Talking Travel Rediscovering America Suzanne Wright Bartlesby Oklahoma


Great Architecture on the Prairie
Bartlesville, Oklahoma
by Suzanne Wright

In a town built by oil rises a “prairie skyscraper” that was originally meant for the 1920s Manhattan skyline. It’s not just any high-rise — it’s one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterworks — and you can sleep in it.

Bartlesville, Oklahoma, seems an unlikely place for Price Tower, a singular boutique hotel and arts center completed in 1956 as the corporate offices for the H.C. Price International Pipeline Company, until you find out it was here that Frank Phillips founded Phillips Petroleum Company.



In 1897, the frontier trading community of Bartlesville in Indian Territory, became the site of the first commercial oil well in the state. During the decade that followed, entrepreneurs, like barber-turned-oil baron Phillips, streamed into the area and exploration exploded in a frenzy of spectacular successes and failures. The discovery of oil and increasing settlement led to statehood in 1907 and Oklahoma became the nation’s leading producer of oil, a position it continued to occupy or share through the tumultuous years of growth that followed. Today, this town of 35,000 boasts numerous architectural and cultural riches that allow you to step back in time over a weekend.

History in the Mix

Besides sleeping with history in the spectacular glass-wrapped lofts of Price Tower, which Wright called “the tree that escaped the crowded forest,” you can step across the street to the Bartlesville Community Center, home to the symphony, which was designed by the chief architect of Taliesin Wesley Peters in 1982. With its rounded lines and smooth curves, it is a dramatic counterpoint to the geometric forms of Price Tower. At the Bartlesville Area History Museum, a docent puts everything into perspective, explaining that “Bonnie and Clyde stopped here. Bartlesville was the Wild West when the West was getting tamed.” Don't miss the reconstructed one-room schoolhouse; education on the prairie was simple but personal. A stop at the Phillips’ in town residence is worthwhile. Note it's Philippine mahogany — from Asia to Oklahoma!

But it’s Woolaroc that will really impress you and will give you a true sense of this region of Oklahoma. The name is a clever acronym; short for the woods, lakes and rocks — all indigenous to the rolling hills of Northeastern Oklahoma. And the rustic 3700-acre ranch is home to 30 varieties of wildlife, including prairie dogs, buffalo, ostrich and deer.

Completed in 1925, the lodge boasts 108 sets of horns and 97 heads mounted on the walls (none were killed for sport), hickory and horn furniture, Indian rugs and crocodile skins. It was a one-of-a-kind outpost that mightily impressed Eastern investors, dignitaries, movie stars, lawmen and outlaws. As the general manager explains, “Frank Phillips befriended bank robbers and cardinals.” His wife Jane’s room bears the photographic history of the lodge's illustrious male visitors.

The museum houses one of America’s most unique collections — American West artifacts — in addition to novelties like shrunken heads and the model for the Lincoln Memorial in a stunning building with soaring ceilings. Afterward, you can lap up homemade chili and smoky sweet barbecue buffalo sandwiches washed down with lemonade at the café which overlooks the tree-studded landscape and river.

In nearby Dewey, visit the Tom Mix Museum, dedicated to the former deputy sheriff who, as we all know, was the real “king of cowboys” on the big screen. At the Dewey Hotel Museum, don’t miss the wagon wheel red work quilt. Slake your thirst at Linger Longer, an antique store with an old fashioned soda fountain (I recommended a chocolate malt).

We arrive at Prairie Song, a frontier village on a private working ranch, late in afternoon. The virgin tall grass is rippling in the light breeze, by turns yellow, green and gold. The eccentric owner Kenneth Tate personally designed and constructed more than 25 buildings of native stone and hand-hewn timbers and has furnished them with items that date back to the late 1800s. He’ll open the doors, offer a few sage comments and only take your entry fee of $6 afterwards, in case you don’t like it. You will.

The Pioneer Ideals: Then and Now

America is about many ideals and many fundamental concepts; one of them is easily summed up in the expression “Westward Ho!” The expansion of the United States of America westward into virgin territory epitomizes in many ways the self-determination and pioneering spirit of American culture. Bartlesby, Oklahoma is not only the embodiment of these national characteristics but a living archive in which you will discover the layers of meaning inherent in this essential part of American history.

In Bartlesby, you will also find a contemporary way of life that is true the origins, traditions, and heritage of the city. As travel journalists often say, “Travel is the most experiential form of learning.”

Rediscovering Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Bartlesville is easily reached in less than an hour from Tulsa Summer is hot and winter is cold, so aim .4290)

Frank Phillips Home: 918-336-2491

Woolaroc: 800-364-8708

Tom Mix Museum: 918-534-1555

An architectural tour of Bartlesby and the Dewey Hotel Museum: 918-534-0215

Prairie Song: 918- 534-2662

Frank Lloyd Wright
On the one hand, the architectural gems of America's best know architect seem to pop up in the least expected places. On the other hand, given Wright's sensitivity and commitment to creating buildings that express the American landscape (urband or rural) and integrate with it in an ingenious fashion, it is therefore not really surprising to find his work in Bartlesby, Oklahoma; especially since his earliest roots are in the heartland of rural America.