Friday, July 1, 2011

Road Report: I Slept With Frank Lloyd Wright

We were on our way home and we needed one night's lodging.
I had to pick a town and a place to stay.

Hmm, what might prove interesting?

There had been 26 people at our family reunion back in Branson, Missouri, but it was my brother who saw me with my head in the road atlas and made the best suggestion.

"Did you know there's a hotel in the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma?"

The Price Tower!

Back Story
Settle yourself into a time machine for just a minute. We're headed to the 1950s.

It's just before the arrival of Buddy Holly and Elvis. Your name is Harold C. Price Sr. and you live in a smallish city in northeast corner of Oklahoma where you own an oil pipeline company and are sitting on personal fortune. In a state where oil has made a few men almost overnight millionaires, you're practically rolling in greenbacks. So what are you going to do with your new-found wealth?

You decide to ask America's most famous living architect to design your home. And why stop there? You ask him to design a high-rise building for your pipeline company as well.

The architect steps in and does the work in his usual fashion. Singular. Memorable. With control of detail right down to designing the carpets, stair rails, grates over the heating vents, and the ceiling lights.

Lobby ceiling with quote from Whitman on the wall.

The aging architect (right)
looking over plans with client Harold Price.

It's all of a piece.

It all goes together.

It bears his inimitable stamp.

This is a building by




Of Trees and Buildings That Scrape the Sky
The Price Tower opened in 1956. Seventeen thousand people lined up over three days for tours. No one had seen anything like it. After all, America had slipped into the age of the smooth sided, unornamented glass tower where symmetry and sleekness were the thing. Everyone was talking about the new U.N. building.

The new architectural champion: straight lines and glass.
Exemplified by NYC's United Nations building.

The Price Tower went against the current architectural grain. There were no right angles. Equilateral triangles abounded, even in the shape of the light covers installed in the ceilings. Copper, which was chemically treated to give it an instant green patina, was everywhere.

The building wasn't about a solid structure to which ornamentation had been applied. No, like a mountain or a sunset, the building itself was the object that entranced the eye.

Another version of "trees" rising from the urban forest,
Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain.
In the end, the Price Tower was the only skyscraper designed by Wright that would ever be constructed. Like Antoni Gaudi who went lavish and wild with his organically inspired Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona (begun in 1882 and still under construction), Wright thought a building should echo the wonders of nature.

He called the Price Tower "the tree that escaped the crowded forest."

Some thought Wright meant by this that his American skyscraper, whose normal domain ought to be in places like New York City and Chicago, had "escaped" to the humble plains of Oklahoma.

The "escaped" tree thus could be said to now rise pristinely, free of the concrete shadows of its less inspired concrete and steel cousins.

More likely Wright meant exactly what he said. He had set out to design a building that drew its inspiration from a literal tree.

Giant Sequoia Tree
by John Tayson (1978)

The Price Tower had floors that "branched" off a central trunk (which held the elevators). And all that deliberately greened copper? It wasn't just an aesthetic whim. Trees have leaves and leaves are green.

In Wright's "tree" people would live and work in in the heart of downtown. They would no longer be divorced from the glories of nature. Their very abode would remind them of the earth.

It is in this very unlikely place with its unlikely building that years later someone came along and turned 21 rooms on the upper floors into one of America's most remarkable hotels.

The Price is Right
Check into the Inn at Price Tower and a friendly gentleman with a stylish beard introduces himself as Art. He asks your names (even the childrens'), shakes everyone's hands, and shows you that the museum and gift shop are right behind the registration desk.

There's great stuff in the museum. The desks and chairs designed by Wright look as if they'd be at home on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Really out there!

But let's face it. What you're most anxious to do is hit the up button on the very weirdly shaped elevator (a tight fit if you have a couple of suitcases with you) and get up to 12th floor, run the card key, and open your room.


The interiors have been designed by Wendy Evans Joseph. Everything is custom-made: the beds, wardrobes, the desk. The carpet and drapes have been designed and woven for the room. Even the triangular, copper trashcan that exactly fits behind the desk leg and weighs about ten pounds is a one-of-a-kind.

Custom desk

Custom chair

Ms. Joseph has taken Wright's tree idea along with a sense of the clean and the spare and translated it through a Japanese bamboo forest filter. There's lots of copper, too, angled like bamboo stalks.

It's all open, large and inviting.

Even Higher
It isn't bedtime yet, so we head to the 15th floor and the Copper Bar.

Hmm. Let's peruse the menus...

The special house drink is the Coppertini.

Coppertini Recipe:

ketel one, amaretto disaronno, grand marnier

My wife has the Caribbean Kiss. I have a chardonnay.

Checking Out
The next morning we took our breakfast on the 16th floor terrace. Muffins and pastries came to us, warm out of the oven. Eggs and sausage, too. And make your own waffles. I forged a relationship with a machine that dispensed either coffee or a decent facsimile of espresso.

The Inn at Price Tower was making it all that more difficult for us to say good-bye. But my son and I still had a few more photos to take.

Our son (age 13) has for some time said that he wants to be an architect when he grows up. I realize, of course, that often other gifts emerge in a person as they mature. I mainly hope he finds a vocation that pleases and satisfies him. Still, I would love for there to be an architect in our family.

A piece of music goes mute once the instruments are put down. A novel only dimly echoes in the mind when the covers are closed. But a building seems to me as close to a living thing as a human artist can construct. It's there 24/7, inviting us in to wander through its spaces, gaze through its portals, perhaps even to lie down and take our rest.

A good building continues to breathe and persist and return to us at dawn. I suppose that's why it seems to be in our nature as a species to keep putting up walls and stacking stones into monuments. May another genius come along to raise us some more. - V.W.


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