offer support for several weeks.
“That was Cheryl,” Wilson says. “She always had a gift for someone.”
She may have adored Shin’en Kan, but Babcock’s true love was her family. Her husband, Robert, once wrote in a letter dated 1963, “I just talked to you and it was the most wonderful thing I’ve done since I kissed you last. I love you very much.”
Babcock’s enthusiasm for local art and history extended far beyond Shin’en Kan. It inspired her children’s lifestyles. Her daughter, Mary Beth Babcock, opened the local art and gift shop Dwelling Spaces, a well of creative ingenuity in downtown Tulsa. Babcock’s son David is a painter and collects antique guns and arrowheads.
Tragedy devastated Shin’en Kan in 1996, when it was destroyed by arson. Wilson remembers, “It was a very sad thing for her that another great piece of art and architecture had gone up in flames. She loved working there.”