The Architectural Fear and Petroleum Dread of Bartlesville, Oklahoma

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night, but instead a gray and drizzly afternoon when we pulled into the deceptively large town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. With very few people on the streets this Sunday, I told my ladyfriend how the eerie quietness of the city reminded me of the first ten minutes of The Omega Man.

Bartlesville is renowned for many things, but perhaps best known as the home to Price Tower, an odd skyscraper of sorts designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It was to be our first stop on a solemn journey through the city that was built by oil barons, most famously Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum Company.

With its copper-colored skin and razor-sharp design, it’s hard not to be momentarily amazed by the looming edifice. Ominous clouds gathered behind the structure and a few flashes of lightning lit up the horizon, quickly turning that open-mouth “ooh”-ing into fearful “ahh”-ing as thunderous chills rumbled up and down my spine.

Built like a simpler labyrinth, the slim doors led to even slimmer elevators that fit, at the most, two people; like standing coffins that moved us closer to our graves, the contraption creaked upward. Buttons that never responded were pushed as the first people we’d seen all day—the sleepy kitchen staff—stood in the doorway as we went out on the terrace to view Bartlesville in all its dark power.

Taking the slow-moving lift down to the architectural museum that the Price proudly held, it was there that I saw a mildly haunting picture of Wright himself, an elderly man with a gaunt presence standing next to a scale model, clutching his cane. The picture slightly discomforted me as I felt his eyes follow me as I skulked around the antique custom furniture.

As we left, a lone woman behind the desk asked us what we thought about the museum. My ladyfriend, always genteel, said it was “interesting” while I, far less genteel, quipped “Frank Lloyd Wright? More like Frank Lloyd Wrong!” to the mass laughter of what I’m sure are the thousand dead souls invariably trapped in the tower forever.

We left and had lunch at Murphy’s Original Steak House, chronicled here. With the sun finally presenting itself in all of it hellish Oklahoma glory, we decided to head to the outskirts of Bartlesville and visit the Woolaroc Wildlife Preserve, another familiar contribution from Phillips that came highly recommended to us.

Paying $20-something dollars at the gate, the car idled down the paved road, a statue of a stereotypically near-nude Native waving at us to come in. Slowly creeping towards the museum, we were mere inches from majestic creatures like longhorns and buffalo, deer and ostriches, most of them napping in the afternoon shade and ignoring us.

It was a peaceful sojourn through nature, I must admit. Not so serene, however, was the entryway to the Woolaroc Museum, with its mausoleum design and atmospheric foyer that gave the joint a rather otherworldly feel. But once you were deeper inside the place, it was filled with mostly Indigenous artifacts and Phillips’ own history, the mixture of Natives and oilmen combining poorly with me since reading Killers of the Flower Moon. (The book, by the way, is for sale in the gift shop. You should pick it up.)

While I’m sure that Bartlesville is a good town filled with good people, one can’t help but wonder what the hidden story is about the history of the town and the unnerving magick that seems to quietly rule the few tourist spots they have, all seemingly dedicated to Phillips and his famed petroleum product. Leaving town for Oklahoma City, I think I’m actually okay not knowing. Maybe that’s the heretical draw of the place?


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44 Responses

  1. I hope someone can explain why “Killers of the Flower Moon” has received so much attention when “The Years of Fear,” appearing 15 years prior on the same subject, is ignored.

    1. It’s because it might be made into a film starring Leo and directed by Scorcese. The interest in it and the cheerleading by folks like Lt. Gov Matt Pinnell is perplexing. While the history in the book needs to be introduced to the larger American population (similar to the Tulsa massacre), the story isn’t exactly a flattering assessment of Oklahomans even though it does hold true to the #OklahomaStandard.

    2. Probably because of the origination if the FBI in relation to the story.
      Makes it more marketable to a larger audience I’m guessing

  2. The Price Tower is the ONLY skyscraper built from the designs of America’s most famous Architect – anywhere.
    It is an engineering feat modeled after the tap root and trunk of a tree’s structure. The floors cantilever from the central core like the limbs of a tree.
    It was thought impossible to build.

    it’s a remarkable manipulation of space and scale.

