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Definitively Deco

For more than 30 years, architect Thomas Thixton has been steward to one of America's earliest examples of this ultra-Modern house style. By Regina Cole | Photos by Natalie & Larry Green

    Thomas Thixton's home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is an early example of the Art Deco style. Designed by Bruce Goff in 1922 and completed in 1924, the house embodies Deco's most recognizable hallmarks, including strong vertical lines, stucco walls, and chamfered corners.

    Thomas Thixton's home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is an early example of the Art Deco style. Designed by Bruce Goff in 1922 and completed in 1924, the house embodies Deco's most recognizable hallmarks, including strong vertical lines, stucco walls, and chamfered corners.

    Even among Tulsa, Oklahoma’s remarkable stock of Art Deco buildings, Thomas Thixton’s home is special. The house exemplifies Deco design with its stucco and tile construction, verticality, chamfered corners, streamlined sensibility, and setbacks that emphasize its geometric form. Conceived in 1922 and completed in 1924—a year before the 1925 Paris Exhibition introduced Art Deco to the world—it is an early example of the style. In addition, the history of the small house weaves threads of Tulsa’s first big oil boom together with the story of a local teacher, Adah Robinson, and one of America’s iconoclastic architects, Bruce Goff.

    Fantastic Find

    Thixton, a retired architect, studied under Goff, the designer of his home. Well aware of the home’s architectural and historic value, he enjoys showing it off. “Busloads of people come to look,” he smiles. “Whenever someone does a study of Tulsa Deco, or becomes interested in the architect’s life, they call me.” Thixton became the house’s fourth owner in 1974. A native of Tulsa, he began his career in several local architectural offices before launching his own firm. “I designed apartments, single-family houses, warehouses, strip malls, schools—whatever came along. Most of my work was in Oklahoma. My downtown 6th Street office was pretty small, encompassing only about 600 square feet. Times got better, so I looked around for something bigger.”

    The home's interiors have changed little over the years. Thixton has painted the walls a cream color, which is close to the 1920s shade. Several casements were heavily damaged, but luckily the two-story leaded-glass windows in the living room have survived both weather and time. They form a beautiful backdrop for a built-in sofa.

    The home's interiors have changed little over the years. Thixton has painted the walls a cream color, which is close to the 1920s shade. Several casements were heavily damaged, but luckily the two-story leaded-glass windows in the living room have survived both weather and time. They form a beautiful backdrop for a built-in sofa.

    His search for new office space led him to the Tracy Park historic district, about a block from downtown, home to many of his college professors’ houses. “When I saw this house, a couple of real estate agents owned it. They had bought it two years earlier, and I could see they weren’t happy. The house wasn’t on the market, but they were obviously open to selling.” He laughs. “When they said, ‘Make us an offer,’ I said, ‘Can you be out of here in the next 30 minutes?’ It was a joke, but I wanted them to know my intentions.” He adds, “It seemed appropriate that my office should be in a seminal house originally designed by my teacher.”

    House Origins

    When Goff designed the 1,400-square-foot building for his art teacher, Adah Robinson, it was to serve as her studio. “But she liked it so much that she decided to live here,” Thixton explains. “After Goff installed a kitchen in 1924, she turned it into her home.” He likes to point out that his use of the house echoes its early history: at first, only his architectural firm was located here. In 1977, after his marriage ended, Thixton moved in. “For the 34 years I’ve owned it, I’ve been using the house in the same way it was designed: first as a studio and, shortly afterward, as a live-work space. Adah Robinson wanted a house just for her, so it makes ideal bachelor quarters,” Thixton says. “But when my kids come to visit, it’s a real party house!”

    Home Maintenance

    Although the previous owners never hung out a “For Sale” sign, Thixton says his house’s condition made it clear that it needed a new owner. “The house was a jewel, but I could see that a lot of maintenance had been deferred.” He hastens to add that this did not mean the house was falling apart.

    The fireplace—flanked by original built-in bookcases—has chamfered edges that echo the home's exterior walls. The geometric design of the fireplace opening is a true reflection of the Art Deco era. The bold earth-tone terrazzo floors remain pristine after eight decades of use.

    The fireplace—flanked by original built-in bookcases—has chamfered edges that echo the home's exterior walls. The geometric design of the fireplace opening is a true reflection of the Art Deco era. The bold earth-tone terrazzo floors remain pristine after eight decades of use.

    “These houses of Goff’s are like little castles: They’re built to last,but some basic things had not been done. For instance, the house needed a paint job and a bit of cleaning up.” He explains that a few of the window frames had rotted and that the roof, probably original, was in bad shape. “Replacing the rotted windows was easy: We used Andersen casement windows, the same as the remaining originals.”

    When Thixton bought the house, he sandblasted the exterior, applied a coat of sealant to the stucco, and covered it with sand-textured paint. “It looks white, but really it’s cream,” he explains. Although he has always kept the exterior color original, he has followed design trends with interior color schemes. “At one point, I painted the walls in loud colors,” he says. “Reds, orange, yellow—they really were effective. There’s a time and a period for all that, but eventually, I went back to the original white and cream walls. I do think they work better.”

    He replaced the tar-and-gravel roof in 1983 when he designed a 900-square-foot addition that includes a carport and a sunroom oriented toward the swimming pool. In December 2007, an ice storm that crippled Tulsa sent a tree limb through the roof. “I couldn’t get a roofer,” Thixton says, “so I repaired it myself with what’s called ’90-pound roofing’; it’s made of tar and felt and is applied with a roller. It works just great.”

    From his balcony over the entryway, Thixton enjoys views of the park across the street.

    From his balcony over the entryway, Thixton enjoys views of the park across the street.

    Today, the interior looks much like it did when Robinson lived here. In addition to the new sunroom, the house has its original tiled bathrooms, two-story living room, dining room, two bedrooms, two baths, and several balconies and roof decks. The built-in furniture, a circular sunken pit surrounding the Art Deco fireplace, light fixtures, and tall leaded glass windows all date to 1924.

    “Everything in the house is of superb quality,” Thixton says. “You don’t have to worry about the terrazzo floors; they take care of themselves.” (Terrazzo covers all floors except the bedrooms and the stairs, which are hardwood.) “Every once in a while I clean them and apply a coat of wax.”

    Thixton is most enthusiastic about the house’s original features, including the open layout. “Goff designed the house in the shape of a cross,” Thixton points out. “Robinson was a religious woman who wanted a church-like building. It has a religious feeling to this day, but its cruciform shape also brings lots of light into the rooms.”

    Retired since 1995, Thixton appreciates his happy location across from a city park. “This is the neatest place in town to live!” he says. “I have a roof and three balconies from which I can enjoy the view.”

    Published in: Old-House Journal May/June 2009

    { 1 comment }

    Aubrey March 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Beauty and refinement in superb understatement. The careful placements, the respect of the past (rather than slavish reproduction), create tranquility to live and breathe in, uniting the demands of today with dreams of the past.
    What’s revealed in these pictures? As the house mellows, the inhabitant evolves.



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