Bank of America Center, the current name for a 26-story office tower at 515 Congress Avenue, might be best described as “austere.” Completed in 1975 as the Austin National Bank Tower, the building’s dark, monolithic appearance helps you decide whether you love it or hate it pretty quick.
But compared to the tower’s heyday of the 1970s, we enlightened folk live in a golden age of activated streetscapes and walkable cities — no matter how imposing it looks from afar, it was high time to do something about the building’s relatively boring street-level appearance, as other nearby projects slowly improve the pedestrian experience along Congress Avenue.
KBS Realty Advisors, one of the nation’s most prominent commercial real estate buyers, acquired Bank of America Center from Stream Realty Partners in 2015. Stream, which now manages the building on behalf of KBS, has pursued various renovations to the tower since the firm purchased it and the rest of the block in 2013, but the work currently underway at the building’s ground floor might be its most prominent improvement yet.
Thanks to the folks at Gensler, who seem to enjoy staying busy, we’ve got a better look at what’s planned for the building’s exterior, including a new canopy over the sidewalk outside the building, a renovated lobby, and a restaurant located in the retail space formerly occupied by the Keeper’s Menswear store — although, according to Gensler, the firm isn’t handling the design of the restaurant space, the tenant of which appears to be fast-casual Mediterranean chain Cava.
You can see the restaurant component, located at the corner of East Sixth Street and Congress Avenue, on the left side of the renderings above and below — the exterior improvements will include outdoor seating and landscaping, both near the retail space and along the front of the building facing Congress Avenue.
These improvements, though relatively minor, ensure that the building plays nice with a number of other nearby projects intended to improve the street-level experience along Congress Avenue. Slowly but surely, block by block, the main street of Texas is getting better — and it’s about time.
While we’re at it, I couldn’t help but do a little digging into this structure’s background. Built as the Austin National Bank Tower, the building was the tallest in the city at 26 floors from its opening in 1975 until the completion of the 32-story One American Center in 1984.
It’s worth noting that the tower also briefly went by NationsBank Tower and Interfirst Bank Tower, but I’m only using the oldest name and the current name depending on when it’s appropriate, so it’s not so darn confusing.
Its developer, Houston real estate billionaire Gerald D. Hines, is also known for that city’s iconic structures Pennzoil Place and Transco Tower — now known as Williams Tower — both of which were designed by the architectural supergroup of Philip Johnson and John Burgee.
But Hines also worked with local architect S. I. Morris as an associate on both projects, and though he didn’t catch the same spotlight as the celebrity architects, you might be surprised to learn that his firm was part of the team that designed the Astrodome, which isn’t a bad legacy.
The design of Pennzoil Place required Hines to purchase large quantities of curtain wall panels, and to get the best deal from his supplier, he had to buy in bulk. That meant buying far more curtain wall than the building needed, so much in fact that Hines tasked Morris with designing another, smaller tower to be built with the leftover materials.
As you might have already figured out, that building was the Austin National Bank Tower, a sort of forgotten lesser sibling to the celebrated Pennzoil Place — both were completed in 1975, but only the Houston tower received the title of “Building of the Decade” from famed New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. Placing them side by side, it’s clear both structures are cut from the same cloth, but it’s also obvious why the Houston tower, with its striking trapezoidal silhouette, found more love among the public.
But you know what? I’ll go to bat for 515 Congress. People fight me on this, but the tower’s an excellent late-period example of what’s known as the international style of modernist architecture, a term that our aforementioned starchitect Philip Johnson either popularized or coined outright, depending on who you ask.
International style buildings, particularly towers, are characterized by simple, geometric forms, flat surfaces without ornamentation, and materials like glass, steel, and reinforced concrete. The use of curtain walls and other mass-produced components is another hallmark — there’s a reason why developer Hines was comfortable buying in bulk.
By 1980, Johnson and Burgee were dabbling in the postmodern style, so it’s arguable that Pennzoil Place represents one of the final straight-up international modernist buildings designed by either architect — and without that tower, 515 Congress wouldn’t exist. I’m just glad it does.