All of the buildings honored with 2017 Design Awards by the Brazos chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) were designed and constructed or renovated by firms led by architecture alumni of Texas A&M University. The renovation of the Jack K. Williams Building on the campus of Texas A&M, which earned a Merit Award, is especially significant to Aggies interested in preserving their long and storied heritage.
Nancy McCoy, one of the principals of Quimby McCoy Preservation Architecture in Dallas and a Texas A&M environmental design alumna, led the renovation of the iconic administration building on the east side of campus. The purpose of the two-year capital renewal project that began in 2014 was to meet maintenance and code compliance standards, but the firm also was able to restore aspects of the building’s original design created by Samuel Charles Phelps Vosper in 1932.
“Vosper was inspired by the idea that this building was supposed to give the impression of importance, significance and value of what was, at that time, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, and it really does speak of the highest aspirations of the institution,” said David Woodcock, professor emeritus of the Texas A&M College of Architecture.
An award-winning renovation preserves iconic campus building
McCoy and her team replaced the plumbing, electrical and air-conditioning systems, installed a fire suppression system and fire stair, improved accessibility, and uncovered elements of Vosper’s original design that were buried under layers of newer construction. Among other renovations, the carpet and dropped ceiling in the third-floor corridor were removed. Both the transom windows and those that opened from the offices to the corridor were uncovered, the marble wainscoting was cleaned, the doors were restored, the terrazzo floor was refinished, and a new ceiling was installed along with more compatible lighting. In the expansive first-floor Great Hall, decorative plasterwork and the mottled tile walls were revealed again after many years in hiding.
“The jury was impressed with the team’s approach…renovation problems were complex and the solutions subtle and elegant,” said Elizabeth Price, chair of the Design Awards Committee for the AIA Brazos, in a news release.
“It was difficult in the beginning to see how complicated it would get because we needed to accomplish practical things on a tight budget that caused the floor plan to change, which caused other work to happen,” McCoy said. “And in this process, we were able to leverage the situation to restore things lost over time.”
Vosper’s legacy lives in grand architecture on the campus of Texas A&M
The grandeur of Vosper’s work on the Texas A&M campus reveals his experience designing theaters early in his career as an architect.
“So he designed experiences for people in a day when going to the theater was special, unlike going to the cinema today where you crawl through a popcorn-laden lobby of no great value into a little, dark box to watch a film,” Woodcock said. “The whole idea was much more like going to the opera today, where you expect the building to give you a heads up that this is going to be a grand experience.”
Vosper was a native of New Jersey who fell in love with Texas, Woodcock said. After a teaching stint at the University of Texas at Austin where he significantly raised the caliber of its architecture program, he joined Texas A&M at the behest of Frederick E. Gieseke, who had just returned to the A&M College of Texas as college architect. During Vosper’s four-year tenure with the university, he became acquainted with agriculture, engineering and the state’s unique culture, and incorporated those themes throughout the Jack K. Williams Building. He combined a neoclassical design, based on the traditions of the École des Beaux-Arts, a school of architecture in Paris dating back to the 1600s, with ornate interior details featuring Texas stars and shields, cowboys and covered wagons. At the tops of the 14 ionic columns that span the front of the building, Vosper incorporated alternating carved faces of a man and a woman at what was then an all-male, military institution. The woman’s face was modeled after Sarah Orth, the daughter of the construction superintendent, and Vosper, known as “Sammy Sunshine” to his friends, was likely exercising his sense of humor, as he often did, Woodcock said.
“I think it was a bit of a wink and a nod that half the columns on the front of the building have a woman on them, and I don’t know how he got away with it,” Woodcock said. “It’s not what was normally done [at an all-male institution], but Vosper felt strongly that education was for everybody.”
Vosper, like many geniuses, was as flawed as he was brilliant, Woodcock said. Gieseke hired Raiford Stripling, one of Vosper’s former students, to ensure his mentor showed up for work at Texas A&M every day. Achieving that success usually involved “a couple of shots of whiskey for breakfast.”
Nonetheless, the amount of work, 10 buildings on the campus of Texas A&M, that Vosper produced in just four years, all with equally meticulous attention to themes and details, was nothing short of amazing by all standards, Woodcock said.
“Ten buildings in four years is mind-blowing, and the fact that they all have such an amazing quality is just astonishing,” he said. “This was an amazing opportunity that had never happened before, and it’s unlikely to ever happen again.”
Beyond Vosper’s late-night work ethic that produced a prolific body of work in a short period of time, four other factors came together symbiotically to make the projects possible, Woodcock said. The immense amount of capital necessary to construct impressive buildings was suddenly in the university’s coffers after oil was found on the West Texas land that was set aside for higher education around the beginning of the Republic; in the midst of the Great Depression, skilled workers were eager and affordable; a shift in focus from Wellborn Road on the west side of campus, where railroad cars delivered visitors, to the newly constructed Highway 6, now Texas Avenue, where visitors increasingly began arriving by motorcar, called for a prominent new building on the campus’ east side; and finally, during a time when fields such as engineering, agriculture, veterinary medicine and chemistry were rapidly advancing, specialized educational facilities were required across the campus.
