Masterwork of 1950s Architecture Scheduled for Implosion

A masterwork of 1950s architecture is scheduled for implosion in Houston on Sunday, Jan. 8. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center's Prudential building, designed by Architect Kenneth Franzheim in the late 1940s for Prudential Insurance Co, will be torn down for a site expansion. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest building outside of downtown.

Prudential Building, Houston: Photo: Karen Lantz, AIA / GHPA
Officials break ground on Oct. 7, 1950. They are, second from left, George E. Potter, Prudential vice president; Rear Adm. Gerald Eubanks with Prudential; Mayor Oscar Holcombe; Carrol Shanks, Prudential president; Jesse Jones; Jackson Letts, Prudential vice president; Kenneth Franzheim, architect; and Warren Bellows, contractor. (Chronicle file)
Prudential Building under construction in November 1951
Prudential Building shown in December 1959.
The 16 x 47 foot mural by New Mexico painter Peter Hurd located in the lobby of the old Prudential Building.
A view of the Prudential Building as it appears today.

Houston Chronicle, Jan. 6, 2011

At 7:52 a.m. Sunday, if all goes as planned, the Prudential Building will go out with a bang. There will be a sound like thunder, and over the course of 14 seconds, the 20-story office building will collapse in on itself, leaving behind only a smoky pile of Texas Medical Center dust.

I love a good implosion, and I could list plenty of buildings that would be vastly improved by one. But the Prudential Building isn't one of them.

"A masterwork of 1950s architecture," Houston Mod's website calls it. The American Institute of Architects' Houston Architectural Guide, by Stephen Fox, devotes roughly three times as much space to the Prudential as to the average significant building: a treatment otherwise reserved for structures as obviously world-shaking as the Astrodome.

In the late '40s, the Prudential Insurance Co. commissioned architect Kenneth Franzheim not just to design Houston's tallest building outside of downtown, but to design a regional headquarters that would wow its office workers in plenty of other ways.

When it opened in 1952, just going to your office in the morning was like a visit to an art museum crossed with a tropical vacation; the insurance business had never seemed so glamorous. There was terrazzo paving, curved walls paneled with tropical wood, and so much Chiaro marble that just walking past it made you feel rich. Peter Hurd's enormous mural, The Future Belongs To Those Who Prepare for It, turned a whole curved wall into a hay-cutting ranch scene.

At that point, a good office worker would have taken the elevator up. But the rest of us would have felt sorely tempted to continue straight through the lobby, out past the cabs, and to the right - to the building's lushly landscaped, Olympic-size swimming pool.

Prudential sold the building in 1975. Sadly, the pool was filled in long ago, and its gardens disappeared too. But until recently, while providing offices for the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the building otherwise remained its gorgeous old self.

Over time, its foundation cracked. M.D. Anderson says it would have cost more to fix the building's problems than to implode it and build a brand-new building on the same site.

Though plans aren't final, and construction probably won't begin for years, the lot will stand empty for years, used as temporary park space.

Preservationists were suspicious of the cost estimates, and they argue that at the very least, it would have been more prudent to leave the Prudential standing until construction is ready to begin. Houston has a depressing number of empty lots where important buildings used to stand, and whose planned replacements for one reason or another never materialized. Once a building is imploded, you can't wish it back.

Forty-four truckloads of furniture and fixtures were removed from the building. As usual in a demolition, the steel in the building will be recovered and recycled. But it's likely that much of the gorgeous marble, limestone and granite will turn to dust. Many adhesives used in 1952 contained asbestos, which is expensive to remove.

The good news, such as it is, is that at least the Peter Hurd mural won't turn to dust. After M.D. Anderson offered the mural, valued around $4 million, to anyone who would give it a good home, an anonymous patron donated the roughly $500,000 needed to remove, preserve, and reinstall the 16-by-46-foot ranch scene. It's currently in storage, destined for a library under construction in Artesia, N.M.

I'm glad the mural survived, and I'm glad it's found a good new home. But I wish it were staying in Houston. The past, like the future, belongs to those who prepare for it. And this time, that's Artesia - not us.

lisa.gray@chron.com


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