Familiar and New: Bartlesville

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Bread pudding from Frank and Lola's
Calimari from Frank and Lola's in Bartlesville
The unique desgins of Frank Lloyd Wright
Price tower

Familiar and New: Bartlesville

By Heidi Brandes

They say you can never go home, but this summer, that’s exactly what my brother and I did.

I grew up in Bartlesville, graduated from the halls of its giant art deco white high school and roamed the oak and maple lined streets on foot, bicycle and car.

My brother, who lives in New York City, visited Oklahoma with his wife Christine, and we decided a trip to Bartlesville would be one of the highlights of a whirlwind Oklahoma tour. We wanted to see how those green streets, childhood secrets and more than 15 years of memories were holding up.

Coming back, the streets all seemed smaller, as if they wilted a bit as I grew older. They were the same, but not the same. A Chili’s now glows along Highway 75 as it comes into town. The old Bonanza restaurant where I worked in high school is a Tex-Mex place.

Many things still remain just as we left them 20-some odd years ago. The rust-colored and looming Bartlesville Community Center has that same comforting smell that had our little hearts racing when we spent every summer at an arts camp there.

My brother Walter insisted on visiting The Bartlesville Community Center’s lauded halls, where he caught the acting bug that eventually led him to stages in New York and into the arms of an exotic, tall and beautiful woman who would become his wife.

The library is exactly where I remember it. The tall buildings that housed Phillips 66 executives still stand, but today, Bartlesville is a bit more sophisticated as it continues to survive long after the destructive oil bust of the 1980s.

In the middle of town is Bartlesville’s iconic skyscraper, “The Tree That Escaped the Crowded Forest.” The Price Tower, built for energy mogul H.C. Price in the 1950’s, is not only a Frank Lloyd Wright original, but his only realized skyscraper to boot.

Today, the Price Tower is a luxury hotel, full of hard angles, 1950’s retro design and the tiniest elevators in the world. The rooms, which once housed perky secretaries banging away on manual typewriters, boast of expansive views of Bartlesville’s tree-filled streets, and, for a brother and sister returning home, nostalgia comes swift and mercilessly.


While growing up in Bartlesville, my brother and I walked the three or four some-odd miles from our little gray porch to downtown, and that green-tinged jagged-edged skyscraper was as familiar as hot oatmeal in the mornings.

Oddly, in the 18 years I lived there, I had never actually stepped foot in the building… until now.

Frank Lloyd Wright called this architectural masterpiece the “tree that escaped the crowded forest” when he built his first and only skyscraper for the H.C. Price International Pipeline Company in 1956.

The Price Tower was one of three skyscrapers that were to be built at St. Mark’s in New York City. The building found its way to the red dirt soil of the booming oil town instead and became a combination apartment-office building.

H.C. Price kept his tiny apartments at the top, but thanks to renovations by architect Wendy Evans Joseph, visitors can now stay in this upscale 21-room boutique inn called Inn at Price Tower.

For those whose passions lie with clean angles and the mystery of architecture, staying overnight in an actual Frank Lloyd Wright building is a bucket-list item. Upstairs, on the 16th floor, is the Copper Restaurant + Bar, a cozy place to grab a local craft beer or shimmering wine either at the bar or on the patio outside.

Today, the Price Tower Arts Center houses art exhibitions and permanent exhibitions on Wright, Bruce Goff and the Price Company and Tower.

Frank Lloyd Wright buildings have been called “uncomfortable,” but the Price Tower is cozy, if not a bit quirky. The building itself measures 221 feet from the top of the spire and is 19 stories high. The Price Tower is built on a cantilever design with four interior vertical shafts from which all the floors and walls are based around.

Every niche, cranny and secret in the building is 30-, 60-, or 90-degree angles, and none of the exterior walls are structural, but are merely screens resting on the horizontal cantilevered floors.

We stayed two nights at The Inn at Price Tower, and the wall of windows do not disappoint with their expansive views of the cozy city I grew up in. The beds are wide and comfortable, and the bathroom, though angled like the rest of Wright’s designs, is interesting enough to forget about the smaller size.

