Universal Mystery
By Lou Ann Ruark - Special Features Writer
Tulsa World; Sunday, February 16, 1997;
Section D ("LIVING"), pp. 1, 2
World staff photos by Emmanuel Lozano
[The Center Of The Universe quietly awaits visitors.]

Acoustical Wonder In Downtown Tulsa Stumps the Experts

Something out of the ordinary is going on in this city, an anomaly that's fun to speculate about and fascinating to a number of Tulsa's keenest scientifically oriented minds, as well as the general population.

It's an apparent acoustical puzzlement in the downtown area that is called "The Center of the Universe" by those who know about it, even though they may not have experienced the mystery first-hand.

No one has figured out exactly what it is and why it does what it does - not even the architect who drew up the plans and babied its construction.

"I haven't had a reason to go down there lately," says John Laur, owner of JKL Architecture. "But I sure will now."

Conjecture abounds.

"A fluke, that's what it is," says Steve Childers, vice- president of Downtown Tulsa Unlimited.

"A 'whisper chamber,'" says John Novak, partner in Urban Design Group, and one of the architects who played a significant role in its design.

"It does surprise you, even when you've been told what to expect." says Frank Chitwood, heat of HTB Inc., the architectural and engineering firm that developed the downtown Main Mall.

The phenomenon is this: When a person stands in the center of the circle, facing any direction, and speaks aloud in his regular speaking tone, his voice sounds perfectly normal to people within earshot - but not to the speaker.

The same thing happens if one stands a foot or less away from the circle and speaks to a person directly across the circle.

"That effect was not intentional," Laur says.

It is startling, even to people who have been told what to expect. Chitwood, Childers and Novak made those comments recently when they met at the site to check it out.

Each tried to describe how he heard his own voice, but sounds are different to different ears, and are hard to put in words. "Weird," "metallic," "a buzzing," they said.

The location of the Center of the Universe and when and why it was built is one thing. How it does what it does is another. Put a symbolic, 60-foot totem-pole-like sculpture called "Artificial Cloud," by a Native American artist in the scene and you only enhance the mystique.

The center itself is a worn concrete circle, 30 inches in diameter, that's in the middle of a 13-row circle of bricks eight feet in diameter. The circle-within-a-circle is at the apex of a rebuilt span of a pedestrian bridge that began its life in the 1930s as the Boston Avenue vehicular bridge downtown to carry traffic over the railroad tracks.

Laur said that by the 1980s one segment of the bridge had been heavily damaged by a fierce fire that destroyed a giant paint warehouse underneath.

The new bridge goes over the railroad tracks from Archer Street to First Street, and has iron steps that provide access to ground-level parking. The bridge is west of the renovated Union Depot and immediately south of the Williams Center Tower.

Laur says the design of the new bridge section, completed in 1983, "was totally my project. It was intended as a metaphor, and was a physical link between the north and south sides of town. Unfortunately, you can see the overall design only from the 52nd floor of the Williams Tower or higher."

Laur worked for Novak's company when he oversaw the project.

Childers speculated that a hollow echo of sorts was accidentally created by an expansion joint - or embedded steel angle - that splits the inner circle.

"Any noise is going to vibrate it," he says.

Chitwood and Novak ventured that the anomaly is caused by the person's voice reverberating off the half-circular, raised planters that partly surround the circle.

Laur said the intention was to put a work of art in the center circle, but that never came about. But to commemorate the opening of the 1991 Mayfest, a 60-foot structure was put in place south of the circle.

And the sculpture only adds to the mystery.

Childers said that Ed Wade, former Curator of Non-Western Art at Philbrook Museum of Art and now with the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, made arrangements to procure "Artificial Cloud" from Indian artist Robert Haozous. The sculpture is in two segments, and Haozous says it was "a statement about technology."

"The cloud stands at the top symbolizing a threatened hope," he says.

"Because the structure was welded together with mild steel, it is meant to corrode, depending on the level of pollutants in the environment."

"It is perfect, a very accomplished piece," Novak says.

But some people, such as Joel Moore, 25, who works for the Williams Cos., said the voices might reverberate off the sculpture itself. He said that one night, when they were working late, he and a friend, Mark Overcash, "decided to research it."

"It has something to do with pollutants. It's eerie, really neat," Overcash says.

Jerry McCoy, physics professor at the University of Tulsa, says "It is such an unusual phenomenon, the kind of thing that makes you think, 'holy cow.'"

After McCoy visited the center, he formed his own theory: "When you talk, your voice goes out in all directions. If you stand in the middle the sound waves go out and hit the low planter walls and are reflected back to where you are.

"What makes the voice sound unusual is that in that particular place, there is a slight delay in the time it takes the sound waves to go to the wall and back. It's not as if you were facing a concrete wall, either. There are gaps in the circle of the planters. It's fun. I took my family there."

And architect Laur says, "Maybe it's over an ancient sacred burial ground and the center circle provides an outlet for spiritual voices."

He was kidding, of course.

The truth is, nobody knows for sure, and as Laur says, "We can leave it alone for future generations to discover and enjoy. It's a serendipity."

[Jump Back (Kiss Myself!)] [Write Me!]