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Throwback Tulsa: Historic Sinclair Building linked to Teapot Dome scandal

Throwback Tulsa: Historic Sinclair Building linked to Teapot Dome scandal

Legend has it that the penthouse was where Harry Ford Sinclair drew up the plans.

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Sinclair Building

The Sinclair Building, 6 E. Fifth St., was one of Tulsa's first skyscrapers when it was built in 1919. Harry Sinclair's penthouse can be seen in the center on top. The city of Tulsa wants the building to be sold because its current owner owes more than $234,000 in fees, taxes and penalties. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/ Tulsa World

Read more stories from the Tulsa World archives.

“You can’t convict a million dollars.”

So said one newspaper reporter when Harry Ford Sinclair was acquitted in the Teapot Dome bribery and corruption scandal in the 1920s.

According to legend, the ninth floor penthouse of his company headquarters in Tulsa is where Sinclair devised his plan to obtain drilling leases that were the basis of the Teapot Dome case.

Sinclair was cleared of conspiracy charges but served six months in the District of Columbia jail in 1929 for having members of the jury that tried him followed by private detectives.

The Sinclair Building, 6 E. Fifth St., was one of Tulsa’s first skyscrapers when it opened in 1919 and was home to its namesake oil company for more than 30 years.

The building has been back in the headlines recently. The city of Tulsa is seeking to auction the historic building because its current owner owes more than $234,000 in fees, taxes and penalties, according to court documents.

Elevator trap door

Stories from the Tulsa World archives say that the Sinclair Building had several unusual features in its heyday:

• An elevator with a trap door Sinclair used to escape to hidden office passageways, so visitors couldn’t observe his comings and goings. (He reportedly continued to use the penthouse during trips to Tulsa after moving to New York.)

• A network of pneumatic tubes throughout the building to send interoffice communications.

• Radiators on the basement ceiling directly under the sidewalk to melt ice and snow in the winter.

• Nine walk-in vaults.

The building features Beaux Arts architecture, and all offices had solid oak flooring and 12-foot ceilings.

Sinclair Oil & Gas Co. vacated the building in 1953 and built a larger headquarters at 10th Street and Boston Avenue. Tulsa Community College now occupies that building.

The building on Fifth Street has had a series of owners over the years. In the 1980s, a group of investors purchased it for $4.5 million and began a major restoration.

“What we like about the building is the existing condition,” the project manager for the renovation told The Tulsa Tribune in 1983. “Structurally, this building will last another 100 years.”

About $4 million was spent on renovations, including new wiring, plumbing and other upgrades, according to a 1985 story in the Tulsa Business Chronicle.

But by 1994, the Sinclair Building was named on the Most Endangered Oklahoma Historical Properties list by the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Where Tulsa history began

Sinclair lived in Tulsa only from 1912 to 1916, but left an indelible mark on the city. He helped establish Exchange National Bank — now Bank of Oklahoma.

He also owned another significant local site: the property where early Creek tribal members first gathered under the Council Oak tree and where Tulsa history began.

The oilman built a 25-room brick home at 1730 S. Cheyenne Ave. beside the ancient tree in 1913. The three-story mansion had several fireplaces, a three-car garage and a swimming pool.

The mansion was torn down in 1960 after the entire block was purchased by the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association. Workmen were ordered to protect the Council Oak during demolition, according to newspaper stories.

The Council Oak site is now a city park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Harry Sinclair’s reputation and career not only survived the scandal, but thrived. The company that bears his name continues to refine and market petroleum products and services today.

Sinclair retired as president of Sinclair Oil Corp. in 1949 and was made honorary chairman. He died in Pasadena, California, in 1956.

World news researcher Hilary Pittman contributed to this story.

Debbie Jackson 918-581-8374


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