    We’re lucky to have it in Oklahoma – the land of strip malls and fast food joints.
    but yea – the joke “Frank Lloyd Wrong” never gets old….

    1. The Price Tower is a gem in this state and one that doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves from Okies. It has been nicely restored into a hotel and Louis is right about the elevators. How they were used as office building elevators I have no idea because they are small and awkwardly shaped.

      A downgraded replica of Price Tower exists in OKC on Classen and NW 23rd next to the neglected Gold Dome bank. I have never been inside, but I have always been curious if the interior structure is similar to the original or if only the exterior was copied.

      1. I have been in that building on 23rd and Classen many times, before it was converted into apartments/condos (whenever it was that happened; can’t remember.) My time going in and out of the building was in the ’80s.

        One of the problems in the conversion was, the elevators were OK for moving a few people up and down, but not so OK for moving FURNITURE up and down—they were too small. I can’t remember if they had a freight elevator but if so it probably wasn’t much larger than the regular elevators.

        I remember talking to a guy who said people were turned off by the elevator thing, and sales weren’t exactly taking off. D’OH!

    2. Actually Frank built some overseas I believe, but no more in America.

  3. I haven’t been to Woolaroc in decades, but even that long ago the grand entrance made it seem as if I had walked through the Time Tunnel – into an even more oil-centric age than the one of that present day.

    Inside the front doors was a cavernous foyer displaying large representations of The Indian (nearly naked) and The Oil Man (a white guy in a baggy zoot suit) as major influences in the history of Osage County. I was creeped out from the git-go by what seemed culturally backward even for the 1970s or 1980s, or whenever it was.

    The rest of the place was filled with what is best described as an assortment of dusty junk, including the famous and horrifying shrunken head that I remembered from a grade school field trip. All the contents of Frank Phillips’ overflowing attic, I suppose.

    The animals are nice to see. Otherwise, I’m not a fan.

    1. Never been there, but I like “cavernous” more than “atmospheric” foyer, because I am not sure what “atmospheric” means in that context. “Cavernous” I understand.
      And all the caskets that I’ve watched moving closer to their graves – and I’ve watched a few – tend to trundle along horizontally for a bit, before they descend rather than ascend, which flaws the simile somewhat to my nit-picking mind. It’s that unsettling descent that is their central, metaphorical direction.
      I retreat now invariably into my tower forever, maybe.

      1. I fear Louis’ random adverb/adjective generator had a head-on collision with his simile/metaphor mixer and this was the result.

    2. Southeby’s was brought in to appraise the “junk” about a decade ago for insurance purposes and they basically told them their collection of Indian artifacts is priceless and irreplaceable.

    3. You think it is dusty junk because you didn’t know what you were looking at. Antique Native American pottery, basketry, and weavings are interesting to me. Dismissing the work as junk isn’t exactly cultural sensitivity. That said, the museum has items that are there only because Frank collected them.

  4. BARTLESVILLE OKLAHOMA is a magical hidden gem of a town. So much more to this quaint place than your article mentions.

    1. I agree!
      Not even a mention of the Bruce Goff play tower there – another of the more famous American Architects. Or his Comer House in nearby Dewey.
      The play tower is a truly unique piece of art that plays musical notes while children played on it. All based on advanced mathematics. It used to have a mobius strip!

      There is another Wright house in Bartlesville no longer open to the public as well. It was built for one of the Phillips’.

      And of course the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is just a short drive from there.

      I’m not from Bartlesville but I do enjoy visiting it.

    2. Upon moving back to Oklahoma 6 years ago Woolaroc & Bartlesville were high up on the list to see again. Had not been to either in over 40 years since school field trips. The Price Tower & Phillips home as well good old Woolaroc did not let me down. The town of Bartlesville was not as busy as it was back in the day when Phillips was going strong, but was glad to see the preservation efforts of downtown as well as the Tower. The museum at Woolaroc is a great treasure of art and the grounds are beautiful. All of these are gifts to Oklahoma that I’m glad are still around.

