A Night at the Price: Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Tree” on the Prairie

While visiting family in the Texas Panhandle and Western Oklahoma I saw a promotional poster for “The Tree That Escaped the Crowded Forest”: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower, his only completed skyscraper, located in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Being just a few hours away and realizing this week would be the anniversary of his birth (June 8), I called in and made a reservation to stay the night in one of the original apartments but did not know what to expect from a Frank Lloyd Wright tower in what seemed to me the middle of nowhere.

I knew Zaha Hadid designed an expansion to the building that was never realized, and I had listened to MoMA’s architecture curator Barry Bergdoll mention the tower in a lecture when talking about Wright’s lifelong tension between “whether he wanted to de-urbanize or take on the technological challenge of creating tall buildings.” I also knew the “Tree” nickname came from an earlier design intended for St. Mark’s in New York City with interlocking towers but that this tree had escaped the “forest” of Manhattan for the prairies north of Tulsa.

As I drove up to the tower, I saw that Bartlesville had inevitably grown and other buildings nearby now rival the Price in height. From a distance, it looks like a standard mid-rise you might find in any city’s downtown area, but the closer you get, the more unusual details begin to emerge.

Copper platings built into the building’s framework line each floor, the patina faded into a green that references the vast fields surrounding Bartlesville. Balconies and louvers jut out on every side in different configurations so that it changes as you circle around, and walking up you start to see unmistakeable engravings in the copper that signal a Wright design.

A Walt Whitman quote greets visitors in the main lobby, followed by a stunning mural next to the reception desk created by apprentices at Taliesin West with the colors of the prairie. I took some time to see the Arts Center’s new exhibit on Charles Schultz’s Peanuts and then started the tour with two visiting families, whose kids I suspect were more drawn by Snoopy than a love of Modernism.

We learned that Price commissioned Wright to build a new four-story headquarters for his company. Wright countered with a proposal for a 22-story mixed-use building. They settled on 19. From the beginning, “Tree” was not just a nickname, but a crucial design influence. The elevator shafts at the center of the building form a trunk from which triangular cantilevered rooms branch out, and the top three floors become successively smaller than the bottom 16. To make sure the point gets across, triangles can be found everywhere, from floor plans to light fixtures.

We packed into the tiny elevators and headed up to the apartment intended for the Price family, which — aside from the original built-ins, appliances and Wright-designed flatware — was almost identical to my own room. A cramped hallway gives way into a living and dining area where automatic curtains pull back to reveal two-story floor-to-ceiling windows, with views out onto miles of green landscape and little else.

A narrow, twisted stairway leads up to the lofted bedroom above the living room, from where you can look out at the upper half of the windows and down onto the small dining area below. It was a stunning view, but even with the openness of the room’s windowed corner, I kept wondering who in Bartlesville would have ever wanted to fit into these tight, angular quarters with so much space outside.

Indeed, the Prices did not. Hal Price, who commissioned the building, never resided in the tower. He and his wife kept the apartment for guests and special events. It was Price headquarters, though, and Mr. Price’s offices and boardroom occupied the upper levels. The tower feels like a strange fit for Bartlesville, but especially as a company headquarters: Price’s secretary was jammed into an odd corner, with her back to the outside staircase and no storage space; the boardroom could fit maybe seven people at a maximum.

But evidence as to the reason why is everywhere: Mr. Price was one of the very few clients who let Frank Lloyd Wright do pretty much whatever he wanted. Copies of correspondence between the two reveals friends joking, not the contentious client relationships that mark almost all of his other projects in some way. In one letter, Wright sends a photo of him and Olgivanna in a new golf cart Price sent them, thanking him for finally “ … putting us in the multimillion class at last … It is [the] prettiest little eclectic surry you’ve ever seen.” Most telling is the gorgeous mural Wright painted in the apartment; titled Once in a Blue Moon, a reference to how often he had such easy clients.

Seeing these intimate correspondences and Wright’s eccentric designs even more uninhibited than usual was fascinating, but I could not shake the feeling that I didn’t understand what the Tower had to do with Bartlesville. That night, I headed up to the 15th floor where two local country singers, Chloe Johns and Erin O’Dowd, had come up from Tulsa and set up to play sets of their original songs in the Copper Bar. Being from West Texas I’ve heard my share of local country and honky-tonk acts, but never while having a martini and sitting in a chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was the best country act I’d ever seen.

The next morning, I woke up in the room completely overwhelmed by the light that flooded in and the fact that I could see almost all the way to Kansas from my pillow. I remembered that Bergdoll had said he understood something about Wright when he woke up at the Price tower: that “ … he’s obsessed with the skyscraper as an object from which the people inside of it will not see any other buildings.” I grew up surrounded by vast prairie landscapes and wanting something different, so their beauty is usually lost on me, but looking out at the prairie from that room made it seem new and invigorating in a way I had never thought of before.

In many ways, the Price tower does feel like a piece of Manhattan awkwardly plopped down in the middle of Oklahoma. The more I tried to focus on the building itself, the less sense it made to me. But, the more I let Wright and the Price Tower guide my eyes, the more I saw things very familiar to me from a completely new perspective.