Philbrook Art Museum & Gardens, Tulsa, OK

“Oh what a beautiful morning!”


My primary exposure to Oklahoma was in the movie theatre many years ago, “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.” So when driving through the state recently and finding an ornate Italian Villa with 23 acres of formal gardens, I realized I needed to learn more about this place where there is “Plen’y of air and plen’y of room, Plen’y of heart and plen’y of hope.” (lyrics of Oklahoma, Rodgers & Hammerstein)

In the “roaring 20‘s” oilman Waite Phillips and his wife, Genevieve a wealthy couple, traveled abroad and became fascinated by architecture of 16th century Rome. Their vision inspired a custom recreation of an Italian Villa in the middle of the United States. Plans were drawn by a Kansas City architect named Edward Delk and landscape architect Herbert Hare.   Construction began in 1926 and was completed in 1927. This masterpiece remains awe inspiring today.

Just eleven years later as the Phillips left their home in Tulsa to live in California. they  donated the house and gardens to the city. It opened to the public as The Philbrook Art Museum in 1939 and continues to shine as one of Tulsa’s main attractions.

While the house and museum collection is fascinating,  my interest is the elaborate gardens,  specifically designed to maximize the topography of the site. Oklahoma is not a flat plain (as I assumed) and the Villa sits atop the hill with sweeping views of the area. The gardens were inspired by Villa Lante, an Italian country estate built around 1566 north of Rome, a period known as the High Renaissance Style.

From the rear balcony of the villa, you view the gardens and look down on a large expanse of lawn with a precise geometric  garden-parterre of low clipped boxwoods. This symmetrical feature is divided by a descending water flow.  Walking into the garden,  you must choose one of two grand staircases to reach the lower terraces.  Integrated in a niche at the bottom of each staircase is antique statuary.  From each terrace you view a lower level of informal perennial gardens surrounding a reflecting pool.  Colorful summer blooms of daylilies, purple heart, zinnias, bee balm, astilbe and alliums grow vigorously in the rock garden and along the paths.

Shade trees of River Birch, Black Walnut, Red Buckeye and lush lawns join the formal garden to the east garden while a small white “Temple of Love” commands the focal point at the end of the garden. Standing at the temple, you are surprised by the perfect reflected  view of the great house.

The east garden summer house is at the bottom of a hill. A major renovation of the gardens in 2004 added this feature. A wide, green walkway leading to the main house is bordered by a symmetrical alley of trees along the lawn inset with a series of shaded benches.  Raised flower beds of flowering cannas and elephant ear green leaves are topped with a display of pots with flowering annuals. A fountain provides a cool spray of water.

Gardens of the High Renaissance style “were furnished with dramatic features and used for outdoor masques and parties. . . displays were admired and the creation of garden features to impress one’s friends became an objective.” (Garden Design, Tom Turner)  There is no question this home and garden was designed to impress one’s friends.

There is so much to learn when exploring gardens of all styles and discovering their unique stories.  Unlimited money combined with creative inspiration is a powerful force.  Tulsa has a magnificent treasure in the Philbrook.  The Phillips family left an endowment to keep the museum going and community pride continues the effort.  Waite Phillips also donated the land for the famed Philmont Scout Ranch in Northern New Mexico.

A visit to the Philbrook gardens certainly makes for a beautiful morning, yes a beautiful day.

originally published in Roots & Shoots,

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