A Needle in the Prairie

price tower
At the beginning of the 20th century many architects were already well into their exploration of tall buildings. The iconic 22 story Flatiron Building on 5th Avenue in New York was completed in 1902. The early history of skyscrapers predates this and Chicago is considered by many to be its birthplace, with the Home Insurance Building of 1885 often cited as the first true skyscraper.

Frank Lloyd Wright, whos own career began in Chicago during this very period, struggled with this concept and is better known for his low buildings set in a natural context. In his characteristic style, Wright solved the problem of a vertical structure by once again returning to nature (the tree) for inspiration. In 1929 he proposed an apartment
block for St. Marks on the Bowery in New York, but it was never built.

Some 20 years later Wright would receive a commission from Harold C. Price of Bartlesville, Oklahoma to build an office and apartment tower. He described the design as “a tree escaped from the forest” and a “needle in the prairie.” Based closely on the earlier concept, the tower is constructed from a structural reinforced concrete core that contains elevators and utilities (the trunk), cantilevered floors that radiate out from the core (the branches), and a non-load bearing outer skin of glass and copper louvers (the leaves). At 19 stories, the building only hinted at some other tall structures Wright proposed during this period, including the Illinois Mile High skyscraper (never built). The Price Tower was completed in 1956.

Opening June 17th and running through September, 2006, the National Building Museum (map) will host, Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower, in their second floor galleries. While featuring the Price Tower and including many historic drawings, photographs and objects, the exhibit will also explore Wright’s influence on and contributions to the modern office building. Other notable projects in this genre from Wright’s career include the Johnson Wax Administration Building and Research Tower in Racine, WI (one of my favorites) and the Larkin Building in Buffalo, NY (demolished).

Marking the 50th anniversary of the completion of the building, the exhibit was organized by the Price Tower Arts Center with the assistance and cooperation of the NEA and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Considered the most important building by Wright in our area is the Pope-Leighey House, a so-called Usonian design, which I visited on his birthday in 2005. The house was originally built in 1939 for Washington journalist Loren Pope in Falls Church, VA. In 1964 it was moved to its current location on the grounds of the Woodlawn Plantation (map). Its significance is purely historic, since the modest home is a mere 1,200 square feet.

If you’re planning a trip to Pittsburgh, I highly recommend stopping off to visit Fallingwater (map), the magnum opus of Wright’s career and among the most famous homes in America. I recently paid my second visit to the site, more on that in a future post.

Photograph of the Price Tower is courtesy Lost Tulsa.

3 Comments so far

  1. Tom Bridge (unregistered) on June 4th, 2006 @ 3:45 pm

    Really great post, Doug, I’ll be sure to hit this exhibit when it opens.

  2. Doug (unregistered) on June 4th, 2006 @ 4:03 pm

    Thanks Tom.

  3. Doug (unregistered) on June 5th, 2006 @ 5:11 pm

    I have been informed in an email from Lauren Searl, Communications Associate at the NBM, that the Museum Web site now has a full exhibition page.

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