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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