frontier reads

Tulsa was first settled in the 1830s by Creek Indians who had been driven out of their homeland in Alabama. White settlers trickled in over the next several decades. In 1900, Tulsa’s population was 1,400. The next year, 1901, oil was discovered and began to draw more people to Tulsa. By 1930, Tulsa’s population had ballooned to 144,000. So in 30 years we went from 1,400 people to 144,000.

The people who came here during that surge set the values for Tulsa as we know it today. They essentially created a new city. And we are lucky in the type of people they were.

Their names – and those of the generation that followed them – can be seen throughout our community. But all too often and too easily the men and women of accomplishment behind those names are forgotten.

Tulsans of 2015 are at a loss for biographies telling the life stories of remarkable people like Bill Skelly or John Williams or Henry Zarrow – people who came here with little or nothing, made fortunes, and used their wealth to make Tulsa “America’s Most Generous City”.

It is a subject-rich environment, but for whatever reason Tulsa’s biographical history has been shamefully undermined. Fortunately, an exception exists (as they often do) when it comes to perhaps Tulsa’s greatest individual benefactor.

Michael Wallis’s biography of Waite Phillips, “Beyond the Hills: The Journey of Waite Phillips,” is – in this reviewer’s opinion – the finest biography ever written about a Tulsan.

The combination of the subject’s own remarkable life story and the author’s skill as a storyteller combine in a book that anyone interested in the ideal of the American West (and Tulsa’s place in it) should read. First published in 1995, I have re-read it every year since.

The reader of Wallis’s life of Phillips comes away knowing a man who had an unrelenting drive for independence and an artist’s sensibility for design. Nothing was going to hold Waite Phillips down – not the circumstances of his birth, not life in the city, not his own possessions, not even death.

And anything Waite Phillips built – a skyscraper, a ranch, a mansion, a business, even a doorknob – was going to be world class.

Growing up on a family farm in Iowa, WP (as Phillips refers to himself in the diary entries Wallis utilizes throughout the book) leaves home at the age of 16 with his identical twin brother, Wiate. For three years Waite and Wiate venture throughout the American West, working in a variety of odd jobs to pay their way.

They work as fur trappers and lumberjacks, on riverboats and in frontier hotels – until tragedy strikes. Wiate undergoes surgery for acute appendicitis and dies a few days later in Washington state. Waite is left alone to accompany his brother’s body home to Iowa for burial. When WP himself dies four decades later, his children find hidden away in his dresser drawer a tin can containing Wiate’s personal effects at the time of his death. These totems of Wiate’s memory were among the few things Waite Phillips held onto throughout his life.

But the loss of Wiate doesn’t keep Waite grounded in Iowa for long. As he does throughout his life, he keeps moving. He soon leaves Iowa for good, this time in search of fortune in the oil business.

Waite’s older brother, Frank, has already settled in Oklahoma and – after forays as a barber and a banker – ended up in the oil business. He hopes to teach Waite the ropes by deploying him as a roughneck in the oil fields, but Waite is not one to relish working for other people – even if they are family. WP parts ways with his brothers (who would go on to found Phillips Petroleum, later known as Phillips66) and at the age of 31 founds his own fledgling oil company.

And that company grows rapidly, first in Okmulgee and subsequently in Tulsa.

When Phillips starts out as an independent businessman in 1915 he has total assets of approximately $25,000. Ten years later in 1925, he sells the Waite Phillips Company to an investment syndicate for $25,000,000 in cash – one of the largest sales in oil industry history to date.

Wallis’s skills as a storyteller are particularly impressive in this section of the book, as he manages to make what are effectively a series of corporate mergers and transactions read like a romantic endeavor. In the hands of a less able writer, this phase of WP’s life might be of little interest to any but the most devoted of oil industry historians. Instead, it is an adventure.

Part of this is because Wallis demonstrates that while Phillips worked himself as hard as any roughneck, he also maintained a rich life outside of the office. WP refused to be held down even by the work that was making him fabulously wealthy.