  5. The Price Tower is the most uncomfortable hotel I have ever stayed at. Period.

    1. it wasn’t designed as a hotel.

    2. We *loved* it, stayed in it twice, and admittedly the 2-story “rooms” are better than the normal ones. However, if you’re tall, then yes, it would be uncomfortable. Wright himself was 5’7″ and his modus operandi when it came to his houses (and some of his office buildings) was to build short foyers/entrances, then open them up once you got into the house/office.

      1. The wife and I spent an anniversary there and had a blast!
        I loved the quirkiness of the building and eating breakfast in the open air terrace near the top of the tower. Had an Architect friend visit from out of state and we had to threaten to tie him to the car to get him to leave. We climbed all over that building.
        I’m not much of a fan of chain hotels anyway but some people prefer the ordinary and predictable. I can see how it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
        Yes the elevators are small and dark and cramped if you are a big dude. So are the bathrooms. And the windows are single-pane that feel like they could just pop-out with the slightest breeze. But there’s something very enjoyable about waking up in a piece of art and being in a building that hasn’t been duplicated – anywhere.

        Louis didn’t seem to appreciate anymore than Fred did it but that’s cool.
        we are all allowed to have different opinions.

  6. The inimitable Prof. Bruce Goff. Genius protege of Frank Lloyd Wright. OU should’ve never let him go.

    1. OU was gifted Goff’s Shin’en Kan and failed to protect or secure it. It was destroyed by arson and I always believed it was an inside job so they didn’t have to maintain it. Hell, they weren’t maintaining it worth a damn as it was.
      Really inexcusable and unforgivable.
      There are quite a few Goff houses in Bartlesville luckily.
      Several left in Norman although the Bavinger son destroyed the most famous work of Goff…
      Oh wait – allegedly a wind storm blew it down 🙄.
      Oklahoma doesn’t deserve internationally renowned good things apparently.

      1. What about McDonalds?

        1. The author must have missed it on his fine dining and cultural tour of Bartlesville. Wonder what he says about Pawhuska or Guthrie?

      2. I think OU’s architecture school and the school itself has come around to have more of an appreciation of Goff’s contributions of teaching and design. It took a long time, but earlier this year the Fred Jones Museum of Art had a retrospective exhibit on Goff and his time at OU. For anyone that had a passing interest in architecture or Goff himself, it was well worth seeing.

        As for the Bavinger house, it’s a shame for what happened to it. I think the son had actual mental issues or had been deemed medically insane around the time the house was destroyed. A side note to this, there was a virtual reality walkthrough of the house created and this was part of the Goff exhibit at the art museum. For someone who was too young to know about the house when it existed and wasn’t around when tours were welcomed, this was a cool way to be able to see what the house would have been like.

      3. Local accounts maintain it was burned down on the orders of a neighboring landowner. Statute of limitations ran, however, so no point in pointing to particular individuals. Apparently the story originated with the guy who burned it down, once he knew he was free and clear of liability.

  7. What the hell did I just read? What was this article trying
    to cover? The Supernatural? The sins of a rich white guy? A town that sucks? You were bored? You were being witty? You skipped Art History class?

    Just Blah

    1. He is always kind of down on places not called okc.
      He’s very provincial:
      “of or concerning the regions outside the capital city of a country, especially when regarded as unsophisticated or narrow-minded.”

      1. I live in Bartlesville and I won’t be reading anything else he writes. Woolaroc is a treasure and has nothing to do with Killers of the Flower Moon. A

  8. Thank you for shedding light on this town. If your not part of Phillips you are not part of anything. Every aspect of this town is geared toward Phillips. I love the comment about the Omega man, I have said that same thing to my husband. You think the streets are empty in the afternoon? Try coming here on a Friday night, there’s no restaurants, stores or people, when typically that would be a night for things to be going on. It also reminds me of Night of the comet or Stepford wives another good one.. Thanks again that made my night.

