Price Tower: All American Champion
Price Tower; Photo: Aaron Betsky
When I looked down from my 10th-floor room in the Price Tower, I could follow the street next to this 19-floor high Frank Lloyd Wright “skyscraper” as it sloped down six blocks past brick buildings of one to two stories, before it ended in front of a small baseball stadium. Beyond that manicured field, a curving line of trees indicated a stream, and then there were fields fading off into Kansas, framed only by the receding cliffs of Oklahoma. The view was a particular one, for in reality Bartlesville, Okla., sprawls out like every American city and town, into developments and sub-developments, shopping malls and strip malls, fast food restaurants and generic office buildings. Only the remaining oil pump, seesawing up and down in the scrubby landscape, denotes the particular location and the reason why Bartlesville could afford a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.
Price Tower is a monument to American’s natural resources as much as its real skyscrapers and its grain silos, those vertical containers of wealth gleaned from the land and condensed in one place. It is its very exuberance that makes it so American, rather than the particular ornament or materials Wright used. H.C. Price was not an oilman strictly speaking, but an engineer who helped develop electronic welding, and thus made the drilling and moving of oil a lot easier. He surfed the Oklahoma and Texas oil boom to great riches, sent his sons to Oklahoma University, and then acquiesced when one of them, Joe Price, suggested hiring the head of that school’s architecture program, Bruce Goff, to design what he had originally thought would be a modest headquarters. Goff was too busy and recommended his mentor, Wright. The octogenarian architect came down from Chicago in 1952, and saw a chance to plunk down the skyscraper he had designed for St. Marks Place in New York before the War. It wound up costing more than twice what he claimed it would, and the employees hated the cramped quarters and uncomfortable chairs he produced in his desire to create a singular, organic structure, but the Price Tower has outlasted the company Price founded and even local energy giant Philips Petroleum to become Bartlesville’s pride and joy, its focal point and landmark.
The weekend I stayed in one of the nineteen rooms in the Price Tower Arts Center, as the building is now called, there was a local arts fair. From my window I watched the local kids show off their gymnastics and karate chops, while wizened old musicians played Mustang Sally and Proud Mary, and local inhabitants browsed the predictably horrible local crafts products. From my fly-in, look-down perspective, there was nothing particular about this place, but for a few hours and in the little space that was downtown, the community came together and made sense.
Price Tower is, of course, a beautiful building. Despite the loss of the original programs of retail, apartments, and offices, despite the parking lots all around it, and despite the fact that it is an extremely inefficient building in general, the intricacy of its intersecting geometries, which become evident only as you move around it, the way it balances on its podium and reaches out in cantilevers from its three elevator shafts, and the manner in which the decoration’s geometry echoes the structure’s overall shape, give evidence of Wright’s great skill.
What interested me more than the bravura act of integrated design was the way in which the building did or did not fit into both the human and the natural landscape. At first it appeared alien as an object and I wondered about Bartlesville, an erstwhile boomtown that has long since lost much of its raison d’etre. Certainly Price Tower has no direct connection to its site (the guides like to call it “the tree that escaped the forest” because it was designed to nestle in with Manhattan’s skyscrapers and rose up instead in the Plains), and Bartlesville’s components seem generic. Yet the very exuberance of gesture and design, the very exultation of wealth in resources and in human hands that usually remains hidden, and the way this tower rises up from its small fraction of the Jeffersonian grid stands, and stands tall, as an example of what American architecture can be at its most optimistic, its most grandiose, and its most beautiful.