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Architecture of Houston

The architecture of Houston includes a wide variety of award-winning and historic examples located in various areas of the city. From early in its history to current times, Houston inspired innovative and challenging building design and construction, as it quickly grew into an internationally recognized commercial and industrial hub.

Early Houston

Some of Houston's oldest and most distinctive architecture are found in the northern sections of downtown, as the city grew around Allen's Landing and the Market Square historic district, where several fine representations of 19th-century urban architecture still stand.

The Rice Hotel, built in 1912 on the former site of the old Capitol building of the Republic of Texas, was restored in 1998, after years of standing unused. The original building was razed in 1881 by Colonel A. Groesbeck, who subsequently erected a five-story hotel named the Capitol Hotel. William Marsh Rice, the founder of Rice University, purchased the building in 1883, added a five-story annex, and renamed it the Rice Hotel. Rice University then sold the building in 1911 to Jesse Jones, who demolished it and built a 17-story structure on the site. The new Rice Hotel building opened on May 17, 1913. This historic hotel now serves as an apartment building known as The Rice Lofts.

The historic Trinity Church in midtown on Main Street, which dates from 1919, is a neo-Gothic structure, designed by the noted architectural firm, Cram and Ferguson, whose Houston work also includes several buildings at Rice University and the Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library. The church's Morrow Chapel was renovated in 2002 and features world-class stained glass, artwork, and liturgical furnishings by such artists as Kim Clark Renteria, Kermit Oliver, Troy Woods, Shazia Sikander, and Selven O’Keef Jarmon.

The Texas State Hotel was built in 1926 from a design by architect Joseph Finger, who also created the plans for Houston's City Hall. The hotel is notable for its Spanish Renaissance detailing and ornate metal canopies, which remain largely intact even though the building had, until recently, been vacant since the mid-1980s. The hotel is a designated City of Houston landmark, and with refurbished ornate terra cotta detailing on the façade, it has been returned to active use.

The Gulf Building, now called the JPMorgan Chase building, is one of the preeminent Art Deco skyscrapers in the southern United States. Completed in 1929, it remained the tallest building in Houston until 1963, when the Exxon Building surpassed it in height. Designed by architects Alfred C. Finn (designer of the San Jacinto Monument), Kenneth Franzheim, and J.E.R. Carpenter, the building is seen as a realization of Eliel Saarinen's acclaimed (but unsuccessful) entry to the Chicago Tribune Tower competition. Restoration of the building was started in 1989, in what is still considered one of the largest privately funded preservation projects in American history.

Once the crown jewels of Houston's skyline, the Niels and Mellie Esperson buildings are the only complete examples of Italian Renaissance architecture in Downtown Houston. Designed by John Eberson, the two buildings were built in 1927 and 1941, respectively. They are detailed with massive columns, great urns, terraces, and a grand tempietto at the top, similar to one built in the courtyard of San Pietro in Rome in 1502. Mellie Esperson had the first building constructed for her husband, Niels, a real estate and oil tycoon. His name is carved on the side of the building in large letters at street level. The name "Mellie Esperson" is carved on the accompanying structure, known as the Mellie Esperson building, although it is really just a nineteen-story annex to the original building.

Designed by Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick, the Shamrock Hotel was an eighteen-story building constructed between 1946 and 1949 with a green tile pitched roof and 1,100 rooms. The hotel was conceived by wildcatter Glenn McCarthy as a city-sized hotel scaled for conventions with a resort atmosphere. The Shamrock was located in a suburban area three miles (5 km) southwest of downtown Houston on the fringes of countryside and was meant to be the first phase of a much larger indoor shopping and entertainment complex called McCarthy Center, anchored alongside the planned Texas Medical Center. At the hotel's north side was a five-story building containing a 1,000-car garage and exhibition hall. To the south was the hotel's lavishly landscaped garden designed by Ralph Ellis Gunn, a terrace and an immense swimming pool measuring 165 by described as the world's biggest outdoor pool, which accommodated exhibition waterskiing and featured a 3 story-high diving platform with an open spiral staircase.

