In 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, 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, an ambitious 14-tower hotel and apartment complex combined with a shopping mall and underground parking that he designed for Washington’s last large undeveloped tract, a 10-acre parcel that included the area where the Washington Hilton now stands.
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.
The floor plan arrangement sounds straightforward — 986 square feet allocated between a living/dining area and separate kitchen on one level with a sleeping loft 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 you are in a small, triangular shaped, two-story space unlike anything you have ever experienced. On two sides, 15-foot high 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, but 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; a corner 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.
As the housing industry slowly resurrects itself, could the powerful two-story space and window 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 — Tom Bozzuto, chief executive of the Greenbelt-based Bozzuto Group and John McLinden of Chicago. 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 with the staira. But they both said the concept could be easily adapted to a small house.
The difficulty is not a design or construction issue; it’s 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 granite countertops, beautiful cabinetry, nicely tiled backsplashes and other familiar items.
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.katherinesalant.com.