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Innovative 'Tepee' Church Nears End of Trail

December 02, 1989|GEORGE W. CORNELL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

OKLAHOMA CITY — At a distance or up close, it looks like a tall Indian tepee. It was designed that way. But it's a church that has served its congregation for nearly 40 years. Now its day seems done.

In this state named for the "red people," the unusual but aptly shaped structure, built to reflect its natural environment, may be destined for eradication due to blows by nature.

"We realize it's a landmark," said Connie Golden, the church secretary. "We hate to see it go, but we've been frustrated in maintaining it. The leaking, the flooding, the special problems in repairs, all kinds of things.

"The upkeep was simply phenomenal."

The tepee church, once called the wigwam, stands on the city's northwestern outskirts on the boundary with suburban Edmond and outlying oil derricks.

Formerly a Southern Baptist church, it became nondenominational about five years ago, and is simply called the Church at Edmond. Early this fall, when the church was slammed by the elements, the congregation moved out.

"New folks like the uniqueness of it and older folks have a lot of sentiment about it, but they see the impracticalities of maintaining it," said the Rev. John Ward, the church pastor.

"People who understand the problem, who have lived with that thing, know why we have to give it up," he added in an interview. "We get mad at it sometimes."

Built in the late 1940s, the "tepee" was designed by the late innovative architect Bruce Goff, chairman of the University of Oklahoma School of Architecture from 1947 to 1955 and planner of several striking buildings.

It stands about 80 feet tall, the height of a four-story building. Its conical shape converges in a peak, the sloping gray-shingled surface surmounted by 12 russet-painted steel poles (actually welded drill-stem pipes from the oil fields).

They were named for the 12 apostles. Lore has it that the one named for the betrayer Judas was hardest to erect. Their convergence at the top is enclosed by 12 triangular windows. Above rises legs of an open bell tower with no bell.

The base is wrapped with native rock and sheet metal over a circular basement for nursery and classrooms. The round sanctuary, with pews ringed before the raised podium, was a precursor of later churches-in-the-round.

Constructed by members themselves, working Saturdays and weekday evenings over four years from 1947 to 1951, the oddly formed church was meant to express its natural setting--Indians, oil fields and rural touches.

"Back then the design was pretty controversial," recalled Ward, who was a boy in the "tepee's" early days, climbing with other church children among its interior nooks, rocks and webbed braces.

"But the people then evidently went for it," he added.

However, for all its fittingly novel features, it just didn't function well. The strange peak, with its merging poles and triangular windows at the apex always leaked, Ward said. How much depended on the rain's force.

Oklahoma's extra rains last summer magnified the trouble, dousing basement rooms, the runoff infiltrating the septic system. The building had no insulation, and in the winter couldn't be warmed above 50 degrees, Ward said.

"Utilities were out of sight," he added. "We couldn't afford to heat it or cool it. In repairs, you're not dealing with the average building, but always with different sizes and spaces. There's nothing standard about it.

"I'd love to see the building saved, but we just can't do anything with it."

The congregation of about 200 has moved its worship services into an adjacent metal building, with sanctuary and fellowship hall, and a concrete-block education building.

Since word of the tepee's evacuation got out, historical conservationists, including some from other countries, have voiced interest in saving it, but no definite plans have emerged.

Ward said that unless some foundation or group acts to preserve it, he anticipated that it would be torn down within a year, and the space used as a church parking lot.

Yet many from both inside the congregation and outside it remain attached to the structure, despite the inroads of nature, sometimes including birds fluttering about inside.

"When you get accustomed to it, the uniqueness of it, people generally love it," Ward said. "The wider community also is proud of it and hates to see it go. . . . There's no big, burning desire to tear it down, but we don't know what else to do with it."

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