The Big Trip, Part 9

Friday, November 23, 2012

Oklahoma City – Tulsa – Bartlesville, OK – Bentonville, AR

As I stepped out of the Beast to go to the wash house before dawn, I felt the change immediately. Yesterday’s comfortably warm temperatures had plummeted. I was reminded that winter is not far off.

By the time Kay and I had showered, eaten, washed the dishes, unhooked the RV, and emptied the waste tanks, the sun was up and it was even colder. The wind, our companion for the last three days, was still with us.

Our principal destination was Bartlesville, Oklahoma in the northeast of the state. On our way we made a stop in Tulsa whose downtown blocks, according to what Kay had read, contain some fine Art Deco buildings.

Downtown Tulsa

This being Black Friday and still a holiday of sorts, driving in and around Tulsa was easy. As we approached downtown, we encountered a striking building.

We find Art Deco architecture and motifs mainly in public buildings and in the sets of Hollywood musicals from the 1930s. On this trip we’ve seen it beautifully expressed in Omaha’s art museum and its railroad station. Today, for the first time, we’ve seen it in a church.

Boston Avenue United Methodist Church

The Boston Avenue United Methodist Church was designed by Oklahoma architect Bruce Goff and built in 1929. It is a large church with a soaring central tower that can be seen from a long way off. Its location, surrounded by open space on the fringe of the more densely packed downtown district, allows it to be viewed as a whole from all sides, as one would view a piece of sculpture.

Boston Avenue Church

Its size, its excellent condition, and the exuberance of its many details make the Boston Avenue Church one of America’s outstanding buildings. Art Deco Architecture is emphatically vertical. This feature seems especially suited to churches. The European Gothic Churches of the Middle Ages reached for the sky. They were designed to draw people’s gaze upward toward heaven.

Boston Avenue Church

The tower of the Boston Avenue Church is not only tall; it captures our imagination in several ways. If one purpose of church architecture is to facilitate access to spirituality, then Bruce Goff’s creation accomplishes that.

We had not known of Goff (1904-1982) before today. He had a distinguished career as both an architect and a painter. He also taught in the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma. It was Bruce Goff who was indirectly responsible for the creation of the second great building we saw today.

In the early 1950s, when the sons of Harold C. Price asked Goff to design a corporate headquarters for the H.C. Price Company in Bartlesville, OK, he demurred, referring them to Frank Lloyd Wright instead. Wright proposed a design he had made years before for a tall building in lower Manhattan, a building that, due to the Great Depression, was never built.

H.C. Price had in mind a modest building, but Wright, who must have had a super salesman’s skill to match his outsized ego, convinced Price that, as his company had become so large and international, he really needed something more impressive, like a skyscraper. Price had the money. His pipeline and chemical company had made a large fortune during WW II.

Price Tower with Sculpture by Robert Indiana

The original plan was for a ten-storey tower; however, by some circumstance, the building that was finally built has nineteen storeys and rises 221 feet above the surrounding prairie. From the beginning, the tower was meant to be mixed-use, containing offices and residences. Today, the residence floors house The Inn at Price Tower. There is also a restaurant and a bar on the 15th floor. Otherwise, the tower is today a museum, and we were lucky enough to be able to tour it in the company of two ladies from Texas. Our docent was a local retired lady new to the job. She was just learning about the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright from books and her approach to giving us her information was interestingly quirky.

Price Tower

From our first glance at the building’s exterior, we could tell that Price Tower is a building like no other. Wright’s concept was of a tree whose large ‘trunk’ would support cantilevered floors around it like ‘branches.’ Attached to these in turn would be copper louvers, the outer ‘leaves’ of the building. Realized, the result is amazing. The louvers of the office floors are horizontal while those of the residence floors are vertical. Being copper, the louvers have oxidized and become green.

Price Tower

Inside, there are no square corners. Even the small Otis elevators in the building’s core are polygonal, half a hexagon. Most of the interior forms, like the recessed lights in the ceilings are triangles. Wright designed the tower’s furniture, tiles, and fabrics as well. It would take pages to describe all the intricate details of this eccentric building as well as its checkered history since it was built in 1956. We learned a lot about the only Wright skyscraper ever built, and along with the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, WI, the only other vertical Wright structure in existence. How ironic that the two great buildings we’ve seen on this Oklahoma prairie today are towers.

Before taking the tour we needed to eat, and we chose Murphy’s, a Bartlesville fixture since 1946. Located in a small, low-ceillinged, non-descript building not far from Price Tower, Murphy’s was crowded with customers and staff at the lunch hour. The latter were all wearing t-shirts with the restaurant’s name on the front and its tag line, “Gravy over all,” on the back. Even though it seemed like a crude choice, I felt I had to order Murphy’s signature dish. Hot Hamburger is a plate with a piece of ground steak cooked with onions, resting on toasted white bread and topped with a heap of French fries. Finally, everything on the plate comes covered in brown gravy. Gravy over all, as the tag line says. To drink, I ordered lemonade,

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bentonville, AR

The variety of sights that different people find beautiful is always surprising and interesting. For Kay and me, the beauty of painting, sculpture, and architecture rank highly; so does the beauty of nature. Sometimes these interests combine in surprising ways. This was such a day.

Crystal Bridges Museum

Bentonville, Arkansas is a small town far from any centers of high culture. That it is now home to a great, new, serious art museum seems as anomalous as a Frank Lloyd Wright skyscraper in an Oklahoma prairie town. But this is America, where anything can happen.

Ann Walton, Sam Walton’s daughter and heir to the Walmart fortune, is responsible for the creation of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. At this point we don’t know much about her except for what we can infer from the museum and its collection: that she has been a passionate, knowledgeable, and very discerning collector of America’s art from its early decades until its recent past.

Roberta Smith, in her NY Times review of Crystal Bridges (December 30, 2011), said that this museum is “poised to make a genuine cultural contribution, and possibly to become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world.” I guess Kay and I are such pilgrims because Smith’s article certainly inspired us to make this visit.

Crystal Bridges Museum

It was in 2005 that Ms. Walton chose Israeli-born Boston architect Moshe Safdie to design an unusual building to bridge an unusual setting, a large ravine on the Walton family property. Safdie’s design comprises eight linked pavilions with alternating concave and convex roofs and great expanses of glass . . .

Crystal Bridges Museum

that bring the outside inside in ways that must please exponents of organic architecture.

The 400-piece permanent collection is arranged chronologically in a logical progression from art of the Colonial Period through the 19th century, to the early and late 20th.

Neither Kay nor I have backgrounds in art history, and we certainly have no claim to be art critics; however, we have haunted museums and galleries for a long time, and what we saw at Crystal Springs surprised and delighted us.

In her review, Smith characterizes the collection as having an “aesthetic populism.” Different works appeal to different levels of sophistication. To us, what we saw looked fresh. We discovered work by artists unknown to us and we saw new aspects of artists we have long admired.

We get tired of seeing the same images of the same great works represented over and over. It’s exciting to see fine work that fits existing categories and genres but is new to us.

We’ve remarked that the setting of Crystal Bridges is unusual; it is also very beautiful, especially so today, bathed in sunlight, clear air, and surrounded by a winter landscape. Manicured walking and biking trails lead to and from the museum complex. Kay and I arrived early and spent an hour walking one of these, called the Art Trail. During our walk Kay and I experienced an enormous sense of well-being and happiness at being in such surroundings on such a lovely morning.