Design to Construction

Frank Lloyd Wright built Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, commissioned by Harold C. Price, founder of H.C. Price Company. Completed in 1956, the 19-story building was based on a design originally conceived for St. Mark's in the Bowery in New York City, but once built on the prairie, Wright called this skyscraper "the tree that escaped the crowded forest." Lavish in its materials and detailing, the Price Tower is Wright's tallest built project, and takes its place with the celebrated S.C. Johnson Wax Research Tower as one of his two vertical structures. The 221-foot-tall Price Tower is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the American Institute of Architects' seventeen most significant examples of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture. It has also received the AIA's Twenty-Five Year Award.

The Tower isn't just a beautiful building. It is also an astounding architectural and engineering achievement. Frank Lloyd Wright's ideas on urban planning were based on a central tower that could be built just about anywhere, regardless of weather or terrain, to "seed" the development of urban communities across a nation that was still in the early 20th century relatively underdeveloped.

 

How it Works

Wright, more than other architects of his time, explored the engineering technique known as "cantilevering," in which great sections of a building can be suspended without supporting columns or pillars around the sides. Conventional buildings had strong columns or walls distributed around the outside of the structure and throughout the interior.

The columns or walls supported the floors. The large amount of materials required to support the weight of a tall building using this construction method placed a limitation on safe building height.

In Wright's design for a tower, he combined cantilevered floors with what is called "taproot" design. Borrowing from nature, Wright understood that a building's floors and outer walls could be held aloft in the same way that a tree raises it branches and leaves - with a trunk-anchored in place by a deep, central foundation, or "taproot". The tower's trunk consists of an inner concrete and steel core - actually four of them - that also serve as the elevator shafts. Cantilevered out from this central core are the tower's 19 floors.

Wright's breakthrough design also helped establish another earlier innovation in high rise design: the "curtain wall." Rather than the building being held up by its walls, it is held up by its inner "trunk," and the lightweight outer walls could be suspended from the floors, essentially hanging on the building's branches like leaves. Lightweight walls on cantilevered floors presented a way to build higher using less material, lowering construction cost and opening vast new possibilities for the designer's imagination.

Wright's taproot foundation technique, combined with the idea of a central supporting core, like a tree trunk, and curtain wall, makes lightweight exterior construction possible. The Price Tower represents the realization of these ingenious engineering concepts in the 1950s, long after Wright had first proposed them in the 1920s. After 30 years of seeing his ideas adopted by other architects, Wright finally got to build the structure he had been the first to conceive.

 

The Price Tower: A Chronology

1929 Frank Lloyd Wright designs a group of four towers for St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, in New York City. The proposed skyscrapers feature an abstract geometric "pinwheel" plan and an innovative "tap root" structure, with the floors cantilevered off a vertical core. The project is not built.

1935 Wright completes construction of a model for a proposed ideal community, Broadacre City, and exhibits it in New York, at Rockefeller Center. The project removes the skyscraper from the congestion of the city, bringing it into the freedom of the open landscape.

1952 Harold C. Price, founder of the H.C. Price Company, a builder of oil and gas pipelines, begins to consider the construction of a new headquarters building in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. He acquires a site at Sixth Street and Dewey Avenue. His sons Harold C., Jr. and Joe suggest that he consider giving the commission to Frank Lloyd Wright - a recommendation made to them by architect Bruce Goff, whom they know from the University of Oklahoma.

April: Harold Price speaks with Wright on the phone and outlines the proposal for a three - or four-story building for his comany, with 8,000 square feet on each floor. June: The Price family visits Wright in Wisconsin, at Taliesin, to discuss the proposal. Wright argues for the construction of a skyscraper.

August: Harold Price sends Wright the summary program for the building, which will include office space for H.C. Price Company; the Public Service Company of Oklahoma; and offices and apartments, which Price hopes to rent to offset the cost of the building.

September: Wright completes preliminary sketches, drawing on his earlier designs for St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie.

1953 April: Wright sends Price the completed plans, as well as an article on the building for Architectural Forum. Contractors submit bids.

May: Wright exhibits a model of Price Tower at the International Petroleum Exposition in Tulsa. (The model subsequently travels to the New York Usonian Exhibition Pavilion, on the site where the Guggenheim Museum will rise.) Site preparation begins in Bartlesville for the Price Tower.

June: Price hires Culwell Construction Company, Oklahoma City. The construction contract sets the cost of the building at $1.25 million, exclusive of Wright's fee.

July-October: Wright works on revising the design.

November: Construction begins.

1954 April: Wright's furniture specifications are ready for the manufacturer.

May: Wright reviews specifications of materials and colors for the elevators.

August: Wright delivers furniture layout plans for offices and apartments.

1955 January: The tower is topped off with construction of the nineteenth floor.

February: Windows and doors are being installed.

April: Wright delivers specifications for Harold Price, Sr.'s desk, a dining room table, ventilation in ceilings, light needle on top of tower and dishwasher installation in apartment kitchens. He specifies an aluminum edge for all furniture.

June: Under Wright's supervision, and with Mary Lou Price's co-ordination, a model apartment is furnished.

September: Wright reviews the final specifications for desks and chairs. Installation of the louvers has proceeded halfway down the apartments on the building's north side.

December: Harold Price, Sr.'s office is finished with the exception of its glass mural. Price asks Wright to complete his specifications for the details of the building's entrance. Wright designs car stops for the parking spaces.

1956 January 2: The H.C. Price Company moves into the Price Tower.

February 10: Dedication of the Price Tower, followed by three days of free tours for the public.

June: The Price family visits Wright at Taliesin for his birthday.

1959 March 16: Frank Lloyd Wright dies.

1962 January 28: Harold C. Price, Sr. dies.

1974 The National Register of Historic Places lists the Price Tower.

1981 The H.C. Price Company relocates to Dallas, Texas. Phillips Petroleum Company purchases the Price Tower.

1983 The American Institute of Architects confers its Twenty-Five Year Award on the Price Tower.

1990 Phillips Petroleum Company makes space available in the Price Tower for the Bartlesville Museum.

1998 The Bartlesville Museum is reorganized as Price Tower Arts Center.

2000 Phillips Petroleum Company refurbishes the Price Tower.

2001 Phillips Petroleum Company donates the Price Tower to Price Tower Arts Center under the leadership of C.J. Silas, former Chairman of Phillips.

2002-03 Price Tower Arts Center commissions architect Wendy Evans Joseph to remodel eight floors of the tower into Inn at Price Tower and a restaurant-bar, Copper. The Arts Center selects architect Zaha Hadid to design a new museum facility adjacent to Price Tower.

2005-6 Price Tower Arts Center organizes and circulates the exhibition Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower on the occasion of the building's 50th anniversary.

2007 April 4 The Price Tower is designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne.