Photograph by the author
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.
Slideshow: "The Price is Wright"
Wayne Curtis points out some of the Price Tower's quirks and charms
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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.