In between gushers hit and mergers agreed upon there are trips with his wife and children to the big lights of Boston and New York and Chicago, fishing expeditions to Montana where he camps alone next to a stream under the stars, and eventually the development of ranches in Colorado and New Mexico.

For the times when he can’t get out of town but needs a break, we find Phillips in a log cabin he built in his backyard (what is today the parking lot of the B’nai Emunah synagogue), staring into the flames in his fireplace.

Bynum Selfie

City Councilor G.T. Bynum took this selfie with the book he reviewed for The Frontier, Beyond the Hills: The Journey of Waite Phillips, inside the Philtower Building.

The confluence of Waite’s outside interests and his wealth accumulation occur after the sale of his company in 1925. As Wallis puts it: “In 1925, with his Waite Phillips Company sold off for the staggering sum of $25 million in cold cash, Waite moved into a span of years devoted principally to the stewardship of monumental tracts of land and the erection of stunning architecture.” (Wallis, 200) In a series of chapters, the reader is taken along on a real-life game of, “How would you spend your winnings if you won the lottery?”

In the case of Phillips, and to the great long-term benefit of many, that opportunity was married with what is in retrospect a remarkable sense for design. To this point in the book the reader knows WP as an Iowa farm boy who had a heavy case of wanderlust and a brutal work ethic that helped him pile up a fortune. Aside from his constant search for new horizons, there is little indication of an aesthete hiding in our midst.

But Wallis provides a clue in quoting a newspaper story from the time of the sale of the Waite Phillips Company, suggesting the motivation to sell was “due to his antipathy of having a business that was so big he could not direct and manage its every ramification. …Whatever Waite Phillips does he tries to do on a bigger scale than any other. His oil company has had a reputation of building not just well, but too well. More money has been spent at the Okmulgee and the Wichita refineries than most other major companies would have spent. The Waite Phillips filling stations are things of beauty, wherever located.” (Wallis, 202) In other words, once his company became so large that WP couldn’t make sure every element of it was world class, he sold it.

And so he orients that eye for detail on a flurry of construction. In just two years, Phillips constructs both the Villa Philmonte at his Philmont Ranch (today the Philmont Scout Ranch, visited by more than 20,000 Boy Scouts every summer for the last seven decades) and the Villa Philbrook (today the Philbrook Museum of Art, regarded as one of the most beautiful museum facilities in America).

For these and other projects, he favored Italianate architecture and utilized the architect Edward Buehler Delk. But Phillips was no absentee funder. Noting his father’s hands-on nature in these and other projects, WP’s son Elliott is quoted as saying: “My father would not follow anybody verbatim. He might not have done his own dental work but he told the dentist how to do it.” (Wallis, 220) Indeed, it is in these projects that we can see the physical manifestation of both Phillips’s independence and his design acumen.

In the case of Philbrook, we see it transformed from a couple of farms “on the far south side of town” (Wallis, 206) into an estate – both house and grounds – that Wallis rightly deems “a masterpiece”. (Wallis, 219). The reader goes along as Phillips and his family travel the world in search of architectural ideas and furnishings. We are given a tour of Philbrook as it stood when it was a home. After Will Rogers pays a visit, he is quoted as saying “Well, I’ve been to Buckingham Palace but it hasn’t anything on Waite Phillips’s house.” (Wallis, 224)

His estates completed, Phillips moves on to transforming the Tulsa skyline through the construction of the Philtower. At the time of its completion in 1928 it was the tallest building in Oklahoma and “known during the oil-boom years as ‘the queen of the Tulsa skyline,’ the Philtower featured floors and walls of marble, Honduran mahogany trim, a sculpted lobby ceiling with chandeliers, and massive brass elevator doors framed in marble with the distinctive WP shield in their upper panels.” (Wallis, 240)

Visitors to the building today can appreciate that original eye for detail if they look closely at the polished brass doorknobs throughout the building which still bear that original WP shield. Even doorknobs – something at the eye level of none but the most diminutive – did not escape Phillips’s attention.

