To mark the 50th anniversary of Wright’s Price Tower in 2006, the Arts Center presented a major exhibition, Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower, from October 14, 2005 to January 15, 2006, with a subsequent three-city tour to Yale University, the National Building Museum in Washington D.C and the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

Organized by Price Tower Arts Center with assistance from the Buell family of Bartlesville and The Henry Luce Foundation, the exhibition examines the evolution of Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of the modern office building from the Larkin Building and Johnson Wax Administration Building and Research Tower to the Price Tower itself. The design of the Price Tower developed from the 1920s skyscraper for New York City. It was developed in the twenties as a component of St. Marks in the Bowery, and finally emerged as a multi-use high-rise for commercial office, retail and residential purposes for the H.C. Price Company, finished in 1956.

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.

Price Company

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 served as the corporate headquarters for the H.C. Price Pipeline Company. The H.C. Price Pipeline Company began when Harold (Hal) Charles Price, Sr. founded an electric welding business in Bartlesville, Oklahoma during the late 1920’s. The company specialized in field welding of oil storage tanks. In conjunction with this operation, Hal Price was responsible for many innovations in electric welding including the first practical application of electric welding in pipeline construction. Over the years, Price grew from a welding subcontracting business into a major cross-country pipeline contractor.

H.C. Price was instrumental in the development of modern pipeline construction techniques used world wide to this day, such as:

  • Developed use of electrical welding of pipelines, the use of removable back up rings for use during welding, and the so called “stove pipe” method of pipeline assembly.
  • Developed and pioneered the use of pipe coatings for protections against corrosion and for buoyancy control.
  • Constructed the first “Big Inch” pipeline, during WWII in the Continental US.
  • Constructed the first Arctic pipeline in North America, during WWII, in the NW Territories, CA.
  • Constructed many major pipeline systems in northern Africa, the Middle East, and Iran during the 1970’s.
  • Constructed Section 3 of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.
  • First to introduce use of mechanized welding in the USA and the first to successfully use it on Duplex stainless steel in Prudhoe Bay in a production mode during bitter winter conditions.

Phillips Petroleum

In the mid 1980s, the Phillips Petroleum Company, now ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66, acquired the historic skyscraper for use as office space. In 1990, a group of community volunteers with the desire to make full use of Wright’s Tower established a civic art museum located on the first and second floors.

After Phillips Petroleum vacated the building, the museum continued to operate as the sole tenant in an otherwise abandoned landmark. In 1998, the group reorganized as Price Tower Arts Center and committed themselves to launch a capital campaign to acquire, rehabilitate and revitalize Wright’s legacy. Phillips Petroleum gave its generous assistance by refurbishing the Price Tower and then donating it and the surrounding city block to the Arts Center in 2001.

 

The Next Landmark

Housed in the tallest structure built by Frank Lloyd Wright, a pre-eminent architect of the 20th century, Price Tower Arts Center is planning a building by a great architect of the 21st century. Internationally acclaimed, London-based Zaha Hadid has delivered her preliminary concepts for a new museum facility for the Arts Center, to be built adjacent to its current home in Wright’s masterpiece. This is the second project accepted by her firm in all of North America. (A capital campaign for this project is not yet underway and a projected completion date has not yet been set.)

Creating an Architectural Campus for Bartlesville and Oklahoma, in creating designs for Price Tower Arts Center, Hadid considered how a new facility might enhance and energize downtown Bartlesville. The area already has the makings of an engaging campus, given the presence of Price Tower, a performing arts center designed by William Wesley Peters of Taliesin Architects, and the public library. Unfortunately, though, this area as a whole is chopped up by an unnecessarily uniform street grid and by massive parking lots, with large areas of leftover space.

“We have the enormous privilege and responsibility of working within a signal building of the past century,” says Laura Riley, Interim Executive Director of Price Tower Arts Center (from 2001-2006). “Through our expansion program, we expect to create for Bartlesville and Oklahoma a destination for learning and experiencing art, architecture and design.”

Zaha Hadid

How might this site and a new building respond to one another? To answer that question, Hadid made studies that overlaid the existing street grid with a different set of lines: those seen in the plan for Wright’s Price Tower. The result was a fresh, geometric pattern that bends around Price Tower, connecting it to the library and performing arts center and suggesting new uses for the areas around the site. The outlines of the new museum building developed out of this dynamic new urban fabric.

As part of the design work, associates at Zaha Hadid’s office had discussions with civic and community groups and representatives of neighboring institutions and businesses, to develop realizable plans for the use of the envisioned architectural campus. Hadid experimented with various proportions for the new museum building, to ensure that it will hold its own with Price Tower and yet not compete with it. Among other issues addressed by initial designs are the way to relate the entrance of the new building to Price Tower; changing traffic patterns in the area; and creating new uses for the urban spaces that the museum building will generate.

Zaha Hadid…“No Living Rival” Born in Baghdad, Iraq, and educated in London at the Architectural Association, Zaha Hadid worked with the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) before establishing her own practice in 1979. Writing of her work in The New York Times, respected architecture critic Herbert Muschamp stated, “As a pure virtuoso of design, she has no living rival.” Zaha was the 2004 Pritzker Prize Laureate for her impact on contemporary architecture.

The launch of a major new facility capitalizes on the momentum of the completed conversion of a portion of the Frank Lloyd Wright building into an intimate, luxurious hotel, Inn at Price Tower, and an elegant restaurant-bar, Copper. The redesign of the interiors was carried out by acclaimed architect Wendy Evans Joseph, in association with architect-of-record Scott K. Ambler of Ambler Architects in Bartlesville.

“Through these projects, Price Tower Arts Center is evolving into a remarkable cultural destination,” says Richard P. Townsend. “Within a wholly unique campus, the Arts Center offers important collections of architecture and design, ambitious exhibitions relating to art and architecture, and – most extraordinary of all – the opportunity not only to visit a great Frank Lloyd Wright building but to stay in it.”