A four-city tour of Oklahoma’s marvelous mansions discovers what wealth and taste can buy, and what philanthropy and the dedication of supporters can preserve and protect for the public.
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Today as we sip steaming coffee, shouts of “Booyah!” bounce around the restaurant as a couple of enthusiastic diners have their Basic Murritos delivered. This plate of scrambled eggs, sausage, green onions and cheddar in a flour tortilla also boasts guacamole, sour cream, picante and the restaurant’s signature potato dish, home fries. To get the full “booyah” effect, you might want to add chili. My non-carnivorous, carb-loving self has cheese grits and the home fries. Tasty.
At 10 a.m., we arrive at our first mansion, the Philbrook Museum of Art. This visit, I shift my focus from the world-class art collection to the Italian Renaissance villa-inspired structure. When doing this, watch your step and look up as much as possible to take in the brilliantly painted ceilings.
Edward Buehler Delk designed Villa Philbrook, which was built in 1926 with a steel framework and reinforced concrete walls – perfect for its current public use. Also take time to wander the 23-acre grounds. Details matter, and the 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. guided tours will help you see them.
After spending about 90 minutes in the former home and gardens of oilman Waite Phillips and his wife, Genevieve, who donated the 72-room mansion to Tulsa in 1938, we catch our breath with some culinary masterpieces in the lovely glass-walled museum cafe called la Villa Restaurant.
Dishes such as roasted pork loin marsala and stuffed grilled portabella contain fresh herbs grown in an organic garden on the grounds. Sandwiches and a menu for children serve lighter appetites. Don’t eat too fast, but save a few minutes before departing to check out the gift shop, which features work by local artists, as well as a great selection of unique and creative merchandise and a superb children’s section.
Next, we travel straight north to Bartlesville and the rustic lodge Frank Phillips and his wife, Jane, started in 1925 as a simple cabin. Woolaroc quickly became an eight-bedroom, two-story lodge that Ralph Lauren would be proud to call his Oklahoma home.
The interior walls of the log cabin are covered with 97 mounted heads and 107 sets of horns of animals that died naturally or the oilman/marksman was given by friends. Ask the docent for the story of what was once a Steinway piano of rich mahogany that Phillips had covered with bark one night while visitors slept so that it would match frames, bookcases and wood trim.
We leave Woolaroc by 3 p.m. to arrive in Ponca City and spend an hour at the “Palace on the Prairie.” The Marland Mansion was home to Oklahoma’s tenth governor, oilman E.W. Marland, and Lydie who was his adopted daughter before she became his second wife. (Read Lydie’s story for sure.)
Wealthy people loved their ceilings so, as at Villa Philbrook, look up a lot. In the Hall of Merriment, your upward gaze will reveal four carved monks eating, drinking and being merry. Keep up pace; there are 55 rooms in this National Historic Landmark. Guided tours get you even more access.
We earn our own time to eat, drink and be merry, and head for the once two-story house that is now El Patio, one of Ponca City’s several Mexican eateries.
Choose from a wide range of authentic Mexican dishes served by the Melendez family, seven of whom work at the restaurant. Manager Noel Melendez Jr., the founder’s son, says fajitas are a specialty, but I have a great customized vegetarian taco salad with beans and rice. If you’re not driving, you can have a 42-ounce monster margarita with a wide range of tequilas.
To start day two, we grab a quick cup of coffee and drive to Oklahoma City for a substantial breakfast at Classen Grill. “Roadfood” food-lover Michael Stern praises the restaurant’s migas, deconstructed sausage and tomato omelets served with corn tortillas. For me, the fresh-squeezed orange juice is a must.
By 10 a.m., we arrive at the Overholser Mansion in the Heritage Hills Historical Preservation District. An 11,000-square-foot, three-story Victorian-style home, this urban mansion was actually in the countryside when financier Henry Overholser built it in 1903. Full of original appointments, the first floor of the house “looks as if the family just stepped out for the morning,” my tour guide says. All tours are guided, and the first two floors, open to the public, reveal intricately stenciled, painted-on canvas walls and eye-popping light fixtures. On the second-floor landing, pause at the stained glass windows featuring two musically inclined women, a piece that Mrs. Overholser, who started the Ladies Orchestra League in the 1890s, commissioned.
Next is a living, breathing mansion, the only one on our trip in which real people live their lives: Oklahoma governors and families. Open to the public most Wednesdays from noon to 2 p.m., the mansion’s imposing limestone Dutch Colonial-style exterior and Capitol-facing portico give way to a warm but still impressive 12-room residence. A major 1995 renovation makes the Oklahoma Governor's Mansion gleam.
Fiber is king here: Check out the drapes and carpets with lots of information woven into them and the needlepoint seat covers in the dining room. Watch out for the third step as you head to the second floor. It’s haunted, they say.
As a fitting end to our architectural adventure, we eat a late lunch at one of my Oklahoma City favorites. Only five minutes from the Governor’s Mansion, Cheever’s Cafe was once a flower shop. The atmosphere stems from its sweet-smelling former life. Now savory smells dominate, and its refrigerator cases hold wine, beer and desserts rather than roses.
A confetti-like chopped salad with black beans, tortilla strips, bleu cheese crumbles, roasted corn and more tossed in a creamy lemon vinaigrette makes my day. Meat eaters can go for the skirt steak flatbread sandwich or mixed seafood tamales.