The Price Tower is an architectural adventure that you won’t want to miss with sassy interior staircases, history around every corner and the very distinctive touch of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Be sure to sign up for the daily tours of the Price Tower for fascinating, fun and entertaining history lesson about Bartlesville, Wright and the “tree that escaped the crowded forest.”

Tower Tour: $12 adults; Senior Citizens 65+, Students and Children – $10
Museum: $6 adults; Senior Citizens 65+, Students – $5
Members and children (16 and under) Free
Tower Tour price includes Museum admission.

After taking the truly fascinating tour at the Price Tower, we headed to meet an old friend for lunch at Bartlesville’s newest and trendiest boutique restaurant, Frank and Lola’s.

Frank and Lola’s opened to wildly favorable reviews in 2008 and is located at Second and Dewey. The fried calamari beat out anything my sister-in-law has ever had in New York City, and the pork loin was dusted dark brown with spices that came alive in your mouth.

The bread pudding is a decadent experience that can only be described as happiness in your mouth.

With a full belly of award-winning food, we headed west of Bartlesville to another favorite spot, Woolaroc.

Established in 1925 as the ranch of oilman Frank Phillips, the Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve encompasses a 3,700-acre wildlife area, home to buffalo, elk, longhorn cattle and even a “zony,” or a mix between a zebra and a pony.

The preserve was recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places and offers a bit of adventure, history and culture in what Will Rogers once called the “one last under-discovered treasure left in the United States.”

After looking at places in the East Coast, old Frank decided to build a 10,000-square-foot lodge for entertaining, and by the time he died in 1950, more than 200,000 visitors were entertained at the Woolaroc ranch house.

The famous museum was originally started as a one-room building to house Phillips’ beloved airplane that won a race for him. Over time, the museum expanded to 50,000 square feet and houses a collection of Western artwork that includes top Western artists like Remington, Russell, Lee and Sharp.

“We don’t just have one Frank Tinney Johnson painting, we have 19 of them. We don’t just have one Russell, we have six of them. Our Bierstadt is a $4.5 million piece,” Woolaroc Foundation CEO Bob Frasier said.

The Colt firearm collection is one of the best in the world as far as variety. When Mr. Colt designed his firearms, it took five tries to get that Colt right. In some cases, Woolaroc has all five versions of one gun.

Phillips was drawn to archeology and Native American history, and he brought back thousands of pieces of Native American history found on digs. He collected an astonishing amount of Navajo blankets, Sioux war shirts, ancient pottery and more.

Kids love it here too, thanks to the buffalo burgers sold at the food stand and a petting zoo filled with friendly, soft-faced baby animals.

During the summer, Kids’ Fest lures thousands to the park. At Christmas, the museum shines like war fires with Christmas lights, and in October, the biggest party of the year lets the beautiful people cut loose in the tradition of outlaws.

It’s easy to spend an entire day here, so set aside extra time to explore, hike, play and marvel at one of the largest Native American art and history collections in the nation.

To Visit:
1925 Woolaroc Ranch Rd, Bartlesville, OK 74003
(918) 336-0307
Adults – $10; Over 65 – $8; Children 11 and younger are admitted free

While we only had one day to revisit the town we grew up in, first fell in love in and eventually deserted for college and jobs, there’s so much more to do in Bartlesville. A few suggestions are:

Eat and Eat
Besides Frank and Lola’s, Central Oklahoma’s Hideaway Pizza has a spot in Bartlesville’s downtown and the Painting Horse is worth a visit for great pub food and even better drinks.

History Comes Alive
History buffs out there will enjoy the Phillips Petroleum Company Museum, located at 410 S. Keller Ave. Visit Phillips66Museum.com for information.

The Bartlesville Area History Museum brings visitors back in time to the city’s first oil well and subsequent growth. Located at 401 S. Johnstone, the museum has interactive displays, photography, and educational programs. Visit BartlesvilleHistory.com.

See how the oilmen lived with a visit to the Frank Phillips Home at 1107 SE Cherokee Ave. Tours are held Wednesday through Saturday with prices ranging from $5 to $10 for adults. Visit FrankPhillipsHome.org

The well that started it can be seen at Bartlesville’s Johnstone Park where a working replica of the Nellie Johnstone No. 1 recreates the gusher that gave birth to the oil town. Johnstone Park is located at 200 N. Cherokee Ave.

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