The Oklahoma Experience
by Dr. Charles L. Leider, FASLA

Historic cultural landscapes are an important part of the world’s cultural heritage. Cultural landscapes provide an opportunity to understand historic landscapes through examples of built work showing how people related to their natural environment, provided housing, developed an economy, socialized, and created the spaces we can still experience today. In the United States we recognize four types of historic cultural landscapes:

  • historic designed landscapes
  • vernacular landscapes
  • historic sites
  • ethnographic landscapes

Two of these types, historic designed landscapes and vernacular landscapes, are the purview of the landscape architect. Recognizing that the site is a design element equally as important as buildings, the United States Congress in 2000 created a parallel agency to its Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) for historic landscapes, known as the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS). Since that time HALS has appointed First District Officers for each state whose responsibility is to identify and submit noteworthy historic landscapes to the national inventory at HALS.

Oklahoma was one of the first states to respond to the Historic American Landscape Survey’s request to submit surveys of its landscapes. Nearly half of the 47 properties identified in the 1987 survey of designed landscapes have been submitted to HALS. Two vernacular landscapes have been added to the 1987 designed landscapes list, including the 101 Ranch and Ardenum at McAlester, Oklahoma.

By way of background, in 1987 the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (OKASLA) responded to a request from the National ASLA office to conduct a survey of historic designed landscapes using the National Trust’s  designation of any significant property over 50 years old as historic. To undertake a statewide survey of historic designed landscapes, the OKASLA designated Dr. Charles L. Leider as the Historic Preservation Chairperson. He invited members of the OKASLA Chapter, along with the public, to nominate significant historic designed landscapes in Oklahoma. As a result of this effort, forty-seven historic landscapes were submitted to HALS. Using the ASLA survey form, Oklahoma State University (OSU) landscape architecture students in a Recreation Planning course visited each site and completed the survey form. Additionally, the students conducted a literature search on each site. Following these processes, an information file was established for each landscape. The individual files included: the survey form, site photographs, maps, history, news articles, any National Register of Historic Places nomination forms, and other pertinent information. After the inventory was completed, the team used the definitions from the National Register Bulletin 18 of the U. S. National Park Service  to identify and classify each of the designed historic landscapes as to type. Estates in Oklahoma constituted the largest category, followed by parks. The seventeen different types of designed landscapes are identified in Bulletin 18 were:

  • small residential grounds
  • estates or plantation grounds
  • arboreta, botanical and display gardens
  • zoological gardens and parks
  • church yards and cemeteries
  • monuments and memorial grounds
  • plaza/squares/green malls or other public spaces
  • city planning and institutional grounds
  • subdivisions and planned communities/resorts
  • commercial and industrial grounds
  • parks,  and camp grounds
  • grounds designed or developed for outdoor recreation and/or sports activities
  • fair and exhibition grounds
  • parkways, drives, and trails
  • bodies of water and fountains

Following the completion of the survey, an analysis was conducted of each site. The analysis used criteria to determine the significance of each site based on design integrity, general property considerations, and plant material. Additional criteria to evaluate the site for design integrity included consideration of identifiable components such as encroachment on the original site, the quality of the original design, the setting for the property, materials used, quality of workmanship, and the ambience or feeling/atmosphere of the site. The criteria used to evaluate the general considerations of the site included historic character, irrevocable changes that have taken place, original property boundary, site grading and drainage, site furnishings, architectural features, circulation systems and the condition of the site. Criteria to evaluate the plant material included identification of the original plant species used in the plan, their current condition as well as new plant material installed, and invasive plant materials found on the site. The above criteria were then used to evaluate and rank the significance of the sites. The ranked information was used in choosing sites for individual case studies.

The results of the survey, analysis, and recommendations were published as a Statewide Plan for Oklahoma Historic Designed Landscapes in 1988 and presented to OK/ASLA Chapter, Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office, and the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation. The report recommended that the Department of Tourism and Recreation prepare a brochure on sites to be visited to distribute through its Visitors Centers throughout the State to give citizens and tourists an opportunity to visit these historic landscapes.

