Little Skyscraper on the Prairie

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

Wright was famous for architectural sleights of hand. One was to funnel visitors through a low, narrow hallway in order to make the room they were entering feel larger. It’s simple and effective, and I’ve always enjoyed being duped when touring other Wright buildings. But here not so much, since he took the same approach with four tiny elevators, whose cabs are irregular hexagons. During one solo descent, the door opened and a man holding a suitcase peered in. He said, “That’s OK, I’ll catch the next one.” I didn’t blame him; it would have been like sharing a shower stall. The posted capacity is 1,500 pounds, which I have to assume was a sly joke on the part of an elevator engineer.

My guest room, on the seventh floor, was a converted office, and it displayed a powerful aversion to right angles, most notably in the trapezoidal shower. The modern guest rooms were designed by the New York architect Wendy Evans Joseph, who said that she didn’t want “Fake Lloyd Wright” interiors. Instead, the rooms have that pleasingly austere, modern style common to boutique hotels, although cast in a warm glow thanks to the liberal use of copper.

The restaurant and bar, called Copper, are on the 15th and 16th floors, and they also make good use of tight spaces. The restaurant includes two open-air terraces; partly obscured by copper panels, they feel a bit like Dr. Evil’s secret lairs, and make fine spots to sip wine and discuss world domination while the sun sets over the Osage Hills.

Price Tower is captivating enough that a visitor needn’t ever leave the building, thereby fulfilling Wright’s dream of a self-contained environment. (Shortly after I settled in, someone knocked on my door to invite me to yoga in the art gallery on Saturday morning.) But I did get out to tour the sights of Bartlesville, which include the mansions of the early oilmen. Ten minutes away is the town of Dewey, where antiques malls, like hermit crabs, occupy former storefronts. Thanks to the oil boom, Oklahoma is fertile ground for mid-century flotsam—stuff from local attics still washes up in the shops. I found a turquoise Argus slide viewer, a glass sugar bowl shaped like an orange, and a guidebook to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, all for less than $6. No souvenir shop could improve on this. I also spent part of a morning at the nearby Phillips 66 Museum, which was more engaging than I had anticipated. Among other things, I learned that hula hoops—which came about owing to a gasoline additive or a plastic resin or an extrusion technology or some combination thereof—are more complicated than you might think.

In 2003, The New York Times called Bartlesville an aspiring “Bilbao with chicken-fried steak.” This was in reference to plans to build an elaborate new arts center at the base of Price Tower. Indeed, an addition had been commissioned from the internationally known architect Zaha Hadid, and a model in the center depicts a boomerang-shaped structure around the tower’s base. The new center remains in the planning stage until the cash to build it can be raised.

In my room, where I spent most of my time without guilt—it’s a rare and pleasing confluence when a hotel room is the actual destination—I Googled the phrase Bilbao effect, which is shorthand for the way avant-garde buildings can trigger an economic boom in an overlooked city. I got more than 10,000 hits. Then I Googled Bartlesville effect, and got zero hits. Between these data sets is no doubt a story about the changing role of architecture in economic development. Price Tower was never the centerpiece of a committee’s plan to boost tourism. It was mostly a gesture of generosity, leavened with a little ego, from Harold Price to the people of Bartlesville.

The tower was mocked when it opened—it looked fussy and old-fashioned at a time when sleek glass curtain walls, like that of the UN Secretariat Building, were reshaping the American landscape. BusinessWeek wrote that Price’s employees were “victimized by the impractical.” Price, unembittered by the cost overruns, defended his tower and said that “criticism of Mr. Wright’s architecture [is] based only on minor defects such as leaky windows and unbalanced chairs. There is no mention of the outstanding beauty and efficiency of the design.”

And therein may be the real Bartlesville effect. I found Price Tower not only humble and beautiful but a profoundly peaceful spot, as I imagine Mr. Price did, holed up on the 19th floor. During my second night, a cacophonous thunderstorm with Art Deco-ish bolts of lightning blew in from the plains. The sky blazed and the rain came pounding down, tapping out on the copper panels a complex series of timpani rolls and drip-driven arpeggios.

It was like hiding away in a tree house Frank Lloyd Wright had built. Which, I’m guessing, was pretty much what he had in mind.

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Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.

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