A Modest Man and an MCM Icon: Bob Bowlby and Founders National Bank
by Lynne Rostochil
Photo of Bob Bowlby by Judi Russell (courtesy Friends of Kebyar)
At the end of the 1950s, Northwest Expressway was a dusty, rural roadway with few buildings other than Baptist Hospital and the Northwest Hi-Way Drive-In calling it home. As the city continued to expand northward and the ‘50s became the ‘60s, however, the rolling prairie along the increasingly busy thoroughfare began to fill in with doctors’ offices, the Voyager Inn, the Hilander Bowling Palace, and the nearly-completed United Founders Tower. Most of the new construction sprouting up along the route embraced the modern style that made this up-and-coming area of town quite the fashionable place to work and live during the days of Beatlemania, bouffant hairdos, and Nehru jackets.
Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on Oklahoma City’s suburban expansion, movie theater owner, Jerry Barton, who also sat on the board of Founders National Bank, decided that the area around N. May and Northwest Expressway would be the perfect place to construct a new bank building that would serve the quickly growing suburban area. Once the board approved his idea, Barton enlisted the services of Robert Alan Bowlby to design the new bank, giving the young architect free reign to create something bold and unique.
If Barton was looking for the unusual, he certainly picked the right architect for the job. An Oklahoma City native, Bowlby graduated from Central High School in 1950 and was initially hesitant about going to OU to study architecture because a friend told him that professors and students were designing some “weird things” there. But, instead of being put off by his friend’s words — and because his meager college budget didn’t allow for many options — Bowlby was ultimately intrigued by the comment and enrolled in the illustrious Bruce Goff’s classes that fall.
He worked his way through OU and, upon graduating in 1956, followed fellow OU alumni Herb Greene to Houston, where Bowlby began his architectural career as a draftsman before moving on to Bartlesville to assist on numerous projects with the recently-arrived Goff. While there, he created construction documents and worked as a site supervisor for many of Goff’s residential designs, including the Motsenbocher, Pollock, and Comer houses, as well as the Price Studio. By 1959, he was back in his hometown of Oklahoma City working for Bailey, Bozalis, Dickinson & Roloff until he obtained his license. He also did drafting work for Barton’s construction company, B&G Constructors, Inc., which Barton co-owned with structural engineer Calvin Garrett, who soon would design the nearby Continental Theater (since demolished):
It was through this connection that Bowlby received his first project as a licensed architect, and what a masterpiece it was!
(postcard from Lynne’s collection)
Bowlby’s bold and elegant design for the new bank, which opened in 1964, incorporated the use of two 50-foot exterior arches that supported the building and removed the need for interior walls altogether. This allowed for expansive, open spaces inside that gave the structure an exuberant feeling of lightness, so light it seemed the entire building could lift up and fly away with the breezy Oklahoma wind if not for the giant arches tethering it to the ground.
(Oklahoma Historical Society)
Even the detached drive-thru looked like it was ready to take flight at any time:
Other distinctive features of the bank included a concave, floating roof that provided a substantial amount of indirect lighting; large floor-to-ceiling windows that made the interior spaces look much larger than they really were, and a century-old, 16-ton vault door shipped from Toledo, Ohio, that both protected the bank’s assets and became the focal point of the otherwise modern lobby. Upon opening, the bank was such a popular hit that cards and matchcovers advertising Founders incorporated the architecture in their designs for years to come:
At one time, a tower flanking the bank was considered. Although Bob doesn’t remember a tower ever being considered for the lot, I found this very rudimentary and way-out-of-proportion sketch in The Oklahoman for the several-story structure, which obviously and thankfully was never built:
As the bank was being built, Bowlby also was overseeing construction on Herb Greene’s Cunningham House in nearby Quail Creek:
When LA-based architectural photographer, Julius Shulman arrived in Oklahoma City to take images of the home, he asked Bowlby, who was also an architectural photographer, to assist him during his stay. The two spent the next three days photographing the home and other buildings, during which time Bowlby drove the always-curious photographer to the recently completed Founders National Bank. Shulman was immediately intrigued by the bank’s unique design, as well as the photographic possibilities it presented, and added the building to his list of structures to shoot while he was in town. On the last day of his visit, Shulman and Bowlby headed over to Founders National Bank just before dusk one evening, and the famed camera man captured the stunning building in all of its dramatic glory just as the sun was setting in a cloudless sky:
According to Bowlby, “I still find it quite strange that, after all these years, the Founders Bank is receiving the attention it now receives. I have to thank Shulman for that.”
The building was expanded many years later when it became a Bank of America branch, and many of the large windows were removed to add more office space around the perimeter of the building:
However, even with the unfortunate changes, Bowlby’s strong-but-graceful design is still very apparent. The stylish building remains a great favorite among Oklahoma’s architecture lovers, as is evidenced by its inclusion in 2007’s Celebrate 100: An Architectural Guide to Central Oklahoma, put together by the Central Oklahoma AIA. So maybe Bowlby was a bit (or a lot) too modest in giving credit for the continued interest in the Founders National Bank building to Shulman’s beautiful photograph. Perhaps instead, it’s Bowlby’s timeless, charming design that has made his architectural masterpiece a true Oklahoma City icon, one that continues to inspire so many over five decades after it was built.
As for Bowlby, he left OKC for good in 1967 when he moved to Lexington, KY, to once again work with Herb Greene. After three years there, he headed to Denver for awhile then to Lake Tahoe, CA, and finally to scenic Carmel, where he established his own firm in 1974. While in Carmel, he designed a rustic mod cabin in the remote woods overlooking the sea. This house, and not his iconic Founders National Bank, is Bowlby’s favorite of his designs because it was the only building he got to design “and get built from the ground up” and which he says, “was pretty good … at least in my estimation. If I had not had this opportunity I probably would have always continued to wonder if I could have ever done something of that quality.”
(Bob Bowlby, courtesy of Friends of Kebyar)
After a few years in Carmel, he and his wife, Toby, headed back to Denver, where they continue to live today.
I first met Bob Bowlby when he came to OKC to check out photos for OKCMOA’s Julius Shulman exhibition in 2009, then again when the Goff exhibit debuted at the Fred Jones Museum of Art the following year. A modest man with a quiet and friendly demeanor, he was very comfortable talking about his mentors, Goff and Greene, but became quite self-deprecating when we turned the conversation to his Founders Bank. I remember being initially confused when he stated that he could have done better on the design for the building. How he could have improved on perfection, I just don’t know, I thought. But then I slowly began to realize that I was chatting with a true artist who never saw a project as complete … and, like him, I excitedly began to imagine the new kind of perfection he could create with Founders Bank now that he had decades of experience under his belt. Too bad we’ll never know.
If you’d like to read more about Bob Bowlby’s fascinating experiences working with Goff and Greene and on his own, I highly recommend ordering the Summer 2014 issue of the Friends of Kebyar magazine, where this very gracious and generous man shares a lifetime of interesting stories that make for some great reading. You can order a copy and other back issues here.
Also, be on the lookout for several of Bob’s beautiful architectural photos on this site. A few years ago, he very kindly gave me a stack of negatives of most of his Oklahoma work, which we’ll continue to share on the Mod Blog.
Finally, I’ve heard quiet mutterings here and there that the fate of the Founders Bank may not be secure. Although I’ve never been able to confirm the rumor that new owners want to redevelop the land, it’s surely a possibility in this booming economy where we’re losing our architectural icons left and right. We will keep a close eye on the situation and will update you if we hear anything confirming this sad scenario.