Using information from the ranking list, individual case studies were selected by students in Special Topics courses in the OSU Landscape Architecture Program. The individual case studies were prepared using the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and now the Historic American Landscapes (HALS) guidelines, literature, and methods for recording and documenting historic landscapes through interpretive and measured drawings. The drawings typically show the footprints of buildings on the site and the façade of the major structures as well as all the minor structures related to the landscape such as arbors, gazebos, fences, walls, retaining walls, and other related elements. Before the site survey for a case study was undertaken, the team conducted a thorough literature search focusing on the historical development of the site. The literature search typically produced historic photographs, drawings, and the history of the site. If an original landscape site plan existed, it was used to locate the remaining plant material of the original design. After the research was completed, the team prepared an overall measured “as-built” site plan with topography and sections through the site. Woody plant material was also shown on the “as-built” drawing along with a plant list. Additional measured “as built” drawings were prepared on landscape features such as retaining walls, patios, pools, fountains, walls and fences. Originally, all drawings were drafted in ink on mylar (e.g., the 101 Ranch and Villa Philbrook case studies), but currently, drawings are developed in AutoCAD (e.g., the Oklahoma City Civic Center case study).

The Civic Center in Oklahoma City case study documented how a conceptual plan designed in the mid 1920s by Hare & Hare of Kansas City, the oldest surviving landscape architecture firm in the U.S, evolved over the years before being built out during the Great Depression in the mid 1930s.

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Conceptual Site Plans for Oklahoma City Civic Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Courtesy HALS, Library of Congress.

The U.S National Park Service through HABS requested documentation of the 101 Ranch, an endangered National Landmark near Ponca City, OK. So, measured and interpretive drawings were prepared as a case study. The 101 Ranch with its 100,000 acres was one of the largest ranches in United States. The case study is a vernacular landscape that was not professionally designed. The headquarters site of the ranch, at its highest level of development in 1929, was chosen as the study area. All existing buildings and foundations were measured. The entire site could not be surveyed because it was overgrown, so an aerial photograph taken in the early 1930s was used to re-create the features of the headquarters site at its maximum development. Using infrared photography, the building footprints and driveways that existed on the site in 1929 were located and shown on the site plan. Historic photographs found in the Western History Museum at the University of Oklahoma, State Historical Museum in Oklahoma City, and The Glass Negative Shop in Ponca City provided further information on the appearance of the site and buildings so they could be re-created to scale showing the elevations of the buildings like the White (ranch) House as they existed in 1929.

Villa Philbrook in Tulsa is a case study documenting a designed landscape which demonstrated inter-disciplinary collaboration between the Kansas City offices of Hare & Hare (landscape architects), and Edward B. Delk ( architects). After the topographical site plan was created, two sections were made through the site showing the elevation change between the level front yard and rear yard that had a long slope accommodating the formal gardens with a cascading water feature, the rock garden, and a pond, and that was terminated by the tempietto.

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“As Built” Site Plan - Villa Philbrook, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Courtesy HALS, Library of Congress.

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Formal Garden with Water Feature from Terrace at Villa Philbrook, Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Courtesy Philbrook Museum.

Recording and documenting all the garden structures, as measured and interpretive drawings, such as the tempietto, a summer house, and the fountain were very important to understanding the development of the site.

The highlights of the case study elements have now been developed into digital brochures for the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation for use as three self guided regional driving tours for the areas around Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Ponca City.

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Self Driving Brochure for the North Central Region of Oklahoma which includes the 101 Ranch, Marland Mansion and Oklahoma State University.  Courtesy Dr. Charles L. Leider. 

These self guided tours maybe viewed on the Oklahoma Department of Tourism Web site. The completed drawings from all the other case studies may also be viewed at: U.S. Library of Congress Web site or at the Special Collection section of Edmond Lowe Library on the Oklahoma State University campus in Stillwater, OK.

For additional information on the historic designed landscapes of Oklahoma, please see:

Survey and Analysis of Historic Designed Landscapes, Charles L. Leider, Landscape Architecture
Program, Oklahoma State University, 1987.

Case Studies of Oklahoma Historic Cultural Landscape as Measured and Interpretive Drawings, 1989 to 2009: Council Oak Park, Tulsa; Frank Phillips Mansion;, Guthrie Capitol Hill Park; Honor Heights Park & Union Agency; Marland Mansion; Oklahoma State University Campus; Tulsa Rose Garden; Villa Philbrook; and 101 Ranch, which is available for viewing on the Historic American Landscapes, U. S. Department of Interior filed with U.S. Library of Congress, Web site: U.S. Library of Congress Web site.

Oklahoma State Outdoor Recreation Plan, Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation, 1987.

Self Guided Regional Driving Tours: Oklahoma Department of Tourism website.

Dr. Charles L. Leider, FASLA,is the HALS First District Officer for Oklahoma. He is a Professor and Director of the Landscape Architecture Program at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Leider welcomes additional nominations to the inventory list of cultural landscapes and can be reached at

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Andrew Kohr, ASLA, Chair
(678) 689-2377

Earen Hummel, ASLA, Vice Chair
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Tina Bishop, ASLA, Chair-Elect
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David Driapsa, ASLA, HALS Coordinator
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