Spend the Night With Frank Lloyd Wright - The Price Tower
@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images COURTESY PRICE TOWER ARTS CENTER & INN AT PRICE TOWER
@ photographers: JEFF MILLIES, HEDRICH BLESSING, CHRISTIAN KORAB/KORAB PHOTO & MARC RAINS
Just forty-five miles north of Tulsa, in Oklahoma’s first oil boomtown, stands a work of genius by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Price Tower is in downtown Bartlesville, its copper-clad exterior now a muted turquoise. There are nineteen floors in this cantilevered skyscraper that once served as the headquarters for industrialist Harold Price. And within those nineteen floors are nineteen hotel rooms, each fitted with the kind of organic elegance and efficiency that would have made Wright proud.
The Price Tower, completed in 1956, is the only public Wright building in the country where you can spend the night. It’s a national historic landmark and it’s also been nominated, along with nine other Wright buildings, as a World Heritage Site, a designation bestowed by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization). Already on the list are the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis, and the Great Wall of China.
It is Wright’s control over his buildings that helped catapult his rise to fame. In the Price Tower he designed every piece of furniture, the murals on the walls, even the dinnerware used in the commissary. He had his own line of fabrics produced by the Schumacher Company, found a local Oklahoma sign company to produce the frames for his signature aluminum chairs, and specified the exact color of the pigmented concrete floors he called “Cherokee Red.”
Wright saw the Price Tower as his only true skyscraper, even though he’d designed the Johnson Wax headquarters in Wisconsin in the 1930s, because the Johnson building was not a multi-purpose facility. The 221-foot-tall Price Tower made the grade because it held Price’s oil pipeline company, an office complex where several doctors practiced, a retail center, and apartments. It was as if a city block had been lifted from its moorings and stacked into a pinwheel shaped wonder.
Today, the guest rooms at the restored Inn at Price Tower occupy seven of the nineteen floors. Beds face a bank of glass with a view of the Osage Hills in the distance. Triangular lights glow from the ceiling, built-in sofas jut from the walls, writing desks sit atop sage colored carpets. Even the tile floors in the bathrooms are heated.
Two more floors are devoted to the bar called Copper, where you can also order calamari, bruschetta or sweet potato fries. Sit on the upper level after the sun sets, watch as the sky turns inky blue, and you’ll begin to appreciate the brilliance of Wright, who designed this building when he was well into his eighties.
Don’t leave until you’ve taken the tour of the restored top floors where Harold Price worried out budgets and made deals with the biggest wheelers and dealers of his time. Look past the wood burning fireplace to the balcony where Wright constructed a concrete barrier, just tall enough so that the 5’8” Price wouldn’t have to see the city’s zinc smelter while taking in the view. Go into the corporate apartment where Wright fashioned one of his famous murals, complete with a blue moon, for the man who made this dream of a building come true.
Notice what was important to Wright. It wasn’t the kitchen. It’s barely big enough for one cook. The dining table is anchored to the wall, closets are tiny. But there are shelves everywhere, for books and art brought back from trips to faraway places. These were the things that mattered to Wright. It’s likely all that beauty didn’t give much respite to the secretaries who depended on space heaters when the cold winds blew, or to the tenants who travailed over the tiny elevators, or even to the maintenance crew that battled to keep the building cool in the summer. But the stories they had of living and working in one of about 500 Wright buildings should have been some consolation.
Stay the night, take the tour, and then say a little thank you to Harold Price, a pragmatic businessman who was captivated by the iconic charisma of Wright. Joe Price, Harold’s son, tells the story of his father’s meeting with the great architect. “‘I told Mr. Wright I wanted a three-story building, and he tried to talk me into building ten stories,’” Joe recalled his father telling him. “’So we compromised on nineteen.’”
The compromise created a work of art, albeit an expensive one. Before that first meeting, Price’s budget was $500,000. When the Price Tower was completed in 1956, the cost was more than $2 million, a figure so high it was called the most expensive building per square foot in America.
Long after its heyday, when the Price Tower stood empty in the 1990s, a group of art lovers contacted the then-owners, Phillips Petroleum, and the oil company worked with them to save the masterpiece. It’s a chilling little fact that at that same time there were naysayers who believed the only valuable part of this historic building was its copper façade.
Since then the Price Tower Arts Center has worked to bring art and architecture exhibits to the skyscraper. Nearly 30,000 visitors show up each year to see the Wright’s “Tree That Escaped the Forest,” and every day someone new is introduced to the architect who changed America’s landscape.
Think of that: 30,000 visitors a year in a town of only 36,000. That’s the draw of Frank Lloyd Wright. Isn’t it a stroke of luck that you live within an easy drive of one of the world’s greatest treasures? And isn’t it even luckier that given the inclination, you can spend the night with Frank Lloyd Wright?
For more information log on to pricetower.org/innatpricetower/