Late one afternoon toward the end of March 1967, the new owners of the Harwell mansion came to see the house for the first time. And it made for a rather crowded party, as more than a dozen cars filled the driveway and spilled out along the curb in front of the majestic home.
Mary Harwell, the widow of an enormously wealthy oil tycoon, had died a couple of months earlier, leaving the bulk of her fortune to family members. But not the 15,000-square-foot house at 2210 S. Main St.
Harwell’s last will and testament gave the mansion to the Tulsa Arts Council. And now board members wanted a close look at the house before deciding what to do with it.
Harwell’s sister, Francis Schmidt, offered refreshments while family friends divided the guests into small groups and offered guided tours through the house — all four floors and 30 rooms of it, with the principal areas making extensive use of imported marble and hand-carved wood paneling.
People are also reading…
A spacious living room sat beyond the large entrance foyer, with a dining room and kitchen to the right and a library, sun room and sun porch to the left. A broad staircase led to four bedrooms on the second floor, along with a sewing room, baths and sleeping porches. Servants occupied the third floor, while the basement included a “club room.”
The house dated to 1923, when Earl Harwell hired well-known Kansas City architects Thomas Wight and William Wight to design a mansion in his favorite English Tudor style. The site, atop a hill south of downtown Tulsa, offered a sweeping view of the Arkansas River.
Harwell’s fortune came mostly from an investment in the McMan Oil Co., which he started with two other Tulsa tycoons: Robert McFarlin and James Chapman. The venture was worth $100,000 when they started developing oil fields near Cushing in 1912, and the shareholders sold the company just four years later for $39 million, according to the archives of the Tulsa World.
Harwell used his share of the money to become one of Tulsa’s most generous philanthropists, known particularly for supporting the University of Tulsa and the Tulsa Boys’ Home. His wife continued the tradition of giving after he died in 1950 at the age of 67. But now both of them are most remembered for a gift that came only after Mary Harwell’s death.
Her will suggested that the Arts Council, which became known as the Tulsa Arts & Humanities Council and later as “ahha Tulsa,” might want to use the house as a headquarters. But she also specifically gave the board permission to sell the house and make “any form of investment it may deem best.”
After touring the house and considering various options, the Arts Council sought a zoning change to let it use the space for offices. And the group moved into its sprawling home in February 1969, after a yearlong renovation added air conditioning and new lighting.
Perhaps most importantly, the Arts Council gave the house a name: Harwelden, after a town in Wales where the Harwell family traced its heritage.
For more than five decades now, it has been synonymous with “special events,” hosting everything from weddings and piano recitals to trivia contests and interactive murder mysteries.
The Arts & Humanities Council sold the property in 2018 for $2.9 million. But under new ownership, Harwelden remains one of Tulsa’s favorite events spaces, not to mention one of the city’s most luxurious bed and breakfasts.
During construction 100 years ago, when Earl Harwell was touring the site, a passerby asked him who was building such a large house, according to an anecdote from harweldenmansion.com.
Harwell replied with a dry sense of humor: “Oh, some old fool with more money than sense.”
Tulsa was lucky to have such a fool.