How Tulsa, Oklahoma Created a “Living Room” for the Entire City

published Dec 2, 2019
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Credit: Shane Bevel

The Gathering Place, a sprawling riverside park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, functions a lot like the city’s backyard. A free, public outdoor destination along the Arkansas River, the 66-acre space is equipped with towering playgrounds, a picturesque boathouse decked out with canoes and paddle boats, and a dining area overlooking the pond. 

If the park itself is the community’s outdoor gathering space, then the park’s lodge is like the living room: a place for people from the city and visitors to unwind, connect, and relax. With this unique vision in mind, Jen Pindyck, senior project manager and architect for Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, now of DSNWRK, was tasked with answering an important question: How do you design a living area that represents and welcomes an entire community? 

Together with the park’s major donor and visionary, the George Kaiser Family Foundation and other partners, Pindyck and her team came up with a few non-negotiables. It would have to be durable and functional, because as we all know, living rooms are among the highest-traffic areas of any space. But, just as importantly, the space would feel unique and special for all visitors, reflecting the ethos of Tulsa and its people. 

Credit: Shane Bevel

Wondering what the living room of a city entails? Here are a few of the concepts the designers used to make sure they created a living room that both served and reflected the community: 

A park lodge, elevated

For design and functionality inspiration, Pindyck and her colleagues looked at other park lodges from Yosemite Park and other park systems. The goal was to hearken back to a typical park lodge—it would always be open, and it could seat large groups of people. 

But the designers also wanted the lodge—and the entire Gathering Place—to feel like an upgrade from your standard park experience. “The vision was for a place that would be highly functional and highly special,” Pindyck says. “We wanted to create something that was not part of anyone’s world, meaning that this was a special place for basically anyone and everyone that comes.”

For example, the wood structures in the lodge, from the furniture to the ceiling, are a nod to a traditional park lodge, often a wood structure with wood finishes. But the design feels updated, modern, and ultimately, totally fresh. “You still have the smell of cedar and the warmth of the wood, but it’s taken to a new place in its geometry, application, and form.”

Warmth and shelter

At its most basic level, the park lodge, like a living room in any home, is a place for people to retreat from the outdoors. That’s why Pindyck and her team emphasized the concepts of “shelter” and “warmth,” both practically and aesthetically. “Elements like the two fireplaces provide warmth in the winter, so we can still offer programming and a place to come even when it’s 20 degrees outside,” Pindyck says.

An expression of the city’s personality

In the home, the living room is a space to express your personality and aesthetic, and Tulsa’s living room is no exception. To express the unique history and personality of the community, the designers commissioned custom furniture from local artists. And to build on the “special” vibe—and reflect the city’s strength and resilience, Pindyck says they chose “heroic,” handmade furniture pieces, some of which had never been publicly put on display before.

Inviting to a variety of people

The lodge was also designed to be inviting and accommodating to any interaction that could take place, whether an individual comes to study or work or a group comes to celebrate a birthday party. That’s why it was so important for the design team to include larger tables for group gatherings, couches for smaller groups, and individual chairs, tucked away by the window for anyone who wants to escape for a peaceful moment. 

Credit: Shane Bevel

Durable to wear and tear 

Because the lodge was meant to be high traffic, the design team looked for ways to make everything more durable. All the floors, which look like wood, are sealed stone, so anything can spill on it without risk of damage. For added durability, the wood in the space was oiled down, and the walls are glazed. Most of the furniture is wood, which is sturdy and durable than fabric, and there’s very little soft seating in the part of the lodge closest to the food service area outside. 

In the great hall, where there’s a huge collection of chairs and couches, all the seating is made of fabric that can take abuse. “All of it is commercial grade, but the handmade pieces had stipulations built in to allow basically anybody to sit on it,” she says. “We also made sure everything could take abuse, in terms of people spilling or kids climbing.”

Accessible for everyone

Another crucial part of hospitality is accessibility. For a place to be warm and inviting to everyone, it needs to be functional for everyone. In addition to having multiple seating areas to accommodate families—for example, there’s a stone seating area outside the bathroom for waiting families—for the older population, Pindyck and her team made sure all seating had armrests, and that it was all optimally positioned to get out of. The facility is also ADA compliant, so anyone can navigate through it. 

“The vision was to make a place for everyone, and we took that to heart,” Pindyck says. “That was infused in everything that was done.