The value of Sapulpa's murals
Published Nov. 8, 2023
As Sapulpa prepared to launch its inaugural Christmas Chute, planners made a last-minute addition: painting a huge Route 66 badge in the center of Dewey Avenue. That Mother Road marker proved a hit with spectators, who took numerous photos beside the logo.
“That’s a wonderful benefit from these types of investments,” said Dr. James M. Kenderdine, professor emeritus of marketing and supply chain management at the University of Oklahoma’s Michael F. Price College of Business. “In this social media age, those selfie-stops are quite valuable to community tourism and identity.”
That illustrates the potential in a related Sapulpa asset: its abundant outdoor murals.
“Especially along Route 66, murals are a good way to introduce and attract people to your town,” said Larry O’Dell, state historian with the Oklahoma Historical Society. He said these artworks provide good ways to enhance urban spaces, preserve cultural history, and inspire residents and visitors. “They help to bring new life to areas and build community pride.”
Alva lays unofficial claim to Oklahoma’s mural capital, partly due to a Google search engine quirk awarding that title based on an old Twitter post. But this central Oklahoma community has worked hard to earn the title. Since 1997, the Alva Mural Society adorned its buildings and water towers with more than 20 murals.
“That’s the kind of stuff that brings people back,” said Chase Horn, communications director for the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. “These murals encourage people to stop and find out more about the town they’re visiting. And while doing that, they eat at area restaurants and shop at their stores.”
Sapulpa grew its mural inventory organically, said longtime Sapulpa historian Pete Egan. With U.S. Route 66 and U.S. Highway 75 making Sapulpa an American crossroads for half a century, advertisers painted all sorts of landmark banners upon its structures. As the Turner Turnpike siphoned off some of this traffic, Sapulpa sign painter Joe Krout said city leaders started preservation efforts to save or recreate commercial murals dating back to the 1910s, when the U.S. Census Bureau named Sapulpa the nation’s second-fastest growing city. Enthusiasts added multiple murals depicting Sapulpa’s rich history.
This northeastern Oklahoma city now boasts more than 40 murals and related artworks, most located in its historic downtown. They range from traditional paintings on brick buildings to metal-backed images bolted onto walls and vinyl art filling bay windows. Roughly a third of these echo vintage advertising for national or local icons. A few high-rise examples have faded to obscurity, while others defy aging to proclaim bygone brands.
“Many times people want to walk around and look at these murals and take snapshots at these places,” said Rachel Whitney, curator for the three-story Sapulpa Historical Museum. “Those are their personal postcard of where they’ve been… history they can share with others.”
Some Sapulpa leaders hope to add more murals to celebrate the Route 66 centennial. Congress established the historic highway on Nov. 11, 1926. It took 12 years to pave its 2,448 miles from downtown Chicago to the Santa Monica pier on California’s Pacific Coast. With the end of World War 2, exploring Route 66 became a beloved pastime romanced around the globe.
“We would love to capture that part of our history in a mural or two,“ said Reed Architecture and Interiors founder David Reed, whose downtown Sapulpa office preserves a beloved mural highlighting this city’s epic past.
“These murals offer dramatic ways to boost our beautiful community and draw people to Sapulpa,” said Reed. “We have so much to be thankful for, with what’s going on downtown, at the Heart of Route 66 Auto Museum, the Rock Creek park, and other improvements. Our murals are icing on the cake.”