Bartlesville Stories and Tips

More on the History of the Price Tower

Price Tower Arts Center Photo, Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Opened in 1956, the Price Tower is arguably one of Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest architectural achievements. The tower is his tallest constructed building and was described by Wright as a "tree that escaped the crowded forest" because the tower dominates the small town skyline of Bartlesville like a tall tree in the middle of a treeless prairie. This amazing structure was based on an earlier design for a mixed-use office and apartment tower conceived for New York City that was never built. When Harold C. Price, founder of Bartlesville's HC Price Company, was looking to build a new headquarters building for his firm, his son convinced him to commission Wright to design the building. Initially Price envisioned a two- or three-story office building. But Frank Lloyd Wright had a different vision in mind. Instead, Wright recycled and updated his design for the never-built St. Mark's in the Bowery building and then convinced Price to build a tower instead. This was not a unique experience; toward the end of Wright's career a number of earlier designs he considered significant that had not been built were adapted and sold to new commissions. Fortunately, for all of us Wright fans, the famed architect was able to convince Price to expand his vision for a new headquarters building and build the tower. HC Price was so sold on the idea that the budget for the new headquarters building was greatly increased in order to cover the incredible expense of building Wright's design. At the time of its construction, the Price Tower was one of the most expensive buildings ever built on a cost per square foot basis. Like all of Wright's other buildings, all of the interior furnishings were custom-designed and manufactured specifically for the tower. However, because of the building's tiny elevators, much of the furniture had to be either lifted by crane into the the building before the exterior was completed or constructed in place on each floor.

The tower is constructed of reinforced concrete cantilevered from a central core. All of the tower's support is provided by the four elevator shafts in the center of the building, with the exterior copper and glass elements suspended from the concrete floors. This cantilevered design is evident from the tower's southwest corner. Standing outside of the building, you can see that the soutwest corner of the tower has nothing under it but air! Copper louvers on the exterior of the building shade the gold-tinted windows and provide much of the tower's distinctive facade. Wright's concept for the building always included the copper having been weathered to a deep green color, so at the time of construction, the exterior copper elements were chemically treated to "age" them. Legend has it that Frank Lloyd Wright knew he would not live long enough to see the copper weather to the green color he envisioned, so he had the construction crews chemically alter the copper before installation so that he would be able to see his masterpiece as he envisioned it.

Besides its unusual design and stunning artistic features, the Price Tower was a landmark concept in the way it combined office and residential space. Each floor of the tower was designed to house offices and one residential apartment. At the time the tower opened, the Price Company occupied much of the office space. The apartments were rented to local residents, although residents often found the design and built-in furniture difficult to live with. On the lower floors, other businesses, including a dress and beauty shop, and a local utility company, leased space from the Price Company. Over the years the Price Company grew to need additional space and took over all of the tower. Eventually the Price Company moved its headquarters from Bartlesville, and the tower was sold to Phillips Petroleum, also based in Bartlesville. Phillips also used the building for office space but found that Wright's design was not suited to the needs of a modern corporation, and eventually the building fell into the unglamorous role of being used for file storage. However, a concerned group of Bartlesville residents formed a non-profit foundation to preserve Wright's masterpiece and install an art museum in the building's lower floors. Eventually the Phillips Corporation donated the tower to this group and the Price Tower Arts Center was born.

Today the tower is operated as a historical landmark, art museum, restaurant, and hotel. In 2003 a renovation of some of the upper floors turned a number of the original apartment and office spaces into the Inn at Price Tower, featuring 21 guest rooms and suites, and Copper Restaurant+Bar (see review in this journal), an upscale restaurant and bar. The renovated areas feature a modern design that is integrated very well with Wright's original designs, and great care was taken not to alter the building's floor plan and layout except when absolutely necessary. Just as the original apartments and offices featured furniture designed specifically for them by Frank Lloyd Wright, furnishings for the hotel rooms and restaurants were all custom-designed to fit into the original elements of the building and were built on site. The new furnishings are very effective in complimenting, but not detracting from, Wright's original architectural elements. In addition to the hotel and restaurant, guided tours of the tower are given six days a week. There is also a permanent exhibit featuring original pieces of furniture from the building and the Price family's Bartlesville home (also designed by Wright but not publicly accessible), a gift shop, and an exhibition area with rotating and traveling art exhibitions.

While the Price Tower is seemingly out of place in a relatively small city like Bartlesville, its location may have been its saving grace. Had the tower been constructed in New York as originally envisioned, it very likely might have fallen victim to the wrecking ball at some point due to the structure's odd and inflexible design. However, by being built in Bartlesville, where land is not at a premium, when the tower began to exceed its useful life, it was left virtually deserted rather than being torn down. And for people like me who greatly admire Frank Lloyd Wright's work, it is a unique treasure definitely worth making a trip to visit.

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