In 1940, the empty tract was in a residential zone. Wright’s ambitious and unprecedented mix of residential and commercial required a zoning variance, but the District zoning board declined to approve it. After numerous unsuccessful appeals, the developer, Roy S. Thurman, was forced to shelve the project.
The Washington apartment design was lifted from an even earlier multi-tower scheme that 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 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 with the competition, the units were smaller and the rent was 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.
Fast-forward to 2002. The Phillips Petroleum Co., the second owner of the Price tower, restored the building and gave it to the Price Tower Arts Center. The following year, 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 actually more interesting because I could study his core design ideas without the distraction of his endlessly fascinating details.