Phillips compliments the Philtower by constructing the Philcade across Fifth Street and connecting the two buildings with an underground tunnel that offered greater security to oil barons in an era of kidnappings.

And throughout this capital-intensive building process, Phillips continues to travel extensively, build up his real estate and banking and oil businesses, engage in presidential politics at the highest levels, support (usually anonymously) local philanthropic causes, and elude an attempted kidnapping.

Then he gives it all away. Always desirous of independence, Phillips did not want to be tied down even by his own ornate creations. He resigns as chairman of First National Bank and merges his latest oil company with his brother Frank’s Phillips Petroleum. He gives Philbrook to Tulsa for use as an art museum – and he gives the Beacon Building in downtown Tulsa to Philbrook as an endowment.

He gives Philmont Ranch to the Boy Scouts of America for their use – and he also gives them the Philtower so its profits can be used to operate Philmont. Freed of these myriad obligations, he and his wife move out of Philbrook into an apartment on the top floor of the Philcade. And then they head west to California.

So why, after doing so much to build up a city, did Phillips decide to leave? Wallis quotes Waite’s son: “My father really was a complex person. He had little patience and he got bored very easily. Also, he was always looking for something new. It seemed to me that he spent every minute of his life putting all this effort into some aspect of his life and work, and then, when that was finished, he went on to something else. He had to keep moving; he hated to stand still.” (Wallis, 318)

The balance of the book covers the last two decades of Phillips’s life, spent in California developing in Beverly Hills and Bel Air what is today some of the most valuable real estate in the world. The Phillips we see in this section of the book is in a gradual state of physical decline, overcoming strokes and heart attacks so he can get back to the office for another deal or return to the road in search of another new vista. It also deals very candidly with the struggles his children endure in their own separate ways as they reconcile that genetic drive for independence with the tremendous wealth their father accumulated.

Waite Phillips looms large as one of the greatest benefactors in Tulsa history not just because of his philanthropic contributions but because of the expectation he set. In his memoirs, former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin mocks his hometown of Tulsa for building skyscrapers when there is no shortage of land. It just didn’t seem very practical. Fortunately, Waite Phillips did not subscribe to this philosophy.

Everything he did was going to be the best it could be. If he built a company, he was going to sell it for the highest price ever commanded in his industry. If he built a house, it was going to be an estate people would still be admiring nearly a century later. If he built a ranch, it was going to provide more access to the wonders of the outdoors for more people than any ranch in America. If he built an office building, it was going to be built of marble and mahogany. And it was going to be the tallest damn building in Oklahoma.

And all of it – ALL OF IT – was going to be beautiful.

Phillips also looms large because of his personal qualities. Long before Steve Jobs popularized a Zen-like focus on simplicity, Waite Phillips was a man who could build massive corporations or elaborate skyscrapers or ranches the size of small nations – and then give them away so he could keep his aesthetic sense focused and his independence in tact. He pulled off the rare feat of greatness in both quantity and quality.

One of the pleasures of biography is that a reader many years distant from the subject can often come to know that subject better than his or her contemporaries. Wallis’s skill for storytelling and conversational writing style combine with a workman-like mining of original source material to make this possible.

Phillips was known by his peers as somewhat removed – a brilliant mind whirring inside a reserved persona. He liked to be alone – be it on a trail somewhere or in the log cabin in his backyard – and lived in an age when men did not share their inner struggles with their family or their friends. But by the time you finish the book, you talk about “Waite” even though few people would ever have addressed him in such a familiar way in his presence. This is Wallis’s gift to you: he makes a fascinating but inaccessible person become accessible.

Ever the autodidact, Waite Phillips was fond of epigrams and kept a small booklet of favorites in his coat pocket. Today, one of his own can be seen on a stone marker on a lone island across Rockford Road from the estate he built. It reads:

“The only things we keep permanently are those we give away.”

Favorite book: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris

G.T. Bynum is a Tulsa city councilor and the managing partner of Capitol Ventures.