The historic Gragg Building has the Wright stuff

The historic Gragg Building has the Wright stuff

On a recent Friday, the headquarters of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department was designated a Texas Historic Landmark and  named to the National Register of Historic Places. This for a building built in 1956. For some in the crowd this was akin to hearing your favorite rock 'n' roll band on the classic rock station.

Even though the Gragg Building isn't that old, it's nice to see that in a city with a history of tearing nearly everything historic down, this structure was saved.

Formerly known as the Farnsworth and Chambers Building, it is probably more significant for the role it played in our nation’s space program than architecturally. Early in the building’s history it was the home for the fledgling NASA’s Mercury program. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard and John Glenn walked these halls, ensuring it’s preservation with their success.

Originally designed and built  by the architectural team of MacKie & Kamrath, the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is apparent. A large canopy emphasizes the horizontality of the meandering courtyard floor plan. Walls of a natural green stone taper to copper flashing, demonstrating an interest in materials that fell out of favor until today’s focus on sustainable resources.

In 1977 the building was purchased by the parks department after NASA moved out. It was renamed the Gragg Building when oil baron Oscar Lee Gragg donated the surrounding land to create Gragg Park. Originally built in an era where it seems everything was carcinogenic, renovation or even extensive cleaning was impossible because of the threat it posed to inhabitants. You can imagine the grungy buildup after 30 years until the workers were moved out and the building was completely gutted for the 14-month renovation.

It is important to note that this project is a rehabilitation. HarrisonKornberg did a careful job of noting the intent of the original architectural design without limiting themselves with dogmatic restoration. The biggest departures from the original design, addition of cove lighting in the halls and light monitors at social intersections contribute to the original floor plan’s use of natural and diffuse light.

Further restoring the original intent of the plan, a warren of cubicles has been cleared out of the cafeteria space and the employees now enjoy the benefit of additional conference areas and break spaces.

Across the street, in what was formerly a warehouse, the Recreation and Wellness building is the second part of the campus, and a playful complement. The metal structure has been carved with large storefront glass windows to create a day-lit open work area. An Astroturf-wrapped canopy hovers over the reception area and the existing steel members were painted a bright green to match. Space for a future gym hovers above, with additional room to account for future growth.

Having so much space is a marked change for a department that was previously spread about the city. Houston Parks and Recreation Department director Joe Turner is fond of saying “a farmer never throws nothin’ away.” Turner threw a  welcome party so employees in the same divisions could finally meet each other. When asked about the “new” office space provided in these refurbished buildings Joe grinned and adds a qualifier, “Well, it’s new to you.”

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The renovated Gragg Building is a great example of historic preservation — even though the structure is barely over a half-century old. Photo by Michael Stravato/©HarrisonKornberg Architects
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The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is apparent in the original Gragg Building.
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The structure housed the original Manned Spacecraft Center headquarters.
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An interior light reveals a conference room in the renovated Gragg Building. Michael Stravato/©HarrisonKornberg Architects
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Anna Mod, City Council member James Rodriguez (front), Joe Turner (back), Texas Rep. Carol Alvarado, City Council member Sue Lovell and Debra Blacklock-Sloan unveil a plaque designating the building a Historic Texas Landmark. Photo by Richard Carson