“The built environment is as important as what happens in the classrooms and the quality of the faculty, students and staff,” Woodcock said. “It all shapes the university and reflects who we are, and that’s why I’m so excited that these buildings that speak are part of that history.”
Last month, the Texas A&M University Press published, “Architecture That Speaks,” co-authored by McCoy and Woodcock following two years of research. The lavishly illustrated book relates the history of Vosper’s 10 buildings on the campus of Texas A&M. Photography was provided by Dallas photographer Carolyn Brown.
The 1881 Historic Casino Hall Building Renovation, Citizens State Bank Expansion
Ben Boettcher, owner of BBA Architects of Brenham, and a 1972 environmental design and 1974 master of architecture alumnus of Texas A&M, led the renovation of the1881 Historic Casino Hall Building in LaGrange that earned the 2017 AIA Brazos Honor Award. He and his team also earned the Divine Detail Award for Citizens State Bank’s 10,739-square-foot expansion in Brenham.
“The jury applauded the craftsmen and design team…for their relentless attention to detail and respectful integration of new and old,” said AIA Brazos Chair of the Design Awards Committee Elizabeth Price in a news release. “The City of LaGrange was the client and deserves kudos for its vision for the next 100 years in preserving this special piece of local culture.”
Originally a gathering place for early German immigrants, the building has since served as a school, a fire station and a senior center during its 130-year life, before falling into a state of disrepair. The renovation converted the two-story space into an exhibit and entertainment center for the community. The first floor serves as a gallery display and visitor’s center while the second floor seats more than 340 people, including balcony seating, and features a stage for performances.
The firm created the visual identity for all the Citizens State Bank buildings, and the expansion project created an even more refined look by using bands of chopped stone veneer with new sawn-cut faced stone slabs. The expansion included a new loan lobby with adjacent new accounts spaces enclosed with glass office fronts to enhance the bank’s focus on customer service. The existing bank lobby was repurposed as a community room with the addition of its own serving space allowing for catered events.
“BBA Architecture received the award for extending the language of the existing structure with a renewed focus on material craft and detail that welcomes customers,” said Price of the expansion project in a news release.
The Rx Pizza Renovation
Matthew Faulkner and Brian Gibbs, founding principals of PACT Design Studio in Bryan, and 2002 and 2003 environmental design and 2006 master of architecture alumni of Texas A&M, led the renovation of the historic downtown pharmacy into Rx Pizza, which earned a 2017 AIA Brazos Merit Award.
“The jury felt that the adaptation and use of artifacts from the building would provoke interesting conversation in this dynamic space,” Price said in an AIA Brazos news release.
By concentrating on the building’s history in the architecture of the new, contemporary pizza restaurant, the architects were able to avoid erasing its past.
“The exterior remains largely unchanged, preserving the urban fabric of historic Downtown Bryan, while…two extraordinary elements were preserved and incorporated into the new [interior] design, the original mosaic floor tiles and pressed metal ceilings,” Faulkner said.
The architects used dark wood, representing the old, for the apothecary shelves behind the bar, the benches and other details throughout the restaurant. They used bright red, representing the new, for the “ribbon,” which ties elements of the restaurant together. The ribbon traces a path through the restaurant from the Rx Pizza logo, forming the bar, wrapping around the shelves, and, ultimately, ending at the pizza oven – the heart of the restaurant.
Custom light fixtures built into the apothecary shelves are made from empty pill casings to diffuse light. The shelves are lined with old pill bottles (sans medicine), which were discovered in boxes during the renovation.
Construction of the TDI-Brooks International World Headquarters
Charlie Burris, co-founder of Arkitex Studio in Bryan, and 1973 environmental design alumnus of Texas A&M, led the design team in the construction of the TDI-Brooks International World Headquarters in College Station that earned a 2017 AIA Brazos Divine Detail Award.
The 53-acre campus features an office and laboratory, linked by a covered bridge structure over a landscape feature, including a running stream. The campus replaces multiple, scattered offices of the oceanographic research center.
“Priorities for their new headquarters included balancing transparency with security and incorporating the nautical focus of their work into the design,” Burris said.
The two linked buildings form a gentle curve oriented toward a large lake. The predominantly glass exterior walls protected by deep overhangs provide spectacular views of the natural surroundings.
“The building is a fragile veil between the inside and outside,” Burris said. “The inside conditioned environment is connected as closely as possible to natural setting.”
One gabled roof runs the depth of the building from front to back, and views beyond the back of the building are apparent through the glass front, becoming clearer as employees and visitors move further into the building experience.
“The Arkitex Studio received the award for refinement of the building envelope, reinforcing the connection to nature,” stated the AIA Brazos in a news release.
AIA Brazos, a 75-member professional organization, gives awards every other year to recognize outstanding work of architects in the region.
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