The Prairie Skyscraper

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In the soft and green rolling hills of Osage County, described by TV’s Pioneer Woman as the ‘middle of nowhere’ is Bartlesville, Oklahoma: the oil capitol, headquarters of Phillips 66 and the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper.

Price Tower, named for pipeline company owner Harold Price, is one of only 2 vertically oriented structures Wright built in a lifetime of low slung, horizontal buildings

A road trip detour, after I’d read about the Prairie project sent me to explore Osage County and check out Price Tower.

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It’s situated a little out of the original downtown. Not too close to other tall buildings and in a funky office neighborhood with company headquarters, old shopfronts and a noisy restaurant or two.

To see these lovely older buildings in Bartlesville, is to understand the power of the oil and gas industry in Northern Oklahoma. In 1904, just 7 years after the first well was dug, there were 150 oil companies with an office in Bartlesville!

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Price originally envisioned a one to four story structure, possibly designed by Cliff May who had already built a home for the family. His sons, however, were influenced by local architect Bruce Goff to get the absolute ‘best architect….Get Frank Lloyd Wright’.

After a phone consultation, and in the thrall of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” the family traveled to Taliesin West in Phoenix where Harold was impressed to note that the house Wright had built was 35 years older but similarly modern to the family’s May home! FLW convinced them that a tower would cost no more per square foot than a small boxy office building, and pitched a multi use concept with rental office suites and apartments along with the corporate headquarters. Brilliant salesmanship.

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By late August 1952 with the site secured, Wright began work on the plans. It grew to a 19 story tower rising from green parklands and tree lined streets.The metaphor of “a tree that escaped the forest” was consistent with his use of green copper vertical shutters, and a tall slender structure. 

At the International Petroleum exposition in Tulsa, Wright unveiled a model and announced the project. The May 1953 event drew 250,000 visitors, many oil executives, fellow oil producers and Price’s clients. Lots of buzz.

Construction, with the inevitable cost overruns, was completed and the building opened to the public in February 1956.

It was the most famous new building in America, with visitors coming from around the world to see Wright’s Prairie skyscraper. Although tall buildings were nothing new, multi-use high rise offices and apartments, particularly outside  the major cities, were unusual.

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Visiting now, the coolest thing about Price Tower is that it contains a hotel, operated by the non profit that runs the building and adjoining art center (designed by Zaha Hadid). Not luxurious but a singular Oklahomey Frank Lloyd Wright experience with a ‘behind the scenes’ docent tour as part of the deal.

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So you stay in one of the corner suites, travel in one of the 4 minuscule triangular elevators ( 2 people and a small suitcase max!) and then hang out in the Copper Bar and cocktail as the sun sets over the prairie. The crowd is eclectic…lots of young IT professionals who work for Phillips 66, design aficionados who drive to Bartlesville specifically to stay in and photograph the building and itinerant academics and workers who are tired of the hotel chains. 

Over Manhattans we met a Navajo linguist who gave us a list of out of the way sites to explore, visitors from Tulsa celebrating an anniversary and sharing lots of Osage legend: like where George Clooney liked to eat during the filming of “Osage County” ( Frank and Lola’s), what the Pioneer Woman is REALLY like, how the Tom Mix museum is the most fun museum in the county and be sure not to miss the Bison Preserves.

So much good stuff!

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http://www.pricetower.org

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Hayden Tract : Exploring LA

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Years ago I worked in Culver City.

The area was dodgy and rundown.
Driving home, often at midnight, I’d head out through the warehouses to La Cienaga, making sure the windows were locked, hyper mindful of the drug dealing, violence and potential bad stuff that could happen. During daylight the area was dull and forlorn: beige warehouses, dusty trees and trash.

So what fun to return and park on one of the same back streets and find myself in an LA architectural happening.

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Unknown to most Los Angelenos, this 8 block area (wedged between Ballona Creek, National Boulevard and the rail line) is one cool place to walk around. And I dare you not to go crazy photojournalist!

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This visually arresting experiment/real estate development is the result of 2 developers (husband & wife, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith) who bought up a lot of those old warehouses and architect Eric Owen Moss, director of Southern California Institute of Architecture, generally regarded as the most avant garde of US schools.

To quote the developers, “The ambition was to go into a very destitute neighborhood—which it was—to improve the economics (via job creation) and to introduce art and culture. We wanted to make no place, someplace.”

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To that end they handed the warehouses to Moss who created contemporary, reworked and repurposed buildings.

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The architecture is jarring, industrial and angular.
And a walk down Hayden St is an adventure…..

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Concrete, glass, metal… twisty facades and towers, hanging cactus gardens, famous tenants (HQ for Beats by Dre just up the road) and art installations.

