News & Events
Discover Mid-America March 2007
Creativity celebrated at Price Tower Arts Center
by Bruce Rodgers
Architecture, for most of us, is just the process of whatever is done to build something we either live in or work in. The sheer size of the outcome, as compared to a painting or piece of pottery, tends to diminish our interest in how it was created.
But if those of us who are surrounded by architecture, yet know little about it, were asked to name an architect, the name Frank Lloyd Wright would be the name we know.
During his 70-year career, Wright built 532 homes, museums and office buildings. Four hundred still stand. One is the 19-story Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, OK, a vertical and narrow building — just 46 feet wide and perhaps the reason why the structure is referred to as a “tower.”
Completed in 1956, just three years before Wright’s death, the Price Tower was designated by the American Institute of Architects — among 17 of Wright’s buildings — “as an example of his architectural contribution to American culture.”
Saved from possible demolition by townspeople, it now is an arts center, and home to a boutique hotel and upscale restaurant.
The Bartlesville connection
Back in 1873, Jacob Bartles opened a flourmill and general store in northeast Oklahoma that was then home to mostly Osage, Cherokee and Delaware tribes. For a few decades, Bartlesville grew slowly in Indian Territory.
Things changed dramatically in 1897. The Nellie Johnson No. 1 blew a gusher and the oil rush was on. By 1915, 150 oil companies were based in Bartlesville.
“It was the largest oil producing area outside of the Middle East,” said Scott Perkins, curator of collections and exhibitions at Price Tower.
“We had near 50,000 people in Bartlesville at the time,” added Jennifer Cordero, director of marketing for Price Tower. Cordero was born and raised in Bartlesville. With the oil boom gone, the town now has about 35,000 residents said Cordero.
Two brothers, Frank and L.E. Phillips, raised on an Iowa farm, came to Bartlesville in 1904. They hit a gusher north of town, followed by 80 straight oil-producing wells. In 1917, Phillips Petroleum Company was founded, becoming Bartlesville largest employer and one of the nation’s biggest oil companies.
In 1915, Harold C. Price came to Bartlesville. A chemist, Price perfected ways to prevent corrosion in oil tanks and pipelines. Price founded an international company that built pipelines. As an entrepreneur, risk-taking came natural to Price.
In 1952, Price commissioned Wright to build a company headquarters that would “combine office, retail and residential environments in the same design,” wrote Perkins in “Wright Restored,” a brochure detailing later restoration to interior space at Price Tower. The 19-story building would have an adjacent a 2-story wing.
At the time, Wright was in his 80s. He had a well-established celebrity status, particularly after appearing on the cover of Time in early 1938. Wright gave interviews, appeared on radio, film and TV in addition to designing buildings. He was often quoted as wanting to be “the greatest architect of all time.” Wright’s talent at self-promotion likely influenced Price’s interest in him.
“Depending upon whom you asked, he was the nicest guy in the world or the worst architect in the world to work with,” said Perkins.
“I think he had a way about him to make people interested in his work. He had no problems attracting clients, even during periods of his life when he had such bad publicity around his personal life or his financial situation. People still came to him.”
As Wright worked on the Price building, he was also involved in other projects, including designing the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Guggenheim’s circular or “cellular composition,” as Wright called it, contrasts with the Price Tower triangular dominance.
Part of the skyline
The original budget in 1952 for the Price building was $750,000 said Perkins. By the time it opened in 1956, the cost was $2.1 million. He won’t venture a guess as to what it would cost in 2007 dollars to put up a similar building.
“There’s building code issues now,” Perkins said. “We only have one staircase and don’t have sprinklers and all that comes into play now. We’re not ADA (disabled) accessible to the standards that we need to be.”
Though a New York Times writer describe the town’s reception to the new building as being “embraced locally like a slightly batty relative,” Perkins and Cordero don’t necessarily agree.
“We loved it. There were about 19,000 people living here at the time and we had about 13,000 visit us the first three days it was open,” said Perkins. He said the line stretched for blocks.
“I think because it took almost three years to build, there was a curiosity factor behind what this thing would look like inside and there was a lot of press, a lot of promotion about it — it was the tallest thing in town.”
Cordero said Price Tower has influenced the design of other buildings in Bartlesville. An example is a Phillips Petroleum building that was constructed in the late 1980s that used copper panels (similar to Price Tower) on the exterior.
The Price Tower became the corporate icon for the company. Professionals, including dentists and optometrists, leased office and retail space. However, the residential aspect — eight apartments — of the building never got popular despite a separate entrance and dedicated elevator for apartment tenants.
“It never really rented well because you’re basically training someone to use the building,” said Perkins. “In Bartlesville, you’re use to living in a two-story building and suddenly you’re giving up everything you own because everything is built in and moving into a tall building with no yard, no garage, no closets and charging $300 a month back in the 1950s.”
Wright’s design of the interior could be challenging. Despite relatively spacious living areas, the kitchens were designed for one person — a norm for the 1950s — the corridors narrow and rooms angular-shaped. Furniture, including desks, shelving, cabinets, tables and sofas were all built-in. The narrow doors and small elevators made it difficult to furnish the area with items brought in. The apartments could accommodate one or two people but not a family with children.
