Standing in a small town in northern Oklahoma is the only realized skyscraper designed by one of America’s greatest architects. Its creator called it “the tree that escaped the crowded forest,” though a small grove has grown up next to it. It is a magnificent piece of architecture that makes the trip to Bartlesville worth the time and effort to get there.
Over my Christmas holiday, I decided to make that effort driving five hours north from my parent’s home in Dallas to this oil town of 60,000 residents to experience Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower. I’m glad I did and would recommend the trip to everybody.
A Quick History
Bartlesville is only anything because of oil. It was home to Phillips Petroleum Company for decades and is still home to Phillips 66 and several ConocoPhillips facilities and offices. This is why Harold C. Price was in Bartlesville because he came up with a way to make oil pipelines last longer and be easier to repair.
In the early 1950s, the Prices who had seen a lot of success decided it was time to build a new building. The Prices’ two sons were taking classes from renowned modern architect Bruce Goff who recommended they speak with Frank Lloyd Wright when he visited for a lecture. When Price met with Wright they decided on a 19-story multi-purpose high rise structure adapting a design from an unrealized project of Wright’s that would have been built in Manhattan.
Construction began in 1952, and it was open to the public in 1956. The Price Company sold it to Phillips in the 1980s, which eventually donated it to Price Tower Arts Center, the current owner, which has undertaken the long and arduous road to preservation, in some cases restoration, with fully functional spaces. It is designated a National Historic Landmark and is one of 11 Wright-designed structures nominated as a group for the UNESCO World Heritage List.
At 221 feet tall, the tower is only 70 feet taller than Wright’s other vertical structure that was built. However, he allegedly didn’t consider the S.C. Johnson Research Tower a skyscraper at 14 stories because it wasn’t a multi-purpose structure. To him a skyscraper had to be when a city block is turned on the vertical with mixed-use space throughout including residential, commercial and office space.
Anyway, both towers use Wright’s taproot tower design inspired by nature. Rather than build a tower with the walls around it being the structure, he was inspired by trees with their central support system of a trunk that the branches then grow off of. For his towers that’s exactly what he did. The exterior walls are merely decorative or utilitarian and not structural at all. Instead the support comes from the central columns or piers that extend out of the taproot foundation.
At the Price Tower that central trunk are the four elevator shafts. Each of the floors extends off of these main supports like branches on a tree. The tower follows more of a coniferous shape as it gets narrower toward the top. You can really experience this design when in the rooms. It also gives a whole different feeling in the spaces since the ceiling is sloping upward toward the windows almost releasing you from the building and opening the views to sweeping vistas.
Those views are even better when most of the exterior walls are windows. Around the exterior of the building are copper louvers that act to shade and provide privacy. Most are fixed, but these shutters toward the top of the tower were designed to move as needed.
The top floors were the executive offices for the H.C. Price Company, there were two-story apartments on one side (one of them Bruce Goff lived in for years) and single-story office spaces around the other sides. Some of both kinds of rooms, one- and two-story, have been converted to hotel rooms while the upper levels have been restored to their original designs for the tours.