It's no easy task restoring the executive quarters at Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower in Oklahoma
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 7/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
The Inn at Price Tower has certainly put Bartlesville, Oklahoma, on the cultural-tourism map. "The only place in the world to book a stay in a hotel designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright," promotional material promises. Ironically, though, very few of Wright's 1956 finishes survived on the eight floors that Wendy Evans Joseph Architecture recently reconfigured as hotel rooms.
Not so the top three floors of the tower, once the domain of oil baron Harold C. Price. His private penthouse office and corporate duplex have remained largely intact—a state of affairs falling somewhere between remarkable and miraculous.
Office interiors, for all the attention paid to their design, are basically utilitarian. When businesses relocate, as the H.C. Price Company eventually did, no one much notices the file cabinets left behind. Nor has the preservation community paid much attention. Wright's own S.C. Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, and Raymond Loewy's Lever Brothers offices in New York are rare exceptions. Meanwhile, across Park Avenue from Lever House, obliteration threatens the Seagram Building's corporate floors by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.
To that truism about offices, add the fact that Price Tower's unique Wright furniture and details—desks, chairs, light fixtures, murals, copper relief panels—might have fetched more at auction than the $650,000 asking price of the property when it was listed for sale in the 1990s. Their prospects improved dramatically after the seller, Phillips Petroleum Company, had a change of heart and agreed to donate the land mark to the nascent Price Tower Arts Center.
Last year, curators submitted the exhaustive paperwork required for a peer-reviewed heritage and preservation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Part of the $20,000 will send a project coordinator to search for clues at Wright's Taliesin archives in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Curators hope to learn, for instance, which manufacturer supplied the apartment's bathrooms with beige plastic laminate. Already, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation archivist Margo Stipe has helped distinguish between a stenographer's chair and a dining chair, both in cast aluminum.
Logistical questions must also be addressed. "Should visitors wear booties and gloves?" asks the arts center's executive director, Richard P. Townsend. "What sort of capacity can the rooms bear?" Expected increases in traffic must ultimately be harmonized with concerns about wear and tear.
Historical materials have fared best in the office. Upon entering, visitors encounter a peach-tinted glass curtain wall. To the left stands the skyscraper's only wood-burning fireplace—significant as an exemplar of the hearths central to Wright houses. Opposite the fireplace, Harold C. Price's desk chair incorporates the same spine as others in the tower, though his has wheels. Over the executive desk hangs an astonishing electric lamp, combining a futuristic aluminum stem with prairie-style pebbled-glass lenses in a copper frame.
Where furniture's mahogany veneer has peeled, it will be repaired. Curators are also hoping to reverse sun damage; wood has bleached and leather upholstery disintegrated since the curtains came down. Taliesin designer Eugene Masselink's geometric glass mural—rendered in a 1950's desert palette of turquoise, copper, red, and gold—is in desperate need of cleaning.
The corporate duplex, inhabited and redecorated by the Price family, will require more work. Already, the museum has removed red latex paint from the concrete floor, now re-stained Cherokee red and burnished to resemble the original wax finish. Chemical color analysis will determine if the white concrete walls should be painted in a buff color used elsewhere in the building. A geometric painted mural, The Blue Moon, also needs attention: Over-painting has obscured brushwork executed by Wright himself.
When possible, replacement materials will come from a stockpile amassed during remodeling elsewhere in the tower. Some missing built-ins, such as the bedroom bookshelves, will require reproductions, but re-created elements will be fabricated according to Price family photographs. As for the F. Schumacher & Co. textiles Wright designed, they'll be rewoven to match yardage obtained from a local woman who took some home years ago to cover her dining chairs. "Did he design the textiles for Price Tower and release them, or was it the other way around?" Townsend asks.
Work should be complete by 2006, when the building celebrates its 50th anniversary. In the meantime, guided tours of the top three floors are available for an extra $2. "After the restorations, we'll up it," Townsend says. Here's hoping that Frank Lloyd Wright's original designs will soon be as well preserved as the oil baron's business acumen.
The corporate apartment in 1956; 47 years later, curators are hoping to reweave the curtains.
Galleries downstairs in the building display Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, including cast-aluminum chairs original to the tower.
In the penthouse office, Taliesin designer Eugene Masselink rendered his glass mural in turquoise, copper, red, and gold.