Perkins and Cordero admit that Wright wanted to control his clients with his interior design. “Making these (entry) spaces so small that you can’t get conventional furniture in them,” said Perkins.
But there is the view. “The nice thing about it is that everywhere you look you have a beautiful view. So the view was the intended marketing tool.”
Price Tower did manage to attract one long-term tenant. Not surprisingly it was another architect.
Bruce Goff was said to be as “fearless” in his approach to architecture as Wright. Considered a child prodigy, Goth apprenticed to a Tulsa architectural firm when he was twelve. He remained classically unschooled nevertheless Goth was appointed head of the Architecture Department at the University of Oklahoma. He died in 1982.
The Price Tower Arts Center has a large body of Goff’s work He was a Price family friend. Joe Price, son of Harold C., was quoted in the 2003 New York Times article as saying, “Bruce always becomes his client. It was almost like speaking to a mirror. He creates what the client would create for himself had he been a great architect.”
Price bequeathed a collection of Goff materials to the Arts Center, from paintings on plastic rendered with a toothbrush to 7.000 albums. Many of Goff’s work, including architectural drawings, are housed in the Architectural Study Center at Price Tower.
“We do a large exhibit of his probably every 18 months and put together a show,” said Perkins.
“He had a big presence in Bartlesville, probably a larger presence than Wright. He has nine houses here, one public building which is a church, and he built the park structures.”
Wright’s design for the Price Tower in Bartlesville wasn’t unique to the town. The design was adapted from an un-built high-rise for St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in Manhattan. Lack of financing prevented the building from ever going up.
Wright compared the tower to a tree and nicknamed the Price Tower “the tree that escaped the crowded forest.” Some have called the design part of Wright’s “futuristic fantasy” to counter the anticipated suburban sprawl where the skyscraper would leave nature relatively undisturbed.
“The four elevator shafts essentially form the truck of the building,” explained Perkins. “Think of that as the trunk and all these floors coming off, which are cantilevered (supported only at one end) — there’s no structural support going out to the perimeter of the building — so they are going up like tree branches.
“They actually get thinner as they go out to the edges too. The floor depth at the elevator shaft is deep then tapers off to the ends; then, you have the leaves, which are the (outside) copper panels. There’s a nice metaphor there.”
The copper panels on the 16th floor, where the Copper Restaurant & Bar is located, function as a windscreen for the terrace. Everywhere else on the building the panels or louvers act as sun shades rather than functioning shutters.
In “Wright Restored,” Perkins notes that “interiors of the Price Tower were primarily drawn from the building itself: copper, aluminum, Philippine mahogany and glass. These, in turn, were used against a background of buff-colored reinforced concrete walls and in union with the ‘Cherokee Red’ pigmented concrete floors, incised in a grid system…”
The grid pattern is based on the triangle. “The light fixtures, the grills, even the columns on the walls are all triangular. That’s Wright’s design, a lot of his buildings have this sort of geometric grid to them,” said Perkins. “All the furniture is cut on the same angles so everything is relating to a triangle. We have very few straight corners, very few right angles.
“The tower essentially centers on this grid with diamonds (triangles) sort of spinning off in different directions from that point. It’s really designed to bring you to the center of the building.”
Restoration work has been done to the two-level Price Company Corporate Apartment on the 17th and 18th floors, also to Harold Price’s 19th floor corporate office. Complete restoration is still years to come but tours to the apartment and office can be arranged.
“To reminisce, take the elevator up to 1956,” writes Perkins in “Wright Restored.”
Saved for the future
In 1981, the Price Company sold the building to Phillips Petroleum. In 1984, during the oil crisis, Phillips moved out and the building sat vacant for over a decade. In 2002, after Phillips merged with Conoco, the corporate headquarters was relocated to Houston. With Phillips gone, there were fears the building would be demolished or cannibalized, or taken over by what Perkins calls a “developer mentality.”
But Cordero said the energy that the town experienced when Price Tower opened in 1956 helped save the building.
“Fortunately, a group of volunteers formed in town that wanted to help save this building because they knew how important it was to body of Wright’s work, and also the history of Bartlesville,” said Cordero.
The group spoke with Phillips and persuaded the company to donate the building and city block to a newly formed nonprofit organization, which is Price Tower Arts Center.
Price Tower is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. The landmark draws architectural students and scholars from regional universities wanting to further their studies. And Perkins said the building is the “perfect math problem” for kids, K through 12, interested in geometry.
Within three years, the nonprofit Price Tower will start a $30 million fundraiser effort for new buildings. The need is for new exhibition space, storage space and to expand the Architecture Study Center. A model of the planned expansion is displayed near the current Study Center.
“We like it to be a conduit, to make our collections as open as possible to the public, as accessible as possible,” said Kay Johnson, manager of the Architectural Study Center.
Zaha Hadid, an internationally respected architect known for cantilevered, angular design, has been hired to build the expansion.
It seems fitting that the genius of Raymond Loewy would be in the presence of the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture brings together 125 objects designed by what some consider the greatest industrial designer of the 20th century to Price Tower Arts Center.
His creativity seems ubiquitous within American culture from the 1930s through the 1960s, from cigarette packaging, kitchen appliances, train and automobile design to corporate logos.
The exhibition is on display through March 4. For more information on this exhibit and future exhibitions, call 918-336-4949 or visit www.pricetower.org.
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