Culture

High-Profile New Hotel Works to Save a Historic Tower in Texas Medical Center

This Ambitious Project is a Rare Win for Preservation in Houston

BY // 03.27.19

Houston’s newest high-profile hotel project is a win for preservationists —  an unlikely but fortuitous outcome for a once acclaimed modernist building, which until recently was used solely as a parking garage.

Come early 2020, a flagship Westin Houston Medical Center will open at 1709 Dryden Road, located in an enviable site between Main and Fannin amidst the world’s largest medical complex.

The ambitious 382,000-square-foot redevelopment — which also boasts renewed retail and restaurant spots along its streetscape — is blocks from the leafy campus of Rice University and a quick rail ride to the Museum District.

While it will bear all the hallmarks of the Westin brand, including nature-informed aesthetics and an emphasis on wellness, what will be a game-changer is the building the new hotel will inhabit: a handsomely restored and updated temple to modernism devised by a leading Houston architectural firm of its day, with a boost from an architect who would go on to win the Pritzker Prize.

This 18-story skyscraper is also a bookend to an iconic work of architecture in New York.

Over the decades, the architecturally significant structure began to languish in obscurity despite its prime location within the Texas Medical Center, directly across from Houston Methodist and Texas Children’s Hospital.

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Then a Houston-headquartered group stepped in.

A Pearl Surprise

“The Medical Towers was one of the first uses of the curtain wall in North America,” Mark Benoit, design consultant with MBCM Inc., told PaperCity during a private hardhat tour this week at 1709 Dryden.

Canada-based Benoit has been brought in by Pearl Hospitality to oversee the challenge of updating the mid-century tower to its next usage.

Pearl’s current project is its most high profile in terms of architectural implications: an International-style masterwork designed by modernist Houston firm Golemon & Rolfe with Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, brought on as a consulting architect.

The structure was so significant that it merited a New York Times article in 1953, when it was announced. Design was finalized in 1954 and construction ensued, with the building dedicated in September 1956.

Its title, Medical Towers, proclaimed a new concept for the then-nascent Medical Center: a building solely dedicated to practicing medicine.

As reported by The New York Times Sunday, June 28, 1953, the idea for the avant-garde architectural statement “had its origin … when a group of physicians thought it possible to create a medical office structure designed and built for that purpose only.”

Martin Nadelman developed the property; he was also the developer of the luxury Memorial neighborhood Sandalwood of the same era. He was joined by a group of physicians who formed the Center Medical Building Corporation in the early 1950s. The $4 million project foreshadowed the rising importance of the Texas Medical Center.

Dr. Richard Leigh, president of the Center Medical Building Corporation, was cited by the Times as the leader of the doctors’ group that propelled the idea for the new building. Dr. Leigh was a pioneering ophthalmologist at the Texas Medical Center; he co-founded the Department of Ophthalmology at St. Luke’s, then went on to head it.

When Medical Towers was unveiled on Monday, September 17, 1956, Mayor Oscar Holcombe led the opening ceremonies alongside Nadelman, president of the development corporation. As the Houston Chronicle detailed in a Sunday, September 16, 1956, story: “Medical Towers, a building of striking appearance, won for its designers … a special award from Progressive Architecture, one of the nation’s leading architectural magazines.”

Medical Towers, c. 1950s
Medical Towers, circa 1950s

The building, with its SOM pedigree, would also go on to garner an American Institute of Architects Award.

In its heyday, 175 medical professionals — reflecting all specialties of medical and dental practices — had practices in the tower that rose above the low-slung horizontal base of the building.

Floors two through four provided parking complete with attendants, as well as a concierge-type experience — delivering packages up to parked cars — from the retail shops that lined the first floor.

Today, the name of its primary architects — Houston and Beaumont firm Golemon & Rolfe — does not elicit widespread recognition, despite its involvement with terminal design for Bush Intercontinental Airport in the late 1960s, as well as the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Humble Oil (later ExxonMobil) Building (now 800 Bell).

Their consulting architect, however, is a different matter.

That would be Gordon Bunshaft, whose iconic Lever House was designed in 1952, rising in Midtown Manhattan, and considered a touchstone of the International style of architecture.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House, 1952, designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft (Photo copyright Ezra Stoller / Esto, courtesy SOM)
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House, 1952, designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft (Photo copyright Ezra Stoller / Esto, courtesy SOM)

Designated a landmark by the City of New York a mere 30 years after its completion, Lever House’s timeless design was a catalyst for Bunshaft (1909 – 1990) receiving the Pritzker Prize in 1988. The award, analogous to a Nobel but for architecture, was bestowed to mark the 10th anniversary of the Pritzkers, with Bunshaft sharing the award with an architect from South America, the equally iconic modernist Oscar Niemeyer.

Rice University’s Stephen Fox, a noted architectural historian and preservationist, writes in the American Institute of Architects Houston Architectural Guide: “SOM’s first Houston building … Medical Towers [was] an example of the Lever House design Houstonized by converting the floating base at the bottom of the building into a parking garage.”

The Next Chapter

Sanghvi’s Houston-headquartered firm, Pearl Hospitality, is giving a second chance to a building could have easily been destined for the wrecking ball.

Not only is this mid-century building being saved, but it now boasts a National Register of Historic Places designation and will, within approximately a year, become a hub for Museum District visitors and those traveling to the Texas Medical Center.

The transformation will walk the delicate line between preserving and repurposing: as a state-of-the-art new hotel — the Westin Houston Medical Center, a 273-room complex (including 26 apartment-sized suites).