The 18-story Prudential Building, designed by Kenneth Franzheim, was constructed in 1952 in the Texas Medical Center. The ground level walls of the Prudential Building are clad with deep red polished Texas granite; the upper floors on the northwest and northeast sides are clad in Texas limestone. The southwest and southeast sides, though, were faced with full-height aluminum arrangements to "utilize solar rays and air circulation to effect economies in air conditioning." It was the first skyscraper in Houston to be located outside of the central business district.

Middle and late century


In the 1960s, Downtown Houston was a modest collection of mid-rise office structures, but has since grown into one of the largest skylines in the United States. In 1960, the central business district had 10 million square feet (1,000,000 ) of office space, increasing to about 16 million square feet (1,600,000 m²) in 1970. Downtown Houston was on the threshold of a boom in 1970 with 8.7 million square feet (870,000 m²) of office space planned or under construction and huge projects being launched by real estate developers.

The largest proposed development was the 32-block Houston Center. Only a small part of the original proposal was ultimately constructed. Other large projects included the Cullen Center, Allen Center, and towers for Shell Oil Company. The surge of skyscrapers mirrored the skyscraper booms in other cities, such as Los Angeles and Dallas. Houston experienced another downtown construction spurt in the 1970s with the energy industry boom.

The first major skyscraper to be constructed in Houston was the 50-floor, tall One Shell Plaza in 1971. A succession of skyscrapers were built throughout the 1970s, culminating with Houston's tallest skyscraper, the 75-floor, tall JPMorgan Chase Tower (formerly the Texas Commerce Tower), which was designed by the world-renown I. M. Pei and completed in 1982. As of 2002, it was the tallest man-made structure in Texas, the ninth-tallest building in the United States and the twenty-third-tallest skyscraper in the world.

Pennzoil Place, designed by Philip Johnson and built in 1976, is Houston's most award-winning skyscraper and is widely known for its innovative design. Johnson's forward thinking brought about a new era in skyscraper design, which is evidenced in other buildings around Houston and throughout the world that he designed. The 46-story One Houston Center, which was built in 1978, is 207 m (678 ft) tall and was designed by S.I. Morris Associates, Caudill Rowlett Scott, and 3D/International.

The Fulbright Tower, built in 1982 and designed by Caudill Rowlett & Scott Architects, is a fifty-two story tower constructed of steel with suspended concrete on metal deck floor slabs. The exterior wall consists of a ribbon window wall with granite spandrel panels and aluminum framed windows with insulated glazing. The spandrel panels are polished granite supported by a steel truss system. The interior wall surfaces are constructed of Italian flame cut Rosa Beta granite, quarried in Sardinia, mixed with Makore wood and stainless steel trim.

In 1983, the Wells Fargo Bank Plaza was completed, which became the second-tallest building in Houston and in Texas, and the 11th-tallest in the country. It was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Lloyd Jones Brewer and Associates and supposedly resembles an abstracted dollar sign in plan. From street level, the building is 71 stories tall, or 296 m (972 ft) tall. It also extends four more stories below street level.

The Bank of America Center (formerly the RepublicBank Center, NCNB Center, and NationsBank Center) is one of the first significant examples of postmodern architecture built in downtown Houston. The building, completed in 1984 and designed by award winning architect Phillip Johnson and partner John Burgee, is reminiscent of the Dutch Gothic architecture of canal houses that were once common in The Netherlands. The first section is twenty-one-stories tall, while the whole building reaches a height of fifty-six stories.

Heritage Plaza is a 53 story, 232 m, tower in downtown. The building, designed by M. Nasar & Partners P.C., was completed in 1986. The building is known for the granite Mayan temple design on the top, which was inspired by the architect's visit to the Mexican Yucatán. It was the last major office building completed in downtown Houston prior to the collapse of the Texas real estate, banking, and oil industries in the 1980s.

In 1999, the Houston-based Enron Corporation began construction of a forty-floor skyscraper. Designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates and Kendall/Heaton Associates, and completed in 2002, the building was originally known as the Enron Center. The company collapsed in one of the most dramatic corporate failures in the history of the United States only two years later.


