In Oklahoma, a tower shows Wright's mastery of space



Last April, I was sitting in a delightful duplex apartment in Bartlesville, Okla. If things had gone differently, it would have been one of the most prestigious addresses in Washington, D.C., or New York City, known for its "designed by Frank Lloyd Wright" pedigree, and, for those lucky enough to get inside, as a place endowed with a magical ambience.

The apartment is in the Price Tower, once the corporate headquarters for the H.C. Price Co. The tower design was lifted from Wright's 1940 Crystal City project in Washington — an ambitious, 14-tower hotel and apartment complex combined with a shopping mall, a huge cinema, and underground parking. The project was shelved after the developer was unable to get a zoning variance.

rSalant08aThe Washington apartment design was lifted from an even earlier multi-tower scheme Wright had designed in 1929 for St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie in New York City. That project was shelved after the client decided it was too financially risky.

Wright finally got his chance to build at least one tower, in Bartlesville, when Harold C. Price commissioned him to design a new corporate headquarters in 1952. Price envisioned a low-rise structure, but Wright suggested a high-rise, and soon he was adapting his apartment tower design to Price's building program. Each floor still featured the four-quadrant configuration of the original design, but three were designated as office space. The fourth retained his duplex apartment scheme so that every floor of the tower except the highest, which housed Mr. Price's offices, included one level of a duplex apartment.

The Price tower was completed in February 1956 to much fanfare, but Wright's rosy financial projections for cost and potential rents proved to be incorrect. The office space was eventually leased out, but most of the apartments remained empty. Compared to the competition, the units were smaller and the rent higher. But more fundamentally, living in a high-rise building, an appealing prospect in the cities for which it was originally designed, was completely at odds with the low-rise, suburban character of an Oklahoma prairie town like Bartlesville. Eventually, all the duplexes but the one belonging to the building owner were converted into office space. Within the oil industry, the tower achieved iconic status, but its beguiling interiors were known only to the people who worked in the building and to Wright aficionados.

Fast forward to 2000. The Phillips Petroleum Co., the second owner of the Price Tower, restored the building and gave it to the Price Tower Arts Center. In 2002 this group converted eight floors into single hotel rooms and suites, including the 11th-floor unit where I stayed.

Wright's built-in furniture, carpeting and drapes disappeared as the apartments were adapted to office use, and the original architectural drawings that detailed the furnishings were lost. What you see and experience as a hotel guest are the "bones" of the design, with new furniture designed by New York architect Wendy Evans Joseph. For me, this "back to basics" Wrightian space was more interesting because I could study his core design ideas without the distraction of his endlessly fascinating details.

The floor-plan arrangement sounds straightforward — 982 square feet allocated between a living/dining area, a separate kitchen and half-bath on one level with a sleeping loft and full bath above — until you see it. The entry is classic Wright: The foyer is small and cramped, the ceiling low. It's not intended to be comfortable; it's a transition space. A glimmer of daylight that beckons you around a corner becomes a beacon that pulls you forward under the sleeping loft, and then — "boom!" You are in a small, triangular shaped, two-story space unlike anything you have ever experienced. On two sides, 15-foot window walls extend from the 36-inch sill height all the way up to the 18-foot ceiling; the third side is "defined' by the railing of the sleeping loft, but it is completely open to the rest of the living area. Many homeowners have experienced the two-story family rooms and entry foyers that were common in the 1990s and early 2000s, but those spaces are nothing like this one. In those cases, the rooms had solid walls with windows, not window walls, and the volume was added to make the rooms feel more grand; it had no effect on adjoining spaces. In contrast, this two-story space, which is only about one-third the size of those 14- by 20-foot family rooms, not only enhances the entire living/dining area, it also makes it feel bigger.

Wright also makes the space feel bigger by playing with the ways that we perceive the size of a room. Most of us nail this down by orienting ourselves to the corners; when a corner is missing, a space can feel bigger, and that is what Wright did here. The living area has three corners, and the fourth side is completely open to the entry foyer and stairs leading to the sleeping loft. The feeling of spaciousness gets an additional boost in the corner where the two window walls meet. There's no frame; the two pieces of glass simply butt up against each other, held in place with epoxy and a few very small, strategically located brackets. From a distance, it's hard to tell what is outside and what is inside.

At the same time Wright created a small space that "lives large," he also created one that feels both intimate and expansive. The ceiling in both the sleeping loft and the living area underneath it tilts up about 12-inches because of his unusual cantilevered floor slab construction. As he surely anticipated, the space below this tilted ceiling feels cozy and cocoon-like. It's easy to imagine yourself beneath it, curling up on a sofa with a book, watching your flat-screen television or having an important conversation with your spouse or significant other. The two-story space, furnished as a dining area in the hotel suite, would be a great place to unwind after a long day, or the perfect spot for the drinks table when you entertain 20 or 30 people.

As the housing industry slowly resurrects itself, could the powerful two-story space, tilted ceiling and glass walls in Wright's Price Tower duplex design be incorporated into new construction? I asked two developers with vast experience in both high-rise condos and small houses, John McLinden of Chicago, and Tom Bozzuto, of Greenbelt, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. Both men are known for their strong interest in design and their penchant for unusual projects. Though neither has seen Price Tower, both found its ideas intriguing.

Both developers agreed that current construction costs preclude a two-story loft apartment because of the square footage lost to the stairs. But they both said the concept could be easily adapted to a small house. The difficulty is not a design or construction issue — "You could absolutely figure it out and it would be a very interesting space," McLinden said.

The problem is persuading buyers to go for a less tangible type of enhancement — a jewel-box of a two-story, light-filled space that enhances the entire house — over a fancy kitchen filled with the familiar granite counter tops, beautiful cabinetry, nicely tiled backsplashes and upscale appliances.


For information on the Inn at Price Tower and guided tours: For the history of Price Tower: "Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower," Anthony Alofsin, editor, Rizzoli, 2005. Questions? Katherine Salant can be contacted at


Last modified: June 7, 2013
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