    1. I’ve never understood why people willingly live in a place they genuinely dislike.
      Be it a town or a state or a country.
      What does that say about a person?

      Roads and planes go both directions now.

    2. That is your opinion. If you don’t like Bartlesville, you don’t have to live here. We love our town. Bartlesville is deserted on Sunday afternoons, because we honor the Sabbath.

    3. Painted Horse, Hideaway, Angelo’s, Copper, Solo Club, Hoops, Frank & Lola’s, Platinum Cigar Co., Crossing 2nd, C/M Brewery, Omega, Boomerang, and the bar at the Hilton are all open downtown on Friday night. And that’s not including the rest of the city. The lockdowns didn’t help things much, but those relaxed quite awhile ago. When was the last time you were downtown?

  9. Bartlesville is a wonderful small city with some great architecture. You didn’t even mention the amazing Community Center (performing arts center, really) adjacent to the sublime Price Tower, or the downtown plazas and other high rises, nor did you look into the ample number of Bruce Goff structures in town. Sounds like someone pissed in your Wheaties on the day you were there.

  10. Don’t think my comment which I tried to post earlier got posted, so I’ll just say: Who pissed in your Wheaties on the day you went to Bartlesville? So much good architecture, and the Price Tower is a destination for architecture junkies from around the world. The Woolaroc museum may be mausoleum -like, but the collection is impressive for an old museum out in the countryside in a wildlife preserve.

  11. The picture of the entryway with the aluminum doors…
    You do know that when aluminum first came out, it was more expensive than gold.

  12. Hardly junk, the artifacts are authentic and respectful of native americans, if Phillips, hadn’t preserved these items, history would have been lost.Oklahoma became a state in 1907, this attic junk makes the museum quite interisting

  13. Louis’s articles for TLO have always been of the “life and the physical world as a black hole that must be endured” quality forever. Irony, sarcasm, urban elitism, and the like have always been dominant themes. I sometimes enjoy his reviews of extremely out of the way and eclectic restaurants, but when they are not located in Oklahoma City they suddenly become oddities to be marveled at, run and frequented by weirdos and non-urban unsophisticated types, which can be extremely annoying if it is a place you know to have good basic food and not something new for the sake of being new. Oh well, I still read his articles and will check out those places whether he likes them or not.

    1. Perfect description.

  14. Bartlesville gives the opportunity to own some really different contemporary homes. The City took its hit just like Enid did and the housing market took a tumble but like Enid it appears Bartlesville is recovering nicely by becoming somewhat of a nice retirement haven for people from small towns in proximity. Both towns provide retirees with reasonably priced homes, good hospitals, and strong police forces to keep them safe yet are small enough an 80 year old can still drive 15 mph down the street without getting shot over road rage.

  15. I have always enjoyed traveling to the state’s NE towns and cities much more than anywhere else that is not OKC.
    OKC was a nice place until Keating/ Fallin came aboard – its never been the same since.
    Matter of fact it makes me think sh*thole and I only go there when I have to and I’m always glad to leave it.

  16. Don’t make fun of Bartlesville. It is the only city I have been in that has Cold, Warm and Hot water towers.

  17. I grew up in Bartlesville and it was a wonderful place. In fact, I did not realize how fortunate I was until being gone. I read in one of the comments that Woolaroc is a treasure!! I agree whole heartedly. I am amazed at the people who have lived in Oklahoma their whole life and have yet to travel there. The artwork alone is worth the trip, but if you love nature all four seasons are an adventure to drive through and see nature and wildlife. I never tire of going to see this wonderful place!

  18. My mother grew up in Bartlesville. 6 now adult children and 40 plus years on since she left (we all got raised in Boston) my siblings and I still have to call out her casual racism (once again, we are Boston kids). But my Grandfather is named on a bunch of plastics patents from the 60s when he was an engineer in Phillips skunkworks.

  19. Frank Lloyd also designed the Johnson Wax Research Tower, which may not qualify as a skyscraper by some arbitrary definition, but it certainly looks like one.

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