Teresa Knox has purchased two of Tulsa’s historic buildings with visions of bringing new business and life to the sites.
Teresa Knox’s roots run deep.
A fourth-generation Oklahoman and lifelong Tulsan, she was raised with an appreciation for the history of her state and the people who have called it home.
In 2016 her passion for her hometown and her entrepreneurial spirit converged with her love of music when she and her husband, Ivan Acosta, purchased Church Studio, the former home office and recording studio for Leon Russell’s Shelter Records.
In Church Studio, Knox saw the opportunity to preserve a piece of Tulsa’s history while supporting the city’s burgeoning music industry.
Now, she’s at it again. Knox recently purchased Harwelden, and renovations are underway. The historic mansion will be the featured home of the 46th annual Tulsa Designer Showcase.
Knox holds an M.B.A. from Oral Roberts University. As a young woman, she worked as a dental assistant for nearly a decade after graduating from a career college. For her, that professional training was a life-changing experience and one she wanted to share with others.
She founded Community Care College in 1995 with the belief that a rewarding career can be the foundation for positive life change and happiness. Knox added Clary Sage College and Oklahoma Technical College in 2006 and 2009, respectively. She’s now bringing the same energy, business savvy and practical experience she used to create that educational framework to a new arena. At their 20th anniversary, the colleges formed a nonprofit called Community Higher Ed, fully committing to the mission to serve the community and inspire changes in others.
“I do like to work. I’ve worked since I was a child,” she says. “I like to identify areas in the market. I like to take risks. I like to research. Going into uncharted territory is very exciting to me. My brain doesn’t shut down, and the more I can learn about something, the better.”
One of her favorite business reads and a book she frequently recommends is “Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. It’s based on the premise that competing in overcrowded markets isn’t the way to sustain a business because “cutthroat competition results in nothing but a bloody red ocean of rivals fighting over a shrinking profit pool.”
Instead, the answer is to “search for a blue ocean” by discovering new markets and creating new demand. For Knox, purchasing and renovating two of Tulsa’s landmark properties might just be that clear blue sea.
“We’re definitely going into areas that are disruptive in the marketplace,” she says. “I did the same thing with my colleges. It always created opportunities, and I like that — doing something different.”
Harwelden, 2210 S. Main St., was built in 1923 as the private residence of Tulsa oilman and philanthropist Earl Harwell. Following the death of Earl’s wife, Mary, in 1967, the mansion was bequeathed to the Arts Council of Tulsa (the precursor to Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa, now ahha). It served as its headquarters from 1969-2012.
Over the past 50 years, dozens of arts organizations have occupied offices on the mansion’s second floor. When Harwelden came on the market in 2017, the first contract for sale fell through, and Knox stepped in with an offer of her own.
“I am from Tulsa, and I’ve always loved the mansion,” she explains. “I’ve been to the mansion so many times over the years. When I was in my early 20s, I lived in an apartment complex just south of the mansion, and as it has been for a lot of Tulsans, it has always been a staple, a presence in my life.”
Knox intends to operate Harwelden Mansion as a boutique hotel and event space, with an opening planned for June. Her goal is to preserve as much of the original home as she can through the renovations, and she has spent significant time searching for blueprints, looking through sketches and researching the history. Her efforts have led to a friendship with Caroline Crain, the Harwells’ granddaughter, who grew up in the stately home.
Harwelden was the family home of Mary and Earl Harwell, an early Tulsa oilman. The Harwells’ granddaughter, Caroline Crain, left, grew up in the home. Since purchasing the mansion, Teresa Knox and Crain have become friends. Knox, right, is creating a Harwelden archive full of historical materials and artifacts from the mansion, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
“It’s in good hands with Teresa,” Crain says. She walked through the mansion with Knox and pointed out where the original bedrooms were and how the family used the house, sharing a lot of personal and family details, according to Knox.
Along with restoring Harwelden itself, Knox is creating a Harwelden archive with the material and historic photographs she has collected during this process.
“You don’t want to live in the past, but the history of Tulsa is such an integral part of our cultural identity today,” Knox says. “To me, it’s just an honor, and it’s just so cool to be able to share a space that past generations shared and used and enjoyed. I find it really fascinating.”
Prior to his current job as the executive director and CEO of the Route 66 Alliance, Ken Busby worked for 12 years in similar roles for the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa.
“Harwelden is a true Tulsa treasure,” Busby says. “Its distinctive Gothic Tudor architecture adds to the wonderful architectural vernacular that helps tell Tulsa’s story. When Teresa told me she was considering purchasing Harwelden to preserve this architectural gem, I was thrilled.
“Teresa had a vision to restore Harwelden to its original grandeur, returning the second-floor offices to the original four bedroom suites, among other renovations, and she has worked with local architects and builders who share her passion for historic preservation. I can’t wait to see the final results.”
