Frank Lloyd Wright's Bartlesville Skyscraper Challenges Conventions Of Prairie Architecture
Just 20 miles south of the Oklahoma-Kansas border lies a structure that can’t be missed. The tower draws crowds from around the world and has given a little city a big name.
Bartlesville’s Price Tower is an anomaly. In an oil and gas town filled with short red, orange-and-brown brick buildings, its 19 stories stand tall with green patina copper and cantilevered floors.
“People weren't altogether happy with the building when it was first done,” said Cynthia Naylor, a docent for Price Tower. “It was so different, you know? Nobody had heard of concrete floors inside in those days.
Naylor has sky blue eyes and wispy white hair and she beams with pride when she gives a tour to a couple from Nebraska. Almost everything in the building is different. Right angles are a rarity, and triangles are everywhere from the air vents to the ceiling lights. Some, Naylor says, are “almost idiotic.”
“We have a few cupboards that when you open it, and you expect a square or rectangle, you have a big triangle going back to a point, things that are not that practical maybe,” Naylor said.
People cope with the inconvenience because of the structure’s architect: Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s Wright’s only skyscraper, and it landed in Bartlesville in the 1950s after the Great Depression halted the original plans for a New York City apartment complex. Locals like Shelby Enderlin get a kick out of the unique tower.
“I can go to San Francisco, and I can walk up to them, and say, ‘Well, I'm from a little podunk town and we have a Frank Lloyd Wright skyscraper. What do you have?’ Enderlin said.
Bartlesville businessman Harold C. Price commissioned Wright at the suggestion of Price’s two sons when his pipeline construction company needed to expand.
For decades, Price Tower served as an office space for the business. It even housed corporate offices when Phillips Petroleum was headquartered here.
Enderlin calls the green and tan building – and its history – charming.
“We just love having it here. It's nice having a famous architect be here, and no matter where you go, if they don't know about Bartlesville, they know about Frank Lloyd Wright,” Enderlin said.
“The older we get, the harder basic maintenance is,” said Deshane AtkinsWilliams, the curator for Price Tower Arts Center, the nonprofit that now owns and manages Wright’s building.
The organization took over in 1998 and turned part of the historic space into a restaurant, museum and the hotel that now helps the building stay open. But it’s not easy keeping a Frank Lloyd Wright building afloat.
“There are certain parts of our building that are still original: our boilers, our elevators, all of those,” AtkinsWilliams said. “And unfortunately, as time progress, certain parts aren't being made regularly or they are very expensive.”
The elevators are sevensided and barely fit three people, much less the suitcases. The toilets are tankless and mounted to the walls. Any time one breaks, building supervisor Joseph Wilson gets the call.
“I have to take it off the wall, and it's a pain. I've had to do four in my day, and four is more than enough,” Wilson said.
Despite all the headaches, he admits there’s something magical about Price Tower.
“It's a pain at times. I love it to death, but then again, it's challenging every day of my life,” Wilson said.
He has to love Frank Lloyd Wright in order to work in such a distinctive environment. One of the things that stands out most to him and others working at Price Tower is the sheer reach of the building.
“Wright has such a following that we've had visitors from all over the world who are interested in his work,” Naylor said.
Naylor grew up in Bartlesville and watched Price Tower come to life. Later, she spent more than thirty years in England with her husband and children.
Even on the other side of the world, Naylor says she ran into people familiar with her hometown.
“Price Tower kind of put us on the map. People suddenly discovered that not only did Oklahoma exist, but Bartlesville existed,” Naylor said.
It’s a huge sense of pride for Naylor. Before Frank Lloyd Wright, she says the town was nothing but a small prairie community. And she doesn’t want to think what the town would be like now had the architect not stepped in to help shape the city.
This story is part of Artland, a regional public radio collaboration reporting on stories of creativity building community in unexpected places.