Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

These Walls: Bernsen Community Life Center in Tulsa

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

These Walls: Bernsen Community Life Center in Tulsa

Article excerpt

Two decades ago, some First Presbyterian Church members wondered why their brethren even considered buying the decaying Masonic Temple across from their limestone cathedral. The challenges in revitalizing that antiquated structure seemed endless.

But the visionary deal for the historic building - bought for $425,000 in 1995, reopened three years later as the Bernsen Community Life Center after a $6.5 million transformation - did more than give the downtown Tulsa church needed Sunday School rooms.

Not only did the congregation preserve the Great Hall where their forefathers worshipped while contractors raised their beloved sanctuary, the Presbyterians made 22,000 square feet of prime commercial space available to community nonprofits at below-market rents. The Camp Fire Girls, Lutheran Social Services, Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery and others remain there a decade later.

"It provided an outreach to the community, providing services they could use," said church archivist David Crowell in appraising the project.

Built in 1922 with exterior walls up to two feet thick, the 70,000-square-foot Masonic Temple gave Tulsa a most unusual structure experienced by few outside the secretive societies.

The Masons leased the building's two-story half-circle of street- front space much as First Presbyterian does, using the revenue from Ike's Chili House and other commercial operations to help maintain the rest of the 706 S. Boston Ave. structure. Within its nearly six- story inner core, an estimated five to six different Masonic groups thrived during its heyday.

A foyer of marble and terrazzo floors led to a recessed library dominated by a 20-foot marble fireplace lined by an elaborate wooden mantle. That opened into an extensive billiard room and other spaces used for operations or instruction.

A pair of two-story chambers the size of basketball courts dominated the second floor, one with a recessed, elevated center court for surrounding audiences to observe various rituals, the other often used by affiliated women's groups.

Above that the Great Hall rose three more stories, its northern stage facing a broad dance floor and balcony rising over the caterer's kitchen. …

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