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Moss, whose office is on the street, is still creating unique and singular buildings for the Samitaur Smiths, like the amazing art piece, Samitaur Tower and the Waffle, a bendy, egg crate-structured conference center. The buildings name’s sum up the atypical looks: the Stealth, the Beehive, and The Box.

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The area is now morphing into a neighborhood with the Expo Line station close by, wiggly treelined bike paths in between the buildings, fellow starchitect Thom Mayne’s Morphosis office across the way and SF hipster bakers, Craftsman and Wolves about to open their LA outpost.

Another quirky pocket of LA to explore 🙂

Mission Inn

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How many times did I fly by on the 91, intent only on Palm Springs grooviness?

Impatient for warm breezes, misting margarita nights and mid century fabulousness?

It took a visiting friend, and the chance to show off a piece of Ron and Nancy Reagan trivia that finally turned me off the freeway and into historic downtown Riverside. Home of the amazing Mission Inn.

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The Inn occupies an entire city block. A fantastical melange of arcades and gardens and turrets and towers, it started life as a 12 room boarding house in 1876 and was “completed” in 1931.

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Over the years guest wings were added, along with cloistered walkways and gardens, music rooms and galleries, chapels, spanish patios, towers and restaurants and it became a major tourist destination for wealthy east coasters and europeans.

During the 30 plus year construction the eccentric & visionary owner, Frank Miller traveled the world, collecting treasures and now the artifacts have been valued at over $5 million.

Days Inn it is not!

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The St. Francis Chapel has 4 four huge Tiffany stained-glass windows and two original mosaics. The “Rayas Altar” is 25′ by 16′ across, carved from cedar and completely covered in gold leaf. And in the  “Garden of Bells,” Miller collected 800 bells, including one from the year 1247 described as the “oldest bell in Christendom.”

There are so many artisan touches it’s an instagram blowout: spanish tiles, iron gates, chandeliers, windows, art and antiques.

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To drop in is to experience a truly unique historic hotel.

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Ignore the valet parking and park just down the street.This re energized downtown is full of historic Californian architecture and it’s shaded streets and businesses are the cultural, urban hub of the Inland Empire.

With temperatures well above a hundred in summer, the cool, dark lobby and umbrellared courtyards are a perfect respite ….. the cafes are lovely.

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It’s worth bypassing the outlets or leaving just a little earlier to allocate a gracious hour on your way home from the desert especially if you can’t bring yourself to pull over enroute to Palm Springs!

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ps: Richard and Pat Nixon married at the Mission Inn and Nancy and Ronnie honeymooned there.

Manitoga

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My first encounter with the industrial designer , Russell Wright came in the form of American Modern dinner ware …covered in dust and grime at an estate sale.

Stylish and organic in shape, the design was inspired by the colors and forms of nature.
Mass produced and affordable , they outsold every other dinnerware and when new colors or shipments arrived the Macy’s stores were mobbed!
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With best selling dinnerware, home goods and textiles, Russell Wright became the first american, celebrity industrial designer.

His 1950’s book ” Guide to Easier Living”, co written with his wife Mary, espoused a simpler, more casual approach to living well: Design as a humanizing and democratic element.

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Decades later Terrence Conran quipped that “everyone can have a great salad bowl”, echoing Wright’s belief that anyone can create an aesthetically pleasing home and life.

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In 1942, Mary and Russell purchased 75 acres of damaged and logged land high above the Hudson River to use as a summer retreat.
For the next decade, they lived in the existing bungalow, studied the seasons and vegetation, and embarked on a 30 year transformation of the site.

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Wright thinned old trees to create views, planted meadows and new forests, created miles of paths, dammed a small creek to create a large pool and waterfall and built a modernist home and studio.

Mary and Russell named it Manitoga, Algonquin for “place of great spirit.”

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The house is modern and geometric, a 2 story of glass and rock. It sits snug into the slope, above the pond with roofs covered in greenery, a tree trunk in the living room and boulders as steps and walls.
It’s harmonious relationship with the ecology and landscape ahead of it’s time.

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Russell Wright died in 1976, and sadly the buildings and landscapes have deteriorated.
It’s now owned by The Russell Wright Design Center, but restoration is slow with most effort focused on the home and studio.
Thankfully now on the World Monument Fund Watchlist, the landscape needs detailed restoration and the visitor experience can be unsettling.
Given the rock star status of Wright, the re-issue of his famous dinnerware and the esteem in which he is held one can only hope that the Design Center can mobilize funding and energy to restore this magical place.

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Just an hour north from New York City in the sublime Hudson River Valley , add it to your must see list.