The Uptown District, located on Interstate 610 West (referred to locally as the "West Loop") between U.S. Highway 59 and Interstate 10, boomed along with Houston during the 1970s and early 1980s. During that time the area grew from farm land in the late 1960s to an impressive collection of high-rise office buildings, residential properties of all types and retail establishments, including the Houston Galleria. The area is a prime example of what architectural theorists call the edge city. In the late 1990s Uptown Houston saw construction of many mid- and high-rise residential buildings of the tallest being about 30 stories.

The tallest structure in Uptown Houston is the tall, Philip Johnson-designed, landmark Williams Tower (formerly "Transco Tower"), which was constructed in 1983. At the time, it was to be the world's tallest skyscraper outside of a city's central business district. The building is topped with a rotating spot light that constantly searches the horizon. Williams Tower was named "Skyscraper of the Century" in the December 1999 issue of Texas Monthly magazine.

The Uptown District is also home to other notable structures designed by award-winning architects such as I. M. Pei, César Pelli and Philip Johnson, including Saint Martin's Episcopal Church (with spires and antennae reaching into the sky), which was designed by Jackson & Ryan Architects and completed in 2004. St. Martin's was featured on the covers of three national magazines: Civil Engineering magazine (April 2005), Modern Steel Construction magazine (May 2005) and Structure magazine (December 2005).

The Doubletree Hotel Post Oak/Galleria, designed by I. M. Pei, is one of Houston’s true architectural treasures. Its twin towers are joined by a spacious lobby with a curved glass ceiling that, by day, lights up the entire space. The hotel has more than 30,000 sq ft (3,000 m²). of meeting space and 448 guestrooms, including two 3,000 sq ft (300 m²). presidential suites and is only one block from the famous Galleria Mall. In 2005, the hotel was renovated to reflect a more contemporary style that mirrors the original design. It was renamed the Hilton Houston-Post Oak.

The Theater District

The Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, commonly known as Jones Hall, is a performance venue in Houston and the permanent home of the Houston Symphony Orchestra and the Houston Society for the Performing Arts. Completed in October 1966 at the cost of $7.4 million, it was designed by the Houston-based architectural firm Caudill Rowlett Scott. The hall, which takes up an entire city block, features a white Italian marble exterior with eight-story tall columns. The lobby is dominated by a high ceiling featuring a massive hanging bronze sculpture by Richard Lippold entitled "Gemini II." The ceiling of the concert hall consists of 800 hexagonal segments which can be raised or lowered to change the acoustics of the hall. The building won the 1967 American Institute of Architects' Honor Award, which is bestowed on only one building annually.

The present Alley Theatre building opened in November 1968 and hosts two stages. The main stage has 824 seats and is called the "Hubbard"; the more intimate, 310-seat stage, is the "Neuhaus." Outside, nine towers and open-air terraces give the Alley Theatre a castle-like quality. Inside, a staircase spirals from the entrance vestibule to the second-floor lobby. The theatre was constructed thanks in a large part to a $1.4 million grant from the Ford Foundation to support innovative theater architecture, and the prime architect on the project was Ulrich Franzen.

The Wortham Theater Center is a performing arts center that officially opened in Houston on May 9, 1987. The Center was designed by Eugene Aubrey of Morris Architects and built entirely with $66 million in private funds. The Brown Theater, with 2,423 seats, is named for donors Alice and George Brown. It is used primarily for opera and large ballet productions. The Cullen Theater, with 1,100 seats, is named for donors Lillie and Roy Cullen. It is used for smaller ballet productions and other events. The Wortham's signature arching entryway is made of glass and stands tall. The grand staircase (which is actually a bank of escalators) is surrounded by a site-specific art piece created by New York sculptor Albert Paley.

The Lyric Centre sits in the heart of the Theater District, just across the street from the Wortham Center and next door to the Alley Theatre. The black-and-white striped office building houses dozens of law firms, but the block on which the tower sits is perhaps best known for the giant cellist playing outside. It is the work of sculptor David Addickes, who also created the statue of Sam Houston outside Huntsville, Texas.

