After being solidly shamed out of a big-spending plan to relocate its Austin offices to the recently-completed (and architecturally quite brilliant) Indeed Tower, the state pension managers at the Teacher Retirement System of Texas are now humbly weighing the possibilities of departing downtown for Mueller’s emerging Aldrich Street business district and selling its current headquarters at 1000 Red River Street.
Even though the current main address of the TRS complex starts with its newer building at 1000 Red River Street, its original entrance at 1001 Trinity Street is what opened back in 1973.
Though the 3.32-acre site’s location places it pretty solidly under the height limits of our Capitol View Corridors, looking at the density of new projects working with the same constraints in the surrounding area, it’s clear that whoever acquired the property if TRS eventually votes to move forward with the plan would eventually redevelop with a new low-rise office building — perhaps even capitalizing on the large northern side of the tract currently dedicated to surface parking. Demolition would likely be further motivated by extensive deferred maintenance on the aging complex TRS estimates would cost, uh, $50 million or more to rectify over the next 20 years.
With the opening of Waterloo Park practically next door representing the centerpiece of an emerging district of projects including the Waller tower at Symphony Square along with the Brackenridge and HealthSouth redevelopments, it’s only a matter of time until the TRS complex comes down, and its demolition probably wouldn’t cause much of a stir — in contrast to their muscular defense of earlier modernism, many in the historic preservation crowd treat the concrete monoliths of 1970s institutional architecture as eyesores, and they’re occasionally right — so while we’ve got the time, let’s briefly give this doomed, but charming ol’ state clunker a closer look.
— TRS Texas (@TRSofTexas) August 20, 2015
The original western building of the TRS headquarters, designed by well-known Austin firm Jessen Associates, opened in 1973 atop a two-block segment of the Brackenridge Urban Renewal project area purchased by the agency for a paltry $820,400 in 1970 — we should note that the same agency now anticipates a sale price of between $80 to $100 million for the property, representing an appreciation of something in the ballpark of 1,500 percent after our crude efforts to adjust for inflation.
The second eastern building of the complex was added in 1990, designed in exactly the same style once again by Jessen Associates, which was thankfully still around 17 years later. Though with all that concrete you might think the headquarters is an example of brutalism, it’s best described as part of the concurrent architectural movement known as New Formalism, a popular style for its designers — Jessen’s other projects completed in the 1970s and considered part of New Formalism include the Texas Supreme Court Building, the Stephen F. Austin State Office Building, and the former Faulk Central Library we’ve celebrated on this site, among others.
As an offshoot of the era’s more austere modernism, New Formalism attempted to reclaim classical design features like arches and columns in the context of contemporary materials and building techniques, an approach that at its best created buildings that felt grounded in history while appearing decidedly modern.
For us, the two best examples of New Formalist architecture around Austin are Cambridge Tower, completed in 1965 with a design from Dallas-based architect Thomas E. Stanley, and the 1971 Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library designed for the University of Texas Campus by renowned Chicago architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. While these buildings look highly different from one another, they occupy opposite ends of the same New Formalist spectrum, both emphasizing symmetry and monumentality while using the abilities of modern concrete to include more delicate ornamentation like “breeze blocks” and gently curving exterior walls.
Though the TRS headquarters never quite hits these high notes, the building’s vertical louvers are a defining feature, shading its facade with a sort of concrete brise soleil — a common New Formalist element also seen in more subtle horizontal form on Jessen’s facade at the Faulk Library. Here, they add a unique and unexpectedly graceful exterior texture, protruding further outward and adding increasingly thinner pieces on each floor to counterbalance the structure’s monumental base.
It’s interesting that the most elegant entrance to the complex, facing Red River Street on the east side of the property, wasn’t built until the 1990 expansion — and since the newer building’s appearance was obviously designed to precisely match that of the original, the eastern side of the TRS complex could be one of the last examples of such a distinctly 1970s style ever built.
The centerpiece of the newer building’s grand entrance is “The Spirit of Learning,” a metal sculpture by acclaimed Austin artist Charles Umlauf, dedicated for the eastern building’s opening in March 1990. With its theme apropos for a fund ensuring the well-being of teachers across the state, we’re sure the folks at TRS will find a place for it at their new headquarters. Until then, feel free to check out this not-quite-historic example of a historic architectural style while it’s still standing.