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Summer Vacation Road Trip: The Gathering Place – ‘One of the World’s Greatest Places’

Gathering Place aerial
An aerial view of the Adventure Playground at the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Courtesy of the Gathering Place)

Describing the Gathering Place as a park would be correct, at least to a limited extent. The reality, though, is that the 3-year-old operation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is much, much more. Ever-increasing numbers of visitors are discovering that fact as word of the 66-acre facility spreads and its honors and accolades grow at an impressive rate.

The unusual, but positive, aspects of the Gathering Place begin with … well, its beginning. Spearheading the $465 million project on the east bank of the Arkansas River was the family foundation of billionaire George B. Kaiser, a Tulsa native whose Jewish parents fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and settled in Tulsa where relatives already were living.

Now in his late 70s, Kaiser made his fortune in oil, gas and banking and today has a net worth estimated in the $6 to $7 billion range. 

The George Kaiser Family Foundation pledged $200 million to the park and led the way in raising millions more from a number of organizations and individuals, making the Gathering Place one of the largest privately financed public parks in the nation. Included in the contributions is a $100 million endowment to ensure the park’s continued operation in perpetuity.

The city of Tulsa also provided $65 million in infrastructure improvements for roads, bridges and sewer lines around the property.

The park’s name alludes to what has been identified as a major need of Tulsa and many other communities, especially in light of an event in the Oklahoma city 100 years ago.

In late May and early June of 1921, white mobs torched businesses and homes in the city’s Greenwood district, a Black neighborhood on Tulsa’s north side, which was also known as “the Black Wall Street” due to its thriving economy. Precipitating the incident was the arrest of a Black youth accused of accosting a white teenage elevator operator in an office building. Whites seeking retribution gathered at the jail where the young man was being held and were met by Blacks determined to protect the alleged offender. Violence soon erupted and the situation spiraled out of control. Almost every building in a 35-square-block area was burned to the ground. Although estimates of the number killed in the race riot have varied widely, the majority were Black residents. 

In a New York Times article just before the Gathering Place officially opened in late summer 2018, Kaiser noted, “We got more and more divided over time by geography, race and class. So getting people together is step number one.”

Echoing Kaiser’s sentiment in the same article, the Gathering Place’s landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh opined, “There’s hardly a better way to bring people together than in a democratic space like a park.”

If Van Valkenburgh’s name is familiar, it’s likely because his firm also was awarded the contract for St. Louis’ Gateway Arch Park in 2011. That project called for a land bridge over Interstate 70 to connect the redesigned arch grounds with the downtown area. Similarly, the Gathering Place plans include linking the park to the Arkansas River with two land bridges over Tulsa’s Riverside Drive.

Gathering Place ONE OK Boathouse
The three-story ONE OK Boathouse offers rental watercraft to visitors at Peggy’s Pond. (Jim Erickson photo)

A landscape of wonder

Kaiser is a firm believer that all kids deserve an equal opportunity. 

“No child is responsible for the circumstances of his or her birth,” he says on the Gathering Place’s website. A 2011 article in Forbes magazine quotes the life-long Tulsan in a similar vein: “Find a way to give poor kids the same cognitive stimulus that rich kids receive and they should end up with the same tools for success.”

As a way of reaching that goal, providing free educational programming is one of the park’s major pledges to Tulsa families and other visitors. From story time at the park’s Reading Tree to STEAM-based activities (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), the Gathering Place offers numerous educational opportunities to pique kids’ interest. Also on the yearly calendar is a wide range of cultural events and festivals for all ages and backgrounds.

Visitors often are pleasantly surprised by the park’s admission fee: There is none. Parking also is free. The restaurants and gift shops charge for their products and there are fees for renting canoes, kayaks and paddle boats at the boathouse on Peggy’s Pond. But it’s possible to spend the entire day with no financial outlays if you bring your own food and beverages. Alcohol and glass containers are prohibited.

If there’s one word that sums up how the park might be described by a first-time visitor, it probably would be “creative” because unique touches are visible throughout the facility. 

Large slabs of sandstone that flank pathways create a virtual canyon of rock towers in the Four Seasons Garden and form the Williams Lodge floor surface in the park’s welcome center. Many of the walls and ceiling areas in the Lodge are covered with pieces of wood cut to varying lengths and widths. 

Gathering Place Mirror Maze
A maze of mirrors in the Sensory Garden at the Gathering Place (Jim Erickson photo)

Plantings, both large and small, create an appearance resembling a botanical garden and provide a green separation between the park’s various areas. Included are about 7,000 trees, both evergreen and deciduous, from more than a dozen nurseries, and some 1.2 million plants and shrubs. The taller plantings can leave a first-time visitor somewhat disoriented, albeit in a pleasant way, about what direction to take to the next area of interest. But with signs and the park’s many paid and volunteer staff members, getting lost is highly unlikely.

The Chapman Adventure Playground is a 5-acre area with activities for kids of varying ages, including traditional and custom swings, four towering wooden castles connected by suspension bridges and a variety of slides, such as the one between the wings of a 22-foot-tall blue heron. In total, playground structures number about 160 and cost some $11.5 million to install. It doesn’t take an observer long to see that adults also seem to enjoy the playground.

Lighted sports courts for impromptu or organized games of basketball, volleyball, street soccer and street hockey also are available as are a skate park and BMX tracks with courses for riders of varying abilities.

Peggy’s Pond is a 3-acre body of water that boasts the three-story ONE OK Boathouse, a beach area and nearby decks with lounge furniture where visitors can relax and enjoy the view. The terraced wetland gardens next to Williams Lodge provide natural filtration for the pond; however, swimming and wading in the pond are prohibited.

The QuikTrip Great Lawn is a green space for concerts and signature events, as well as activities such as soccer, frisbee and kite flying. A picnic grove adjoining the playground includes large, family-style tables and seating for group gatherings.

One way to make sure you can navigate the Gathering Place and not miss a thing is to download the park’s official app. It’s free thanks to a partnership with AARP Oklahoma, and provides access to an interactive park map, daily activities and schedules, park facts and more. 

Accolades and future plans

As successful as the Gathering Place has been in the less than three years since it opened, there’s more to come. A second phase of construction at the park’s southern end will feature the opening of the Discovery Lab Children’s Museum, a facility referred to by a park official as “a new generation of kid experience, where a children’s museum meets a science center on steroids.”

The new facility will emphasize learning through play and is projected to open early next year.

A third phase, already under construction, includes a new pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River. When all phases are complete, the park’s footprint will cover some 100 acres.

Soon after opening, USA Today quickly named the Gathering Place as the nation’s Best New Attraction. In just three years, the park had vaulted to the top in another USA Today ranking, winning first place in the publication’s Best City Park of 2021.

Of interest is the fact that St. Louis’s Forest Park earned second place in that competition.

In between the USA Today awards, National Geographic named the Gathering Place one of its 12 Mind-Bending Playgrounds Around the World and Time Magazine recognized it as one of the World’s Greatest Places.

The American Planning Association also placed the park on its Great Places in America roster and the Urban Land Institute gave it a Global Excellence Award.

Getting there 

To visit the Gathering Place, jump on Interstate 44 and head west. It’s about a six-hour drive, so you’ll want to arrange for overnight or multiple night accommodations. Some of the drive involves toll roads, so it’s wise to have cash available that includes small bills and change. 

Also, before you go, check gatheringplace.org to see what special events might be taking place during your planned visit. 

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