The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts is a relatively new addition to the Theatre District. It was designed by architect Robert A. M. Stern and completed in 2002, providing two elegant theaters generated specifically for theater and musical performances. Sarofim Hall, a 2,600-seat theater acoustically designed for touring Broadway productions, is home to "Theatre Under the Stars." Zilkha Hall, an intimate 500-seat venue with full orchestra pit, showcases smaller touring groups. The Hobby building also houses Artista, an upscale café offering lunch and dinner, as well as post-show desserts, appetizers and beverages.

The Museum District

The original building of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, designed by William Ward Watkin, was opened in 1924. It was the first art museum built in Texas and the third in the South. The museum building has continue to evolve throughout the years. Cullinan Hall, designed by Mies van der Rohe in the International style, opened in 1958. In the 1970s, that addition received an addition, also designed by van der Rohe. Both additions were statements of modern architecture utilizing an abundance of glass and steel forming a light and airy space.

In 1968, the present Miller Outdoor Theatre building, designed by Eugene Werlin and Associates, won several awards, including the American Iron and Steel Institute’s Biannual Award (1969), the American Institute of Steel Construction’s Award of Excellence, and the James E. Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation Award. The 1968 theatre building was refurbished starting in 1996, adding a small stage to the east end of the facility that plays to a newly incorporated open plaza area.

Also in the Museum District is the non-denominational Rothko Chapel, founded by John and Dominique de Menil, designed by Mark Rothko and Philip Johnson and completed in 1971. The interior serves not only as a chapel, but also as a major work of modern art. On its walls are fourteen black but color hued paintings by Mark Rothko, who greatly influenced the shape and design of the chapel. Rothko was given creative control, and he clashed with Philip Johnson over the plans. Rothko continued to work first with Howard Barnstone and then with Eugene Aubry, but he did not live to see the chapel's completion. In September 2000, the Rothko Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Contemporary Arts Museum occupies a stainless-steel building in a prominent site on the corner of Montrose and Bissonnet—the heart of Houston's Museum District. The highly recognizable building was designed for the Museum by the award-winning architect Gunnar Birkerts and opened its doors in 1972. In 1997, the Museum went through its first major facility renovation in 25 years.

In addition, the Chapel of St. Basil, on the nearby campus of the University of St. Thomas, is a unique work of art designed by Philip Johnson that has won many awards for its architecture. The Chapel, which was built in 1997, contrasts with all of the other buildings on campus, as it is made of white stucco and black granite rather than rose-colored brick. It is also composed of three geometric forms: the cube, the sphere, and the plane. The cube makes up the majority of the building, including the main seating area, while the dome (a semi-sphere) rises high above the cube. The granite plane bisects the cube and opens the chapel to light. The cube and plane interplay with the dome, creating a sense that the dome is not a cover for the Chapel, but rather an opening to the heavens.

Residential architecture

Houston is home to various styles of residential architecture, from the mansions of River Oaks and Memorial to row houses in the several wards. A number of Houston's earliest homes are now located in Sam Houston Park, including the Kellum-Noble House, which was built in 1847 and is Houston's oldest brick dwelling. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Kellum-Noble House served as a public office for the City of Houston's Park Department, and it is listed as an Historic American Building by the U.S. Library of Congress.

The Nichols-Rice-Cherry House (which was moved from San Jacinto Street) is also located in Sam Houston Park. It is an example of Greek Revival architecture and was built about 1850 by Ebeneezer B. Nichols from New York. Between 1856 and 1873 it was owned by financier William Marsh Rice, whose estate helped create Rice Institute (now Rice University) in 1912.

Homes in the Heights have varied architectural styles, including Victorian, Craftsman and Colonial Revival. The neighborhood is composed of several large homes and many smaller cottages and bungalows, many built in the late 19th and early 20th century. After 1905, Victorian cottages tended to be replaced by bungalows. The use of the roof as a prominent formal component of the design was a distinguishing feature of the bungalow, as were its more emphatically pillared verandas. The bungalow's more spacious two-story counterpart was what is now called the "four-square"-type house, the name is derived from its block-like proportions.

