The story goes that as Earl Harwell was observing the construction of what would become his family’s home on South Main Street, a passerby took in the sight of what would become a four-story, 15,000-square-foot, English Tudor-style mansion and wondered aloud what sort of person would build such an enormous place.
“Oh,” Earl Harwell is said to have replied, “some old fool with more money than sense.”
This incident took place about 100 years ago, and in the century that followed, the house at 2210 S. Main St. has become one of Tulsa’s icons of art, architecture and history.
When Earl’s wife, Mary, died in 1967, she bequeathed the house to the Tulsa Arts Council, later known as the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa, for the nascent nonprofit organization to use as its headquarters. The council renamed the house Harwelden, after the Welsh town to which the Harwell family had traced its origins.
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For many years, Harwelden was home not just to the Arts and Humanities Council; many of the city’s arts groups, including Tulsa Ballet, the Tulsa Philharmonic, Chamber Music Tulsa, Light Opera Oklahoma and more, had offices at Harwelden.
And the house and its grounds were, and remain, a popular location for events ranging from concerts and lectures to weddings and receptions.
Tulsa native Teresa Knox and her husband, Ivan Acosta, purchased Harwelden in 2018, with the goal of restoring the house to its original glory — converting office spaces back into the bedrooms to create a unique boutique hotel — while continuing to make the property available for public and private events.
This year, Harwelden turns 100, and Knox said a public open house to celebrate the anniversary is being planned for later this summer.
But Harwelden is such a large place and filled with so much history, it’s easy to miss some of the house’s subtle, yet intriguing, features.
We asked Knox to share some of the lesser known aspects of Harwelden she likes to share with those who come to visit.
What’s that by the chimney?
Posted a bit like sentries next to the south end chimney are a pair of gargoyle-like creatures, grasping shields in their claws.
“We haven’t been able to find a quote from Mr. Harwell, or anyone else, as to why they included these,” Knox said. “But they’re not like the usual gargoyles you might see, that look rather fierce and frightening. These are more friendly gargoyles. They’re still there to protect the house, but they are a little more welcoming.”
They are also, Knox added, a little more visible. A magnolia tree that had been planted around the time the house was built had grown to the point that its branches obscured the gargoyles from view.
“We had someone come in to trim the tree, and now the gargoyles are easier to spot,” Knox said.
It was during the renovations after purchasing the house that Knox discovered something unusual in one of the basement rooms.
“It had been a place that was used for storage, and it had these large soffits from the old heating and air-conditioning system that we replaced,” she said. “It was kind of hidden away in a corner of the room.”
It was the entrance to a tunnel that snakes under the Harwelden property and comes out in the basement of the carriage house, the one-time garage that has also been converted into guest rooms.
The existence of a tunnel was something that had long been a part of the house’s lore, but Knox said exactly why it was constructed and how — if ever — it was used is still a bit of a mystery.
“When we’re showing people around the house, we talk about the times when the house was built,” she said. “Prohibition was still in force, but also this was the time of the Lindbergh kidnapping, and I know a number of the early Tulsa oil barons had received threats of kidnapping and worse.
“There are also a couple of hidden safes in the house,” she added. “One is in the dining room, and we discovered the second under drywall when we were renovating the second floor.”
The entrance to the tunnel, now marked by a brass handle, is in what is now the house’s bridal suite, where brides can ready themselves for their weddings.
“We joke that, if the bride changes her mind, there’s always a way to sneak out,” Knox said.
Behind the main house is a small pond, surrounded by large, flat rocks over which water flows in a miniature waterfall. The pond may look as if it’s been there since before the house was built, but in fact it’s a more recent addition to the landscape.
“I actually thought it was part of the original landscaping,” Knox said. “But when I spoke with Caroline Crain, who is the Harwells’ granddaughter and still lives in Tulsa, she told me the pond actually was created in the 1940s. It was used as a wading pool by the children.
“One reason I really like the pond is, now that we have converted the carriage house into bedroom suites, it gives that part of the property this kind of ‘cottage in the woodlands’ feel,” Knox said.
The statue of the medieval minstrel that stands on the front lawn has been a part of Harwelden since 2000. Former Tulsa artist Rosalind Cook created the image, titled “Celebrating the Arts,” as a way of capturing in a single image the house’s purpose as a home for the arts.
It was also a symbol of Harwelden Knox herself wanted to preserve, although when she first approached the arts council about purchasing the house, she was told the sculpture could not remain.
“That was a deal-breaker for me,” Knox said. “But after a while, we were able to reach an agreement, that the sculpture would remain in place.”
One reason why Knox was intent on keeping “Celebrating the Arts” in its original place is a tiny detail on the sculpture that few people notice.
Once Cook had completed her full-scale clay maquette for the piece, she invited Katie Westby, the Tulsa arts patron and philanthropist who helped found the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa, and who was instrumental in securing the house for the organization, to view the finished product.
Cook had Westby press her thumbprint into the toe of the minstrel’s upraised foot. The clay maquette was then sent to the foundry, and Westby’s print is now preserved in bronze.
“It just seemed appropriate,” Cook said at the time, “since Katie has been a guiding hand to the arts for so long.”
One of the most popular events held at Harwelden since its rebirth have been the English afternoon teas held on the premises.
“People would love us to offer them every day, but we’re not a restaurant,” Knox said. “Sometimes we’ve done two a month, but we’re probably going to keep it to one Tuesday a month.
“It’s an opportunity to show off the mansion, to talk about the Harwell family and their history, and to celebrate this uniquely English tradition in a place that’s designed in the English Tudor style,” she said.
Equally popular are the Princess Teas, designed for younger audiences, which feature actresses dressed up as Disney princesses to interact with the visitors.
In the Club Room, on the basement level, is a fireplace above which is affixed the Harwell family crest.
“There was a place above that fireplace that looked as if it were for some kind of crest to be displayed,” Knox said. “I got the chance to talk with (longtime AHCT executive director) John Everitt, and he said there had been a crest, but someone had stolen it years ago. He tried to describe it to me, but there were no pictures or descriptions of it I could find.”
Knox found someone who specialized in the history of family crests — in, of all places, Bulgaria — who worked with her to create the crest now on display.
“He asked me to go around the house and take pictures of all the imagery in the house, from the more than 200 Tudor roses that have been carved into the woodwork and the stone, the thistles, the oak leaves, the pomegranates, everything,” she said. “And he worked all that into the final product. So the Harwell family crest was made in Bulgaria.”
For more information about Harwelden, including room rates, event rentals and schedules for afternoon and Princess tea services: harweldenmansion.com.