Waite Phillips had tunnel vision.

I found myself cackling at this little interesting history lesson and tour of the tunnels beneath the streets of downtown Tulsa, my hometown. Apparently Waite Phillips, the founder of Phillips 66, was too scared even to walk the streets in front of his own buildings due to what the rich perceived as a rash of crimes against their money, including kidnappings of their family members for ransoms during the Depression:

I shouldn’t really say “perceived,” since in fact there was a lot of crime in the 20s and 30s, especially in Tulsa, where hometown exploits by the Barker Gang, John Dillinger, roaming bands of teenaged car hijackers, and even murders by sociopath social elites filled the newspapers.

In fact a fellow oil mogul, Charles F. Urschel, had been kidnapped and held for ransom in 1934, just over yonder in Oklahoma City. He and his wife, the widow of another oil tycoon, were chilling at another couple’s house when Machine Gun Kelly and an associate suddenly appeared and broke up the party with, well, a machine gun. I’m sure thoughts of such kidnappings were very much on the mind of Waite Phillips as he trudged back and forth from one opulent skyscraper to another each day in his grimy fear tunnel.

Isn’t it funny how tycoons who get rich off other people’s misery always wind up hiding away in bunkers or underground safe houses, or at the very least in gated communities and private resorts, quivering with fear that someone might take their ill-gotten gains, or worse, that they might have to look poor people in the eyes?

I wonder if this is the real reason that Phillips and his wife donated Villa Philbrook, the huge mansion he’d had built in 1926, to the city of Tulsa in 1938, scarcely more than a decade after moving into it. Philbrook is beautiful, but there was no way to defend it against would-be baby snatchers. And so the richest man in town winds up imprisoned in his own penthouse, only able to travel to his office or his bank vault via ugly subterranean tunnels.

photo courtesy of Tin Sheets to the Wind

More likely, though, is that the tour guide in this video is full of shit.

The tunnel that stretches between the Philcade Building and the Philtower Building was built in 1929. That’s long before Urschel or Lindbergh kidnappings, so it’d doubtful they were the reason Waite Phillips installed those tunnels. Also, the Phillips family didn’t move into the Philcade penthouse until 1938–in fact they couldn’t have moved in, because until 1937, there was no penthouse, which was tacked onto the top of the Philcade Building over what had formerly been an inner corridor to let in the sun. So most likely these tunnels were simply made to avoid the hassle of having to cart supplies and other goods from building to building across a busy downtown street. This also would explain why the two buildings, both of which were done to the nines in classic oil boom style with all the Art Deco trimmings, would have such a drab and dreary tunnel connecting them together. This wasn’t conceived of as a safety measure for rich folks, but as a service corridor.

Still, let the story of Waite Phillips and his life of seclusion be a lesson to the Bezoses, Gateses, Kocheses and Zuckerbergs of today. In the 30s, American plebes cheered for bank-robbing Robin Hoods like Pretty Boy Floyd, while meanwhile the rich had to hide out in case their chickens came home to roost in the form of ransoms and retribution.

Lucky for them, socialism was narrowly avoided by FDR’s New Deal, and for a couple generations there, the filthy rich learned how to avoid rubbing their opulence in people’s faces, while the social safety net and rampant expansion of police power mostly protected them from impoverished people looking to get even, or at least make a quick hundred thousand by kidnapping them. But the times they have a’changed, and if Central and South America are any clue to go by, kidnappings of the rich here in the United States may not be a thing of the past much longer.


Oklahoman by birth. Angeleno by fate. I've been in half a dozen bands and own 25 cubic feet of old records. Thank God for Ikea shelves.

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