Rev. Sylvester Morris' Home

Oldest Surviving House In Tulsa

Submitted by: George Henson

The following e-mail was sent to the members of the Tulsa Preservation Commission, Tulsa's City Council and the Tulsa World Newspaper. It is printed here in hopes that you will join George in his attempt to preserve this house.

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To Whom It May Concern:

I beg that you take a moment to read my email concerning the Rev. Sylvester Morris house, which has been determined to be the oldest surviving house in Tulsa.

Imagine being 44 and your family--at least the ones you never knew-are nothing more than an abstraction, a question mark.

Imagine that your father and mother have both passed away; your grandparents are but a distant memory.

Imagine not really having a sense of who you are or where you came from. Imagine feeling disconnected not only from your past--your ancestry--but even from the town in which you grew up.

Imagine it's the day after Christmas: You take a minute, and on a fluke, you decide to Google your grandmother to see what-if anything-pops up. But you know the chances of your grandmother-b. 1894 somewhere in Indian Territory and d. 1977 in Sapulpa, Oklahoma-providing a hit on Google are pretty slim.

Imagine Santa Claus giving you the best Christmas present you could imagine: not one, not two, but three hits listing your grandmother, my grandmother: Lottie Agnes Smith. Imagine finding a photo of your grandmother at age six on the Internet of all places.

Now-and this is the good part-imagine finding out that the "oldest existing house" in Tulsa once belonged to the family you knew nothing about.

Imagine finding out-after years of knowing next-to nothing-that your great-grandfather, John Nelson Smith, arrived in Dawson (now Tulsa), Indian Territory in 1889, that he started a successful coal company, that he owned the first "scraper" in Tulsa, a fact that led the fledgling city to pay him to level Tulsa's Main Street.

Imagine finding out that he went on to become a contractor and, with his step-father, the Rev. Sylvester Morris, became a developer, and, together, they built many of Tulsa's first homes in the historic Bellview Addition, now Swan Lake.

Imagine that your family is immortalized in one of the city's oldest cemeteries, Oaklawn.

Imagine reading that your great-great-grandmother's second husband, the Rev. Sylvester Morris, had arrived in Tulsa about the same time as young John N. Smith (ca. 1887), built a house on land deeded by Pleasant Porter, Principal Chief of the Creek Nation, became an itinerant minister, and was instrumental in founding St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Tulsa.

Imagine reading that he gave the first sermon and Sunday School in a field in the nascent community of Broken Arrow, thus founding the First United Methodist Church of Broken Arrow.

Imagine discovering-like an excited child un-wrapping the biggest package under the tree-that the house he had built with his own hands, before there were streets with names, the house where he took his second wife, your great-great-grandmother and her younger children to live is now the oldest surviving house in Tulsa.

Imagine my pride. Imagine my joy. Imagine the awe, the magic.

Imagine, then, finding on the Internet a distant relative-a genealogy bug-and wife of a descendent of one of your grandmother's sisters, in this case Lucy Belle Smith.

Imagine exchanging emails for hours. Imagine seeing the old photographs you never knew existed, the family letters, the obituaries...obituaries that lauded your ancestors as "Tulsa pioneers."

Imagine reading a story in the Tulsa World, replete with photograph, about your grandmother, celebrating her as one of Tulsa's oldest citizens. Imagine my pride.

Imagine it all begins to slip through your fingers when you find out that the city - which boasts of your family's legacy on city historical sites, who lists your family's house as a historical landmark on preservation lists, who lauds your ancestors in newspaper articles -has allowed your patrimony - proclaimed a landmark - to be destroyed, to sit empty, boarded, and vandalized.

Imagine your Christmas being taken away as ephemerally and mysteriously as it was given.

Imagine your pride turning to bitterness, your joy to sadness, your enthusiasm to regret.

Tulsa must do something to save the Rev. Sylvester Morris historic home. Although the city moved it in 1976 from its original location at 412 North Cheyenne Avenue to Pioneer Corner in Owen Park in an attempt to save it for posterity, it now sits abandoned and abused.

It's not pretty. It's not majestic. It's not the Skelly house or Philbrook. It is something even more precious: the oldest surviving house, built before Tulsa was a city, before Oklahoma was a state, by true pioneers, without whom Tulsa's history may have been something different than what it is.

It must be restored and maintained in an appropriate and fitting condition, and be relocated to a place of historical and cultural significance to the city, such as Gilcrease, the University of Tulsa, Swan Lake or even downtown.

To do less is to ignore the cultural and historical importance of both the house and my family's contribution to the city of Tulsa. To do less pays but lip service to history, to historical preservation, to the cultural identity of the city, and to its citizens. To do less is to ignore your responsibility as city leaders.

George Henson
1978 graduate of Sapulpa High School
1984 graduate of the University of Oklahoma
Lecturer, Southern Methodist University
Proud great-grandson of Tulsa Pioneer John Nelson Smith, the man who made Main Street navigable, no small contribution to the city of Tulsa.

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