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.

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.