So Long, Joe Coleman (1922-2011)

by Shawna Lewis


“Oh, I met Joe probably a dozen years ago,” said Lee Anne Zeigler, executive director and CEO of Tulsa Foundation for Architecture. “But I knew who he was long before that. As a preservationist, he was very well known. Few architects were as open-minded and forward-thinking as he was.”

Possibly the biggest champion and admirer of Tulsa’s iconic art deco buildings, Joe Coleman saved structure after structure from demolition, convincing citizens, lawmakers, and architects to renovate and repurpose instead of destroy. Over the course of his fifty-year career, he redeemed classics like Tulsa’s old City Hall, Central High School, and the Adams Hotel.

“It was a time when most of the United States was tearing down its older structures in the name of urban renewal, but he didn’t want to do that,” Zeigler said. “He had the vision to keep the older structures and repurpose them for modern use. The biggest challenge you face is vision, because you’re working with someone else’s design and preserving important work—while getting it up to the right codes. If you’re building something new from scratch, you can do anything, but the kind of work Joe did was much more creative.”

In 1970, after having become the first architect to be elected commissioner of streets and public property, Coleman went beyond buildings to save the Council Oak Tree—an old Burr Oak tree under which a Creek tribe first established Tulsa in 1836. He coordinated an unusual land exchange between the private owner and the city to acquire and preserve the area, which had been put up for sale. Thanks to Coleman, the Council Oak Tree sits safely on a hill in view of the Arkansas River.

“He understood that it was all about relationships,” Zeigler remembered. “He was easy to get along with, and had an uncanny ability to see both sides of the coin.”

In addition to his efforts in preservation, Coleman was a celebrated lay preacher for his Baptist church. His anticipated sermons led him around the world: He was invited to speak at religious events in Asia, Europe, South America, and Africa, including a special invitation to present Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer a humanitarian award.

In 2004, the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture awarded Coleman its Lifetime Achievement Award, commemorating his accomplishments in the adoption of new city building codes and numerous public improvements.