Rehabilitation in Downtown Houston

There is a growing trend in Houston to repurpose existing buildings rather than bringing on the wrecking ball. Developers are stitching noteworthy buildings back into the fabric of the city, and many once-derelict structures are coming back to life downtown. Contributing to this trend of renovation and preservation is not only the greater public interest in such projects, but also increased availability of funds for historic renovations, facade grant opportunities, and tax incentives made possible by groups such as the Downtown District Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) and other local and state organizations.

One example of a recent successful renovation in Downtown Houston is the 1932 Wilson Stationery and Printing Company Building. Originally designed by William Ward Watkin, it was one of those buildings considered to have “good bones.” Although it had stood empty for 33 years, the building’s structure was intact, and, located at the corner of Fannin and Prairie streets, the building occupied an important corner in the city. Houstonians began commenting about the state of the building on local architecture forums years ago, lamenting that nothing was being done. Even in its abandoned state, the building still showed evidence of its Moderne past, with typical 1930s detailing, high ceilings, exposed structure, and vestiges of its original showroom and printing warehouse scattered throughout. 

One of the many Houstonians taking notice of the building was Bob Fretz Jr., president and CEO of Fretz Construction. He and a group of investors formed a development partnership, 500 Fannin, LLC, to purchase the building, and, after receiving a historic facade renovation grant, they began working to renovate it with Houston-based design team Ziegler Cooper Architects. Fretz Construction served as the contractor on the project.

Often, buildings selected for renovation are architecturally significant, perhaps designed by a noteworthy architect. In such instances, especially with historic buildings, the exterior is taken back to the original design intent. Through a bit of investigation, the design team may uncover how the building originally looked — and they may even find a bit of a story related to the original design or construction. In the case of the renewal of the Wilson Stationery and Printing Company Building, now simply called 500 Fannin, an original bid sheet was found identifying the intended exterior Belgian Black granite and even the cost for renting mules for the construction activities. During the restoration construction, some forensic work was done to uncover that the original facade color was a grey-green typical of the era in which it was built, not the light tan that had been assumed.

In the last few years, renovations and restorations to important buildings in Downtown Houston, such as the historic Julia Ideson Building, the Harris County 1910 Courthouse, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, and the Byrd’s Department Store (now Georgia's Market), have taken great care in restoring both the facades and the interiors of these historic structures. In cases where buildings have architectural integrity or show a design character representative of a particular era, 

the renovations can be quite exciting, resulting in a remarkable reinvigoration of the buildings’ original spirit that had been lying dormant for years.

While the exterior restoration of the building is often an exercise in detective work, the interiors of these old buildings often require the work of a dedicated and creative team consisting of the developer, architect and contractor in order to bring the building up to current codes while respecting the historic character of the space. In every project, a careful code study coupled with numerous conversations with city building officials is required. Considerations for life-safety, heating and air conditioning, electrical concerns, fire sprinkler needs, and other code upgrades are an integral part of the process. Often, a repurposed building requires a complete renovation of the building infrastructure to bring it into code compliance. Meeting code requirements may sound daunting, but Houston’s code officials are keenly interested in working with developers who are trying to breathe new life into the city. Common sense and empathy for keeping the original character of the building are very much a part of the process in Houston.

What is most rewarding about these interior makeovers is that the resulting spaces provide experiences that would never be replicated in new buildings. Ceiling heights, exposed and interesting structural systems, the position of windows, and the refurbishing of interior materials provide unique opportunities to create interesting interior spaces. In the case of the 500 Fannin project, while the original fire stair was allowed to remain intact and preserved, a second code-compliant fire stair had to be added. This not only allowed the design team to preserve important historical aspects of the building, but also created the opportunity for a more dynamic space.

Integration of modern mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems also challenged the team. These systems were made functional by the addition of a floating wood ceiling around the core of the third and fourth floors that allowed ducts and conduits to be hidden from view, while still leaving the majority of the original structure exposed, especially near the large windows where the structure can be seen from the street.

Another long-anticipated historic renovation is the redevelopment of the Sunset Coffee Building at Allen’s Landing. San Antonio-based Lake Flato Architects worked with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, local firm BNIM, and SWA Group to reclaim the 1910 building and turn it into a recreational and cultural center. The project will break ground this summer.

These examples illustrate that creative design gestures based on "good bones" yield great dividends for building users and high praises for the forward-thinking developers who are making the effort to show us the value of recapturing the spirit of our past. As the City of Houston grows and matures, all of us would certainly benefit if this trend were to continue.