He adds, “Teresa not only has a passion for Tulsa, she also has a passion for history and preservation. The projects she’s developing are meaningful and add to the rich culture of our community.
“Preserving our history is so important in telling Tulsa’s incredible story, and I’m so glad that there are people like Teresa Knox who care about our city.”
Long before she became the owner of Church Studio, Knox was a music fan.
She’s the second youngest in a large family. “My oldest brother, a multi-instrumentalist, taught me to play the flute at the age of 8 and I got into music early on,” she says. Money was tight for the family. “We really didn’t have television or activities. I had a little radio, and I ended up getting a vinyl record player. That’s all I did every day — listen to music.”
A lifelong collector, Knox’s pride in her city expressed itself through a self-described “obsession” with Oklahoma musicians. She has amassed more than 4,500 pieces of Oklahoma musician memorabilia over the years, much of it centered around Leon Russell and his influential career.
“I’m first and foremost a huge Leon Russell fan,” Knox says. “I didn’t know him. I’m not in his circle, and I’m not related to him, but I have a lot of his stuff. I had read a lot about him, and after I bought the Church, I dove even deeper into his vision for the studio.”
The building that eventually became Church Studio sits at the corner of East Third Street and South Trenton Avenue. It began life in 1915 as Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the earliest churches built in the city.
“It has a beautiful sanctuary,” Knox says. “It’s not big and ornate like the fancy churches that were on the other side of downtown, but it served its purpose at the time.
“It’s over 100 years old, and it was a poor church. It was a church that was built by the people, so it didn’t have that craftsmanship that you see in those glorious churches that we have downtown. It was literally built on the other side of the tracks for those people who worked for the oil barons.”
Russell purchased the church in 1972, and for a brief but historically important time, it became the epicenter of a music scene that resonated well beyond the city limits to the greater world of rock and roll. Russell’s Church Studio also was the home base for Shelter Records, a record label started by Russell and British producer Denny Cordell.
During Russell’s time, the Church became a creative space for songwriters, musicians, engineers and singers. Major industry talent such as Tom Petty, Phoebe Snow and Peter Tosh recorded at Church Studio, along with nationally acclaimed Tulsa-based acts like the GAP Band, JJ Cale and Russell himself.
Many point to Church Studio as the epicenter of what later came to be known as the “Tulsa Sound”: that hard-to-define, potent, shuffling stew of rockabilly, country, rock and roll, and blues associated with Russell, Cale and Eric Clapton.
“It’s so magical what happened here,” says Knox of those years. “It’s just a very magical, incredible time in our city’s history.”
Stories from those years abound, and truth has intertwined with fiction. In her mission to be a good steward of Russell’s legacy, Knox has spent countless hours researching the history and interviewing those involved or associated with the business and the man.
“There are so many Leon Russell fans,” Knox says. “I love the feedback. Not everyone agrees with what we’re doing, but we like to be transparent about our business plan.”
While Knox aims to stay true to Russell’s vision for the space, she also understands the importance of looking toward the future and building something relevant for the community and beyond.
In addition to shoring up the physical building, Knox is creating an analog and digital recording studio, a small theater/screening room and a gallery to display Tulsa music memorabilia and music-related exhibits. A June 2020 opening is planned.
“I want the studio to compete with Nashville and L.A.,” she says. “We’re hoping to get local musicians, too, but we’re looking for other musicians that are maybe more established and want a diverse recording experience.”
Knox prefers to work collaboratively, and she wants to bring other businesses to the neighborhood. Tulsan and Grammy award-winning drummer David Teegarden Sr. has his own recording studio, Teegarden Studios, in a nearby building.
“She’s a sparkplug,” Teegarden says of Knox, thinking of all the support and commitment she has given to the area. “What she is going to do with the Church Studio is what Leon would have wanted.”
“I absolutely love David,” Knox says. “I consider him one of my best friends, so we’re working together to be a viable resource for musicians.”
David Teegarden Sr. and Knox inside Teegarden Studios. Friends and collaborators, the pair is trying to create a neighborhood experience dubbed “Studio Row,” which includes the Church Studio, Teegarden Studios and several nearby businesses, restaurants and entertainment destinations.
They identified the area early on as “Studio Row” and are trying to create a neighborhood and an experience for locals and visitors alike — thinking about what types of businesses the musicians, band managers and engineers that will be traveling to Tulsa would like and need.
Church Studio is on the National Register of Historic Places, which brings with it an additional set of concerns and requirements when undertaking a restoration such as this. Knox estimates it will be another year before the building opens.
“It’s still mind-blowing to me,” Knox says of the two very different, but culturally significant, properties she’s renovating. “After we purchased Harwelden, I stood on the roof of the Church looking west toward Harwelden, and I thought ‘Oh, my gosh. This is how it was.’
“You had these people and you had those people and somehow the city made it work, even thrive, due to the diligence and collaboration of the entire community.”