Big Tower on the Prairie

The National Building Museum exhibit includes a model and drawing, right, of Frank Lloyd Wright's 19-story Price Tower, completed 50 years ago in Bartlesville, Okla.
The National Building Museum exhibit includes a model and drawing, right, of Frank Lloyd Wright's 19-story Price Tower, completed 50 years ago in Bartlesville, Okla. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 17, 2006

Frank Lloyd Wright came tantalizingly close to redefining the Washington skyline.

The master architect was commissioned to design a $15 million complex at the corner of Florida and Connecticut avenues. Two drawings from 1940 -- which appear in an exhibition opening today at the National Building Museum -- show how the neighborhood above Dupont Circle could have become a stunning landmark equal to New York's Rockefeller Center.

Wright called the project Crystal Heights. He envisioned 24 distinctive apartment towers and a 1,000-room skyscraper hotel topped by peaked wings of concrete. The buildings were to rise more than 200 feet from a base of expansive terraces and roof gardens. And shops and a theater were included in the plan, making Wright a pioneer of today's popular mixed-use development.

Crystal Heights never got off the drawing board because the area was zoned for residential use only, said Neil Levine, professor of art and architecture at Harvard University and an expert on the project.

Mina Marefat, a Washington and Wright scholar, believes Wright's imperious attitude offended Washington's bureaucracy, including the zoning and planning boards whose support he needed to change the rules. Building Museum curator Chrysanthe B. Broikos located a letter from Wright to the client, Roy Thurman, complaining of "difficulty getting the necessary permits."

If Washington was not destined to become Wright's vertical city, the prairie proved more accommodating. The exhibition, called "Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower," shows how Wright struggled for decades to build a skyscraper. He designed many, but completed only one -- 50 years ago, and three years before his death at 92. It is the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla.

Architects know the 19-story building as one of the most daringly engineered buildings of the past century. Because Bartlesville is a bit off the tourist circuit, Price Tower is also one of "the most famous of Wright's unknown buildings," said Richard P. Townsend, executive director of the Price Tower Arts Center, which occupies the building and created the exhibition.

Wright's building was a radical combination of apartments, offices and shops in a radical structure that relies on "rotational geometry." Essentially, it's a concrete core supporting cantilevered floors. The tower houses an art museum, the 21-room Inn at Price Tower and a restaurant aptly named Copper. Only the three top floors -- once occupied by the Price family -- retain original furnishings, and they are being restored.

The exhibition presents the original model, furnishings, letters and documents, along with a stunning selection of drawings from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The installation was designed by Zaha Hadid. The Pritzker Prize-winning London architect was commissioned to design a proposed expansion for the arts center, which explains how 21st-century geometries -- angular planes based on parallelograms are her signature -- made their way into a Wright exhibition. The synthesis of old and new is expressed in a crystalline model, which turns the Price Tower into a modernist glass trophy. No harm is done. Hadid's spiraling loop frames the icon with respect, at least at this small scale.

The original model of Price Tower is worth traveling to see. It shows clearly how the novel design relieved exterior walls from structural burdens. Wright made them a canvas for creative expression.

Decorative effects served a purpose. Bands of copper panels, which Wright aligned from roof to mezzanine, function as louvers to shield windows from the Oklahoma sun. Window glass was tinted gold and the copper panels were acid-washed to achieve a green patina.

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