Besides the room amenities, the new Westin will serve the community.

Sanghvi and his Pearl team are the same hospitality group that revitalized and now run the JW Marriott at 806 Main Street in downtown Houston, a much praised project among preservationists that won a 2015 Good Brick Award from Preservation Houston for its innovative reuse of the 1910-era SF Carter Building.

See why the National Trust bestowed an award upon the JW Marriott:

Behind the Scenes at the New Westin, Seeing Blue

Flash forward 63 years, and the Medical Towers are being readied for their next incarnation.

It’s the afternoon of my hard-hat insider tour.

I’ve navigated an active construction zone filled with jackhammering and dust, peered into completed model rooms (awaiting the Westin seal of approval) that make my own casa look ready for a makeover, then traversed the fifth-floor roof, where one of the most exciting additions is taking place: the construction of a new lobby and arrival zone, where a restaurant, a pool that grazes the live oak treetops facing Main Street, and a 600-seat ballroom pavilion are set to make this new Westin one of the most watched properties in the brand.

Before our rooftop jaunt, we cluster in a meeting room to look over architectural renderings and room designs.

Sanghvi has reunited the dream team who made the JW Marriott possible: William Franks on the development side of Pearl and, in from Toronto, Mark Benoit, design consultant with MBCM Inc., who once again was imported to make a historic elephant of a building nimble, relevant, and a new nexus for both hotel visitors and community.

Franks speaks of the affinities between saving the SF Carter Building and the Medical Towers: “The commonality of these two different buildings, in different locations, built at different times in the City of Houston’s history, is that they both deserved to survive the wrecking ball, to be brought back to their glory and live to tell their story, to a new generation of Houstonians.”

Also at the table is Natalie Wiseman, regional director of sales and marketing for this new Westin.

Wiseman is already setting up meetings with nonprofits about booking galas at the reborn building’s new party pavilion.

Art Hotel Power

While the JW Marriott does board a collection of mostly paintings and photography — Gonzo247, Allison Hunter, and Nicola Parente number among the Houston artists — Sanghvi hints that sculpture will be the focus at the new Westin.

Pearl is open to returning to the JW Marriott model of highlighting Houston’s ample talent base, he tells PaperCity.

With the Westin’s emphasis on natural materials, Benoit led us through renderings of the lobby and restaurant scheme that provided opportunities for sculpture and also for these three-dimensional works to migrate throughout the public spaces.

Rendering of the east lobby, Westin Houston Medical Center. The space provides opportunities for sculpture. Pearl Hospitality is open to the idea of placing works by Houston artists throughout the hotel’s fifth-floor public spaces.
Rendering of the east lobby, Westin Houston Medical Center. The space provides opportunities for sculpture. Pearl Hospitality is open to the idea of placing works by Houston artists throughout the hotel’s fifth-floor public spaces.

Don’t expect art in the rooms. In place of ubiquitous hotel art, natural materials including marble, textiles, and porcelain tile that could pass for river rock provide a neutral, but warm background for a stay. All of the above are hallmarks of the Westin identity, notes Benoit.

Preservation Not Demolition

Countless meetings with the Texas Historical Commission have yielded a design solution that Pearl, MBCM, BRR Architecture (headquartered in Kansas City), and the preservationists can all feel good about.

The new lobby and pavilion are workable for the hotel, yet not obtrusive from the ground level, so they won’t destroy the modernist vibe of the building.

There’s been a lot of money spent to get to this point, after Pearl gained control of the building in 2016. Demo commenced in the summer of 2017.

But Sanghvi won’t reveal numbers. We talk about tax credits, which were part of the decision to go for preservation over bulldozing, but clearly there’s another factor at play for Pearl.

This group of four gazes out the window and point out the Medical Towers’ most distinctive features, still gleaming in the sun, reflecting its facade off a nearby high-rise: the handsome blue-gray porcelain-enameled panels that make up the curtain wall, now being restored to their original luster. (Houston-based Edge Architectural Restoration, which works on skyscraper facades countrywide, was tapped for this project.)

The Pearl VP talks about the curtain wall, how more than 60 years later the building is so impeccably built that there was no need to shore up any leaks when they began renovation. There weren’t any.

The past, it’s obvious, has a quality to add that a ground-up building will never possess.

Medical Towers as shown during its first decade. In the coming year, this National Register building will be reborn as the Westin Houston Medical Center.
Medical Towers as shown during its first decade. In the coming year, this National Register building will be reborn as the Westin Houston Medical Center.

Sanghvi answer the question: Why preserve?

“Historic preservation provides us the inspiration to thoughtfully design spaces that will offer guests an opportunity to experience the depth and character of Houston’s rich culture,” he tells PaperCity.

“Pearl’s goal is to create a design that enhances the guest experience and ultimately benefits the community.”

The Pearl group is also planning a time-capsule section for the new lobby, Benoit revealed.

Startling blue mosaics have been uncovered on the first floor around the elevator bank. These will be used as inspiration for new mosaics at the ground-floor arrival zone, and also possibly showcased in a vitrine on the fifth-floor lobby.

The Pearl team also has plans to research some of the original tenants of the Medical Towers and fill in the historical record as to Med Center pioneers who once hung their shingle at 1709 Dryden Road.

Stay tuned.

The Shamrock is no longer here, but at least the Medical Towers triumphed over the bulldozers. Score a win for the preservationists.

Follow the new hotel’s progress here.

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