Little Skyscraper on the Prairie

A rare Frank Lloyd Wright tower—one of his most bizarre buildings ever—rises high above the Oklahoma plains.

Photograph by the author

wright price tower

In 1952, an Oklahoma businessman named Harold Price met with the 85-year-old architect Frank Lloyd Wright to ask him to design a headquarters for his pipeline company in Bartlesville. Wright agreed. Price told Wright he wanted a three-story building and was willing to spend $750,000. Wright suggested a 10-story tower (“Modern elevators and all that,” he explained). In the end, as Price later wrote, “we finally compromised on nineteen floors.” Price Tower, completed in 1956, cost $2.1 million.

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This monument to Wright’s supernatural powers of persuasion still stands in a quiet corner of Bartlesville, a city of 35,000. It’s easily one of the more bizarre towers ever built. Wright, who is best known for his low Prairie-style buildings, had a complicated relationship with tall buildings, calling one an “incongruous mantrap of monstrous dimensions.” Yet late in life he created drawings for a 528-story skyscraper featuring atomic-powered elevators with five cabs strung vertically in each shaft. (It was never built.) Price Tower is the tallest building Wright constructed, and it’s every bit as startling rising out of the low Oklahoma hills as his corkscrewy Guggenheim Museum is crouched in the canyons of Manhattan.

I first saw Price Tower 10 years ago, when passing through Bartlesville on a cross-country road trip. It was a quiet Sunday morning in early summer, and long, poisonous rays of sunlight stabbed across the landscape. The light was so sharp and the city so empty, I might have been wandering through an architectural model; I half expected to see little trees made of lichens, and faceless Giacometti couples frozen in mid-stride. I walked around the tower twice and discovered that as you move, it subtly shifts in appearance, like one of those holograms that winks at you. From this side, it looked like a sleek sculpture inlaid with turquoise; from that, a complicated proof of a geometric theorem, or maybe a comb. Pressing my face against the glass at the front door left me intrigued but unenlightened.

A few years ago, I read that the tower had been donated by its most recent owner, the Phillips Petroleum Company, to a nonprofit arts organization, which had converted it into a boutique hotel with 19 guest rooms and suites on eight floors, along with an arts center on the ground floor, offices on several other floors, and a restaurant and bar. I resolved to return and spend a few days getting to know Bartlesville—and Wright—a little better. In March, I finally did.

Wright tended to compose structures based on one geometric shape or another. For Price Tower, he chose the triangle. He liked the triangle, he wrote, “because it allows flexibility of arrangement for human movement not afforded by the rectangle.” This statement, like much of the architect’s writing, recedes further from comprehension the longer one considers it. Nevertheless, each floor has a curious pinwheel-like geometry, and the light fixtures, stairways, and carport pillars are assembled of acute angles. Even the storm drains in the parking lot are three-sided.

I took an hour-long tour of the building, to get a better sense of what Wright had wrought. It began with a short film featuring home-movie footage of Wright wandering about looking proprietary. I learned about how the tower was built, and that Wright’s taste in clothing ran toward capes and other extravagant haberdashery.

Although the building went up in the 1950s, it feels like a time capsule from an earlier era. That’s because it was by and large recycled from Wright’s 1929 plan for a series of never-built towers in New York City. The design is radical for reasons unrelated to triangles. The central metaphor is a tree. (Wright liked to describe the tower as “the tree that escaped the crowded forest.”) A stout central service core is the trunk. The branches— reinforced concrete floors—are cantilevered off it, allowing the floors to taper to as little as three inches thick. Because the outer walls needed no weight-bearing columns, Wright could do what he wanted on the exterior. And what he wanted was to line it with copper panels embossed with geometric shapes of his own devising, bands of windows, and angled copper fins that, like leaves, shaded the rooms from direct sun.

Most floors contained three offices plus half a duplex apartment. Wright’s idea was that Price’s workers could live on one floor and commute to another. (None, in fact, did.) It’s an odd notion for Bartlesville, where one can bike in three minutes from a leafy residential neighborhood to downtown, and it also struck me as a bit impractical—boiled cabbage in Apartment 7A would not, I’d wager, make for happy workers in Office Suite 7B.

But the chief impression I took away was that the tower isn’t a cerebral geometry project, but a space almost perfectly scaled for human occupation. The rooms and corridors fit me like a comfortable pair of jeans—and I’m more of a rectangle than a triangle. The flourishes, including etched concrete floors and embossed copper panels that continue inside, conveyed low-key charm rather than grandeur.

Among my favorite spaces was the 19th-floor office—Price’s private redoubt, and one of the most eccentric and lovely offices I’ve seen anywhere. (The tower was really “eighteen floors to hold up my father’s office,” Price’s son Joe once said.) A five-sided desk sits under a double-height ceiling, and there’s a private terrace, a grand wall of triangle-patterned stained glass, and soaring views of the sky. There was nothing in the least monstrous or mantrappy about it.

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Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.

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