Real Estate Round-up

Big heads & busted-up buildings: Prudential goes Astrodome

Big heads & busted-up buildings: Prudential goes Astrodome

The Texas Medical Center is about to lose some of its history so that progress can continue.

The Prudential Building is going to meet the ugly grim reaper of real estate – the wrecking ball. Located at 1100 Holcombe Blvd., it was built in 1952 and it is still loved as an example of modern architecture. It is considered one of the finest designs ever conceived by Houston architect Kenneth Franzheim.

The 18-story building may have been appreciated so much because it includes a lot of native materials — red Texas granite, Texas limestone and a much-loved mural of Texas farmers with a haul of Texas produce.

When the Prudential Building opened, it was way out in the suburbs of a much younger Houston. As a boy in the back seat of Dad’s car in the 1960s, I remember passing the building often as we traveled to our suburban homestead in Foster Place. At the front of the Prudential Building was a fountain with a sculpture of a man and woman holding a baby (entitled “Wave of Life” by artist Wheeler Williams.) Even as a kid I liked the sculpture.

Back then, the Prudential Building had an Olympic swimming pool out back and over 20 acres of land. The swimming pool is long gone and the land has been chewed up for other purposes.

The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Center bought the building and surrounding property in 1974 for a reported $18.5 million. The Prudential Building was renamed the “Houston Main Building” by the hospital administrators.

Preservationists tried for years to save it. But retrofitting the old building is prohibitively expensive and more land is needed so more cancer patients can be treated in efficient new buildings. And now it’s time for the Prudential Building to go. The building is being fenced in, dismantled and will vanish forever in 2011.

As a native Houstonian, it saddens me to see the places I remember from my youth – the Astrodome, Sharpstown Mall and now the Prudential Building – become obsolete or go into decline.

The Big Heads

Places are about dreams and visions and sometimes it’s hard to for people to let go of them.

The presidential park in the WaterLights district in Pearland is one of those. WaterLights was going to have a sculpture display of all the presidential busts — from Washington to Obama.

Houston artist David Adickes, whose gigantic sculpture of Sam Houston graces the highway near Huntsville, has completed the 43 presidential sculptures for WaterLights. Six of them are already installed on the site, 20-foot busts depicting George H.W. Bush, Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Jefferson.

But they might not be there much longer and the remainder of Adickes' collection may never arrive in Pearland.

The 50-acre WaterLights development, located on Highway 288 just south of Beltway 8, is facing foreclosure, says David Goswick, one of the developers of proposed mixed-use project. Goswick’s group bought the land for $15 million in February 2007.

The WaterLights group has been posted for foreclosure by Amegy Bank, Goswick says. The bank will take over the property if Goswick’s group does not get another capital infusion or find another way to avoid foreclosure, Goswick says.

The problem wasn’t that the WaterLights development plan was bad, but other developers who wanted to build new restaurants, stores or apartments at WaterLights could not get financing because banks are reluctant to lend in today’s economy.

The people of Pearland aren’t about to let the presidential display go without a squawk. In less than a week, almost a thousand people signed up to be WaterLights “friends” on a Facebook page dedicated to saving the president statue garden, Goswick says.

If it doesn’t happen in Pearland, Goswick says the developers will find another property around Houston to display Adickes’ presidential statues.

It’s hard to kill a good idea. And it can be even harder to extinguish the dream of a developer with passion — unless, of course, the dream has a head-on collision with a wrecking ball.

Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is editor-in-chief of RealtyNewsReport.com.

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Six 20-foot-tall presidential statues at the WaterLights development in Pearland. Where will they end up? Photo by Ralph Bivins
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A close-up of the George Washington bust Photo by Ralph Bivins
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Houston Main Building, 1100 Holcombe, formerly known as the Prudential Building and now part of the M.D. Anderson complex Photo by Ben Hill