by Shiela K. Haynes
One of the most picturesque locations in all of Tulsa can be found at the corner of Peoria and 21st Street.
Woodward Park is a true Tulsa treasure and we can thank our forward-thinking city fathers for creating this beautiful space that is enjoyed today by so many.
In 1909, the city of Tulsa paid $100 per acre for 33.64 acres. The land had been condemned as part of a plan to create a public park. At the time, many citizens scoffed at the idea of buying land so far from the community’s center. Early Tulsa had built up around the train depot, and the first residential areas had been established north and west of downtown.
The land was purchased from Herbert Woodward who sold the land on behalf of his daughter Helen. The 14 year old had been allotted 160 acres in the area as part of the Dawes Act. Helen’s mother was a full blood Creek and part of the Lochapoka tribe.
Unfortunately, Herbert had sold the land without his daughter’s consent. And in 1925, Helen Woodward Slemp sued the city to recover ownership of the land. While a portion of her claim challenged whether her father had the right to sell the land on her behalf, the heart of her argument pertained to whether or not the city had the right to condemn land that lay outside of the city limits for public purposes. After four years of litigation, Helen lost the suit and the city proceeded to develop the land.
In 1930, the decorative rock gardens, water features and flowerbeds were put in place. The plan was to create a naturalistic setting that would be able to withstand the many visitors expected to use the park. Formal gardens were added in 1933. Landscape architect G. Burton Fox was hired to fill a space the size of three city blocks. Labor was provided by the Works Progress Administration, one of the newly created New Deal agencies. In 1935, the Tulsa Garden Club donated 3,700 rose bushes to fill 36 rose beds in one of five terraces. By 1961, all of the terraces held roses. In April 2014, two-thirds of the roses were destroyed by a virus. Installation of new, disease-resistant roses began early this spring.
The adjoining property was added in 1954 when the city purchased the former David Travis home (built in 1919) from its fourth owner W.G. Skelly. That structure became the Tulsa Garden Center.
Helen Woodward did continue to make her home in Tulsa, and despite the park’s contentious beginnings, it is said that Helen eventually came to peace over the loss of her land. In later years, she is reported to have said, “It is a beautiful place.” Woodward Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
In 1946, Helen sold a 40-acre tract at the corner of Utica and 21st for $95,600. The charming little shopping center we know as Utica Square opened May 22, 1952 on the “outskirts” of town.
If you’ve never been to Woodward Park (21st and Peoria), head over and let us know what you think of it in the comments!
Shiela K. Haynes works as a freelance writer and sports photographer. A relative newcomer to the Tulsa area, she has more than 20 years experience in the newspaper industry and has covered high school sports for the Tulsa World since 2013.