data-layout-label="Header Content: Boulder Architecture Firm - Boulder Architects "

Frank Lloyd Wright

Price Tower

Price Tower exterior 01

Price Tower exterior 01

In northeast Oklahoma, just west of the Osage Indian Reservation, lies Bartlesville, home of Phillips Petroleum and Frank Lloyd Wright's only completed "skyscraper" building, the Price Tower.

The history of the Price Tower is long and complex and Frank Lloyd Wright's recycling of an earlier unbuilt tower design is well documented.  It is all worth reading and a little study, but it really does not prepare you for a confrontation with the building itself.  And even though by today's standard the building is not so tall and the motifs a bit dated, the building itself has a magnificent sculptural presence.

Designed for multi-purpose usage, the tower houses offices and residential space on each of its central floors.  From the outside of the building, the horizontal slats and fenestration define the office spaces while the vertical louvers identify the residential portions.  Instead of subdividing the building vertically and stacking one use exclusively upon the other, Wright and his client choose to intermingle the two, with only the base and top-most floors housing a single function.

Price Tower plan

Price Tower plan

It is often easy to forget how ornate Wright's work was when fully executed.  The prairie houses he created had such a streamlined, simple and bold expression, that only actually visiting a work reveals the little carved panels and decorative embellishments.  At the Price Tower, those embellishments take center stage as patterned, aged copper panels dominate the entire building and find smaller, more refined expressions on the interior.

Like so many of Wright's best works, the Price Tower is simultaneously bold and sculptural, refined and almost precious.  It tetters on the edge of gilding the lily with its decorative motifs splashed across so much of the lower levels.  But it is worth remembering the unlike so many of his modernist European contemporaries like Gropius and Mies, Wright believed in a very earthy kind of romantic sensibility and trancendent Beauty.  In that sense, the Price Tower, like Wright himself, is a last echo of the nineteenth century passing through the end of the millenium.  The Price Tower feels like a beautiful mash-up of Craftsman materiality and the Jetsons sci-fi retro-futurism.

Price Tower section

Price Tower section

It's not exactly on the beaten path, but a visit to the building is worthy of a prolonged side trip.  You can have a drink in the roof top bar or even stay in the boutique hotel created within, the Price Company's offices having long since removed themselves.  And in Bartlesville you can get quite excellent chicken-fried steak, so go to it.

(Much of the historical info and imagery here is from The Price Tower, published by Rizzoli, Anthony Alofsin, Editor)

Frank Lloyd Wright's Meyer May House, Grand Rapids, Michigan

This last summer I had the opportunity to be in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of Steelcase furniture, and the magnificently restored Meyer May house.  Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1909, the house was designed and built just as Wright's marriage was falling apart and he was soon to depart to Europe to escape the scandal and notoriety.

Like the Robie House, designed in Chicago just a year or two earlier, this house sits on a residential corner lot and shares with as well Wright's signature hidden entryway and layered horizontal composition.  Even though the Robie House is more dramatic, being more decidedly long and narrow, the Meyer May house actually does a better job of addressing the spatial situation of the corner lot.  However, this does lead to a fairly complex interior with spaces driving in two directions, maybe anticipating the more pinwheeling designs of later houses.

You can see many of the typical Wright details here - the flush vertical joints and deeply scored horizontal joints of the masonry, the wide cantilevered, hovering roof planes, the delicate leaded windows.

And, like in some many of Wright's houses built during this phase of his career, a complex and devoted attention to some rather fussy details like these Living Room windows.  One can't help but speculate that this heavy grille work on street-facing windows was as much defensive as decorative, a spill-over from Wright's domestic troubles, keeping the world at bay as much as providing light and views.  I have often thought that his growing predilection for the increasingly hidden and obscured entries of houses of his from this period are also an echo of the growing demand for privacy and avoidance of the public gaze that eventually surfaces in Wright's full retreat from Oak Park and Chicago to rural Spring Green, Wisconsin.

In any case, the Meyer May house is not only an excellent and under-appreciated work of Wright's from this period, it is also one of the very best examples of a period restoration that feels complete and careful without feeling like a museum (even though it is of sorts).  Steelcase purchased the home in 1985 and painstakingly restored the entire structure including sourcing many Wright-designed furniture and textile pieces to fill it.  And best of all and a great testament to the new owners, the house is fully available for tours for FREE, no reservations needed.  Thank you Steelcase for the great renovation and most importantly for allowing it to be viewed by anyone.