Route 66 in Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City's Route 66 attractions put new twists on old favorites.
At a corner where a boulevard forks stands a wedge-shaped brick building no bigger than a garage. Perched on top is a giant milk bottle as tall as the building itself.
While the Mother Road generally follows a linear path across Oklahoma, practical considerations such as traffic and safety issues prompted officials to reroute the highway several times in urban areas, leaving a wealth of Route 66 remnants scattered across Oklahoma City.
The Milk Bottle Building sits near the convergence of three such remnants – Classen Boulevard, Western Avenue and Northwest 23rd Street.
Constructed in 1930, the Milk Bottle Building owes its odd shape to the constrictions of the street layout and a former rail line. The building originally housed a grocery store but has also been home to a sandwich shop and several other local businesses.
Near the same intersection is the Gold Dome – a geodesic hemisphere constructed in 1958 as a Citizens State Bank. It was slated for demolition several years ago, but preservationists intervened. It now houses several offices and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
At the corner of Northwest 23rd and Hudson Avenue are two more historic structures that have been adapted for new uses. One is Cheever’s Café, which specializes in “American cuisine with Southwest influences.” Built as a private residence in 1907, the building has changed its identity twice, adding its distinctive Art Deco facade when it became a flower shop in the late 1930s.
Keith and Heather Paul bought the building and opened Cheever’s Café in 1997. The walk-in cooler, once used to preserve flowers, now chills wine. I order a superb seafood tamale dinner.
Less than a mile from Interstate 44, which overlaps part of Route 66, is Oklahoma City's Adventure District.
Along the Western Avenue stretch of Route 66 is the Will Rogers Theatre. It opened in 1946 and features a striking Art Deco neon sign. The theater has been converted into an events center for weddings and parties – plus a few restaurants – and The Lobby Cafe & Bar, where I unwind with an iced mocha while using the WiFi connection to check e-mail.
Farther down is the Western Trail Trading Post, owned by the easygoing John Dunning. The antique shop resembles an Old West general store and contains a number of Route 66 items. While wandering over the store’s creaky, wooden floor one afternoon a few years ago, we found a first-edition copy of Michael Wallis’ book Route 66: The Mother Road.
A few blocks away, Dunning is slowly restoring the old Owl Courts Motel. He hopes to reopen it as a motel someday. For now, it serves as a satisfactory photo op.
Across town, Route 66 follows Lincoln Avenue past the stately gray stone of the Oklahoma State Capitol Dome.
The Capitol was originally designed with a dome in mind, but a money crunch during World War I left the dome unfinished. For decades, Oklahoma had the only state Capitol without a dome. Former Gov. Frank Keating led the effort to finish its construction. The dome was dedicated in 2002.
A stroll through the Capitol reveals it to be not only the seat of Oklahoma government, but also an excellent art gallery. Wilson Hurley’s Visions of the Land paintings celebrate Oklahoma’s landscape and big, turbulent skies.
Near the Capitol is the Oklahoma History Center, which opened in November 2005. It explores the full breadth of the state’s story. Exhibits include the Gemini 6 space capsule that Oklahoma native Thomas P. Stafford rode in 1965; John Zink’s racecar that won the 1965 Indianapolis 500; and full-size replica of Wiley Post's Winnie Mae airplane.
Less than a mile from Interstate 44, which overlaps part of Route 66, is Oklahoma City’s Adventure District. One of its attractions is the Oklahoma Firefighters Museum, which houses a staggering array of firefighting equipment. You’ll see a tiny log cabin that served as Oklahoma’s first fire station in 1869 at Fort Supply and a horse-drawn, steam-powered water pump from 1861. The museum offers a portable audio tour, but the staff and volunteers are happy to chat and answer questions.
Across the road is the ASA National Softball Hall of Fame. On two floors, it pays tribute to championship softball teams, great players and the history of the sport. You’ll learn the significance of Kitten Ball, the Farragut Boat Club and the Raybestos Brakettes. Instructional videos sold in the gift shop will help you with your own game.
Nearby is the Science Museum Oklahoma, which is designed to help children hop, skip and crank their way to a learning experience. You can learn how much you weigh on the moon or feel the ground rattle under your feet in an earthquake simulation booth. While I was there, a museum staffer offered me a ride on a Segway Personal Transporter.
Next door, the Oklahoma City Zoo offers the usual and the exotic – lions, tigers and Madagascar hissing cockroaches – but I’m most fascinated with the Oklahoma Trails display, devoted to the Sooner State’s native species. I’m stared down by a great horned owl, see a group of fruit bats flit about in a special enclosure and watch a coyote try in vain to stalk a quail behind a wire fence. I’m startled by the beauty of a Mexican gray wolf, and then saddened to learn that these animals haven’t been seen in Oklahoma since the 1930s.
On the other side of I-44 is the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. An Oklahoma City institution since 1955, this world-class museum contains one of the nation’s best collections of Western art. The museum’s centerpiece is the famous End of the Trail sculpture by James Earle Fraser. Don’t miss the (very real) videos of bull riding in the American Rodeo Gallery. Other Oklahoma City Adventure District attractions include Cinemark Tinseltown USA and Remington Park Racing Casino.
On the west side of the city is the 39th Expressway alignment of Route 66. This section of road contains a bevy of throwback businesses. I head down the road to Ann’s Chicken Fry House, a gas station-turned-1950s-style diner tucked behind a neon-festooned pink Cadillac, to wind down my Oklahoma City adventures with a chicken-fried steak and an order of deep-fried peaches that look mighty pretty indeed.