While there are a few examples in the Heights of the columned Colonial Revival, the most popular "elite" house type in the 1910 era, other upscale houses were adapted from specific historical models popular in the 1920s, such as the Shefer House with its Dutch Colonial gambrel roof and the stucco-surfaced, Mediterranean villa-type Tibbott House on Harvard Street, with French doors opening the interior of the house to its site and an east side loggia replacing the old-fashioned front porch. Since deed-restriction enforcement is mandated in the Heights area, a majority of the houses built during the turn of the century and early 20th century still retain the old Heights character.

Many of the homes built in the Eastwood neighborhood represent Craftsman, Arts and Crafts, Foursquare and Mission Revival architectural styles. Eastwood was one of Houston’s first master-planned subdivisions. Developed in 1913 by William A. Wilson, who also developed its sister neighborhood, Woodland Heights, Eastwood has one of Houston’s largest collections of homes designed in these early-20th-century styles. In the newer section of Eastwood (built from the 1920s and 1930s), there are bungalows, prairie, colonial and federal styles.

Post-war housing constructed throughout Houston reflects many architectural styles, from the more traditional to the innovative and unique. Although most houses built for the "baby boomers" reflect designs that had been around for decades, a number of homes were designed in the mid-century modern style, featuring flat or butterfly roofs, open floor plans, walls of glass, atriums and patios. A good example of this style is the Thaxton House, located in Bunker Hill Village, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1954.

Memorial Bend is made up of 1950s and early 1960s homes built in the modern (contemporary), ranch, and traditional styles. The neighborhood is considered to have the highest concentration of mid-century modern homes in Houston. Architects who designed homes in this neighborhood include William Norman Floyd, William R. Jenkins, William F. Wortham and Lars Bang. Many of the homes in Memorial Bend were featured in national architecture and design magazines like American Builder, House & Home, Practical Builder, Better Homes & Gardens and House Beautiful.

Starting in the late twentieth century, many traditional homes, townhomes and high-rise condominiums were constructed (or converted) for residents wishing to live in the downtown and inner-loop area, spurred by a focused revitalization effort after years of suburban exodus. These emerging urban dwellings can be found in an eclectic array of styles.

The Commerce Towers, originally developed in 1928 by noted Houston businessman Jesse H. Jones as an office building, has been converted into condominiums. In addition, many old office buildings and warehouses surrounding downtown have been recently converted to lofts. The Humble Towers Lofts, built in 1921, was originally the headquarters for Humble Oil. The Beaconsfield Lofts are registered with the US Interior Department's National Register of Historic Places.

Public facilities

City and county government

The Houston City Hall building, constructed in 1938-1939, is an example of Works Progress Administration architecture. The simply designed structure featured many construction details that have helped to make this building an architectural classic. The design on the lobby floor depicts the protective role of government. The doors feature historical figures including Thomas Jefferson, Julius Caesar, and Moses. Above the lobby entrance is a stone sculpture depicting two men taming a wild horse. The sculpture meant to symbolize a community coming together to form a government to tame the world around them. The plaster cast for this sculpture, and twenty-seven casts for friezes around the building, were done by Beaumont artist Herring Coe and co-designer Raoul Jassett.

The George R. Brown Convention Center was opened on September 26, 1987 on the east side of downtown Houston. The sleek 100 foot (30 m) high red-white-and-blue building replaced the obsolete Albert Thomas Convention Center, which was later redeveloped into the Bayou Place entertainment complex in the downtown Houston Theater District. The George R. Brown contains nearly a half-million square feet of exhibit space, 41 meeting rooms, a 3,600-seat theater area and a 31,000 square foot (2,900 m²) grand ballroom.

The new Harris County Civil Courthouse, which was completed in early 2006, is 17-stories tall plus a basement. The 660,000 square foot (61,000 m²) building is filled with state-of-the-art technology and has 37 typical courtrooms, 1 tax courtroom, 1 ceremonial courtroom and 6 expansion courtrooms. It also has a three-story atrium lobby with thirteen elevators and two escalators. The courthouse is flood protected to an elevation of and is accessible via tunnel from the existing downtown tunnel system. Interior finishes include limestone, granite, wood veneers, terrazzo and stainless steel.

