By Alyssa Morris
500 Chicon, the headquarters of the Texas Society of Architects, is once again undergoing a renovation. Indeed, the building’s history has been characterized by change. What began as an oil company warehouse in the 20s evolved into offices for a design firm, fd2s, and one of the first projects in a wave of revitalization sweeping East Austin. The neighborhood has changed drastically over the past 15 years, and now the office sits squarely in the middle of some of Austin’s trendiest bars and restaurants.
The original renovation, undertaken by Stern and Bucek of Houston, won a 2002 TxA Design Award. Lauding the project in the September/October 2002 issue of Texas Architect, then-editor Larry Paul Fuller, who also co-founded fd2s, praised "all the key design elements that make the building so satisfying as a place for daily work: the stairs that animate the space through bright color and human motion; the “think pad” that hovers above the studio as an area of retreat; the comfortable and deliberate contrast between what is original and what was added.”
TxA purchased the building in 2011 and has made a comfortable home here since. Due to the short window of time that the Society had to move in, only minor changes were made at the time. Designed as a creative office space, the building fit our needs and we simply “crawled into the conch shell,” according to Al York, AIA, chair of the current Facilities Committee.
But five years of use helped to highlight what we needed from the building. The current renovation project, which began this January, is called the “Building Envelope Improvement Project.” Earl Swisher, AIA, founding principal of Lawrence Group’s Austin office, is the lead architect. “The primary goal of the project, as I learned from meeting with the Society very early, was that we need to first make the place livable from an environmental standpoint,” he says. This includes upgrades to the mechanical systems and improvements to the building’s acoustics. Above all, everyone involved wants to preserve the original character of the building and the spirit of Stern and Bucek’s award-winning renovation. “My goal is that the intervention that we’ve done is respectful of the renovation that the original architects did, and to build upon that and maintain the beauty of the open space,” says Swisher. “All of the design decisions were filtered through respect for the design.”
At the moment, TxA staffers keep hard hats close by, and we wipe our desks off every morning to clear the construction dust and other detritus that comes with updating a nearly 100-year-old building. Despite the chaos, the end result will be well worth it. For now, we are hibernating for the winter in a dark basement and waiting for the day when a new building emerges (hopefully sometime in April). Next week, we’ll look more in-depth at the challenges involved in renovating the building without losing its character.
Alyssa Morris is the new communications specialist for the Texas Society of Architects. She joined the staff on March 7.