After a slightly chilly reception from the city’s Historic Landmark Commission back in June, an adjusted plan for the 30-plus story tower imagined above the historic Royal Arch Masonic Lodge at 311 West Seventh Street in downtown Austin rides again at tonight’s Commission meeting, and its applicants — local architects Brett Rhode of Rhode Partners and Emily Little of Clayton & Little, working with Stone Development Group and DCI Engineers — will find out shortly if the changes to the new building recommended by commissioners at its last appearance will do the trick.
Committee Recommendation: Lighten the appearance of the tower, provide a greater break between the existing building and the proposed tower, and provide a detailed structural bracing plan for the protection of the historic building during construction. The applicant has complied with the recommendations of the Committee.
Staff Recommendation: Consider the request and provide feedback to the applicant so they can strategize their plans.
— Historic Landmark Commission Agenda, August 26
As seen in the agenda item above, the developers are just seeking feedback from the commission on the project’s compliance with historic preservation guidelines regarding the original lodge building, so the discussion tonight is more of a briefing than any sort of final decision. Still, it’s interesting to see the various tweaks to the new building’s design, especially since last time commissioners requested the architects show off a fuller rendering of the potential tower addition — the earlier views just showed the base and a couple of its lower floors. The architects have complied, and that means we’ve got those renderings now too:
With its blue glass and multiple cantilevered sections hanging out on the eastern and northern sides, our initial reaction is “hey, this tower looks kinda like the Independent!” That’s hardly shocking, since Rhode Partners designed both buildings and once you’ve built something like the Independent you kinda know your way around cantilevers — probably more commonly known as the things that make Austin’s own “Jenga Tower” look “Jenga-y” — but the design’s still a surprise, sharing some similarities with New York’s recent crop of super-slim towers.
The use of the building isn’t precise for the moment, with architect Rhode stating it’ll likely be a hotel, residential tower, or combination of both — we’re not saying we know anything beyond that, but there’s no doubt a lot of luxury hotel brands would enjoy using the high-rise outdoor spaces created by those cantilevered sections for a snazzy cocktail bar or two. For what it’s worth, this iteration of the project appears to remove the automated parking garage (or “car elevator”) previously discussed and instead puts restaurant and bar space on the ground floor, meaning any parking would have to be located off-site. Sounds a lot like a hotel, but what do we know?
What’s even more striking is how small the tower’s base connecting it with the historic lodge building is compared with its full mass — with the additional setbacks intended to provide a greater break between the new and old buildings, the tower section looks like it’s balancing on a finger. Structural engineering is an incredible thing, but looking at the base of the tower actually gives me mild anxiety.
Here’s a comparison between the old and new designs shown to the Commission — the one that removes the trees at the top of the lodge building is the new version:
Even with the slightly hyperbolic opposition from certain members at the last meeting, we’re hoping the tweaked version of this project wins over the Commission this time around. We’ll see how that goes tonight and update this post accordingly, but until then, we’re just enjoying getting an early look at the tower — and we do mean early, since this preliminary design is extremely likely to change at least a little as the developers slowly hammer out what they’re able to build here. We just hope everybody likes the crown this time.
UPDATE: It appears all is still not well with this project in the eyes of the Commission. The tower addition, to some commissioners, still harms elements of the original building’s historic integrity too much to recommend as seen in the images above — and thus its certificate of appropriateness application has again been delayed to the HLC meeting next month, in order to give the architects and developers more time to refine the potential tower’s design.
We have some thoughts on this whole situation, but we’ll save most of them for later. For now, check out this quote from commissioner Terri Myers, who called the project a “desecration of a historic building” back in June:
“It’s another Jenga building.”
— Commissioner Myers
Ask yourself, especially in relation to the previous “desecration” quote — is this comment relevant to the Commission’s actual mandate of historic preservation? Or is it simply a slip of the tongue revealing both a personal aesthetic preference in regards to new construction, and a willingness to weaponize the many ambiguities of historic preservation guidelines to enforce that preference? Lots to think about.