Movie theaters

The River Oaks Theatre was built in 1939. It is among only a handful of currently viable retail buildings of its age and historic style in Houston. It was the last of the deluxe neighborhood movie theaters built by Interstate Theatre Corporation and the only one of its kind still operating as a movie theater.

As Houston and the rest of the country recovered from the Great Depression, art-deco style theaters of the late 1930s were built in many residential neighborhoods across the city. In addition to the River Oaks, neighborhood movie theaters like the Alabama, Tower, Capitan, and Ritz/Majestic Metro were several of the venues where Houstonians sought entertainment. The Alabama and Tower are currently being operated as a bookstore and a video outlet, respectively.

The Majestic Theater, designed by John Eberson and constructed downtown in 1923, is considered to be the most notable movie theatre built in the city. The design was not of a standard theatre interior, but an outdoor plaza and garden of with a starlit sky overhead. The Mediterranean blue ceiling, inset with twinkling lights, featured clouds that floated over the heads of the audience during screenings. The Majestic was the world’s first “atmospheric” movie theatre.


Designed by architect Joseph Finger (who also designed Houston's City Hall), the Houston Municipal Airport Terminal was constructed in 1940 to meet Houston's growing role as a center for air commerce in the 1930s. The terminal building is an example of classic art deco airport architecture from the 1940s. The terminal served as the primary commercial air terminal for Houston until 1954. The terminal, located at William P. Hobby Airport, houses the 1940 Air Terminal Museum which currently exhibits several collections focusing on Houston's aviation history.


The 70,000-seat Rice Stadium, designed in 1950 by Hermon Lloyd & W.B. Morgan and Milton McGinty, is of reinforced concrete with diameter columns supporting the upper decks. Architecturally, the stadium is an example of modernism, with simple lines and an unadorned, functional design. The entire lower seating bowl is located below the surrounding ground level. Intended solely for football games, the stadium has excellent sightlines from almost every seat.

The Astrodome, the world's first domed stadium, was conceived by Roy Hofheinz and designed by architects Hermon Lloyd & W.B. Morgan, and Wilson, Morris, Crain and Anderson. Structural engineering and structural design was performed by Walter P Moore Engineers and Consultants of Houston. It stands 18 stories tall, covering 9½ acres. The stadium is in diameter and the ceiling is above the playing surface, which itself sits below street level. Despite innovations necessitated by the novelty of the design (including the modest flattening of the supposed "hemispherical roof" to deal with environmentally-induced structural deformation and the use of a new paving process called "lime stabilization" to deal with soil consistency issues and facilitate paving) the Astrodome was completed in November 1964, six months ahead of schedule.

Located near the Astrodome, Reliant Stadium is a wonder of modern sports facility design and engineering. The 69,500-seat stadium has a natural grass playing field and a retractable roof—a first for the NFL. There are also 165 private suites, 8,200 club seats, and more than 400 concession and novelty stands. The playing field is palletized and removable, allowing for the addition of a significant layer of dirt to accommodate the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, or use the concrete floor for concerts, trade shows, and conventions.

Other landmarks

The San Jacinto Monument is a 570 foot (173.7 m)-high column topped with a 220-ton star that commemorates the site of the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution. The monument, dedicated on April 21, 1939, is the world's tallest monument tower and masonry tower, and is located along the Houston Ship Channel. The column is an octagonal shaft faced with Cordova shellstone. It is the second tallest monument in the United States. The monument was designated a National Historic Landmark on December 19, 1960, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was also designated an Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1992.

The Williams Waterwall is a multi-story sculptural fountain which sits at the south end of Williams Tower in Uptown. It and its surrounding park were built as an architectural amenity to the adjacent tower. Both the fountain and tower were designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Philip Johnson. Completed in 1983, the semi-circular fountain is tall and sits among 118 Texas Live Oak trees. Approximately 11,000 gallons of water per minute cascades down vast channeled sheets on both sides from the narrower top rim of the circle to the wider base below, Tower creating a visually striking urban waterfall that can be viewed from various buildings in the area, as well as from the adjacent freeway.

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