A 19-story building that opened in 1956, Price Tower should never have existed, at least not as it was built. It was originally designed to be constructed in New York City in the 1930s. Also, when Wright first got the commission to build new office space for the H.C. Price Company here, Price asked for only two stories. He got 19.
Is it surprising that Hal Price, a man who had built a successful global oil pipeline company, would agree to such a different approach? When it's Frank Lloyd Wright talking, you pretty much do whatever the genius wants, money and your first ideas be damned.
As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to this town of 36,000 in northeastern Oklahoma to see Wright's one and only skyscraper. Over the years, I've been lucky enough to visit many of his greatest designs, from Fallingwater to the Robie House to both Taliesin and Taliesin West, and from the SC Johnson Wax headquarters to the Marin County Civic Center. Every one of them offers a peek into the mind of arguably America's greatest architect. But none gave a hint of what Wright would do if he could go up into the sky.
Until Price Tower. Though New Yorkers might scoff at the notion that a 19-story building is called a "skyscraper," the structure certainly stands tall in this small Great Plains town. And that's just how Wright wanted it: It could be seen from anywhere in Bartlesville, and from inside you could see far into the distance in nearly every direction.
'The tree that escaped the crowded forest'
In the 1930s, Wright accepted a commission to build four tall buildings in New York City. But when the Great Depression hit, the plans were shelved, and stayed shelved for nearly 20 years. Even as his career went on and he became more and more famous the world over, Wright still longed to build a skyscraper, especially as he got older, and he knew he was running out of time.
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Finally, when Wright was in his 80s, Price came calling. The only problem: the oil pipeline baron imagined a two-story building with about 25,000 square feet of space. Wright countered: 21 stories. They compromised on 19, with a total of 45,000 square feet. According to Amy Haley of the Price Tower Arts Center, which today manages the building, Wright's design would have been edgy even for New York City. In little Bartlesville, Okla., "it was really edgy."
New York was a city full of tall buildings, and even a Wright office tower would have had trouble standing out. In Bartlesville in 1956, Price Tower stood alone as a beacon of architectural design. It was designed using a tree motif -- it has a center core holding the elevators (the trunk) off of which every floor is cantilevered (the branches) -- and Wright came up with a nickname for his new building: "The tree that escaped the crowded forest."
Everywhere you look inside and out of Price Tower there are abstract tree references. Starting with the use of copper -- green, of course -- to the fact that the building's interior narrows as you go up, meaning less available square footage on the higher floors. On the 17th floor, for example, you've lost 75 percent of the floor space you've got at ground level. And, Haley added, just like a tree, Price Tower looks different from every angle.
Wright was always very specific about what he wanted in the buildings he designed for clients. In Price Tower, that vision is reflected throughout the building. One of the most immediate examples is the fact that he wanted office space on one side of the building, with horizontal louvers over the windows, while residential space was on a different side, and had vertical louvers. That makes for striking visuals from the exterior.
Another Wright vision for Price Tower: the building mostly features 30- and 60-degree angles, with triangles everywhere. "The joke is," Haley said, "if it's not a triangle, it's probably not original" to the building.
Wright was famous for his cantankerous attitude and an inability to get along with clients. But he and Price hit it off right away. They stayed friends and that relationship is reflected in a mural Wright designed, and had painted on the wall of the Price Company's corporate apartment on the building's 17th floor. In the lower right hand corner of the mural, Wright himself penned the words. "The Blue Moon, To Hal." That was a reference to Wright's feeling that the marriage of perfect client and perfect building only happened once in a blue moon.
Still, while Price acceded to most of Wright's ideas for the building, there were a few places where they had no choice but to compromise. One was that Wright hated the idea of cords on a desk. So in Price's private office on the 19th floor, Wright installed a hanging lamp. Another was that Price insisted he have a world map in his office, since he frequently discussed his company's global operations with clients. Wright refused to allow a map on the wall, so they agreed on a large globe. The architect got the last laugh: the globe was installed behind the office door.
Today, Price Tower is accessible to anyone who makes the journey to Bartlesville. It has a functioning museum and library -- available to architecture students -- as well as a 15th-floor bar with stunning views of the Great Plains. But perhaps the best way to experience Price Tower is to stay in the hotel that has lovely rooms from the 7th through the 13th floors. Though the rooms weren't designed by Wright, there can be little doubt when you step into one that they were done with his design aesthetic in mind: clean lines everywhere, sharp angles, and plenty of natural light.
For any Wright fan, or anyone who loves great architecture, a visit to Bartlesville, and to Wright's one of a kind skyscraper, is worth the trip. Especially if you like triangles.
Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.