The potential redevelopment of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society International Headquarters Building on the west end of downtown Austin into a residential tower by developers Stratus Properties and Chicago architects SCB presents an interesting situation to the City of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission: what happens when the organization that originally built a historic building — and actually sought its historic designation in the first place — would now instead prefer to demolish it?
The answer, to the commissioners at least, is pretty clear. After a preliminary briefing to the HLC’s Architectural Review Committee last week from the project’s architects and Becky Sadowski, who serves as DKG’s international president, Commissioner Terri Myers indicated that there was basically no way the development replacing the 64-year-old building at the northeast corner of West 12th and San Antonio Streets as envisioned in early renderings would gain the board’s approval.
I appreciate your mission . . . but our mission is to preserve, protect, and promote authentic historic buildings; so I think we’re a little dismayed — it’s one thing to be a contributing building in a historic district, but it’s quite an honor to be individually listed, and that’s what this project is . . . so excuse us if we’re not thrilled about the loss of this building.
— Terri Myers, City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission
Despite signing off on its own building’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, the DKG society elected to sell the property last year, according to Sadowski, and hopes to ensure its continued operation as a professional society for women educators through the “new financial strength” provided by the redevelopment.
We know DKG is not defined by its building, it is defined by its members across the world.
— Becky Sadowski, President, DKG Society International
The group is working with the developers and architects of the new project to enshrine elements of the 1956 historic building in its design, with a “commemorative space” included in preliminary concept renderings of the project that would evoke what SCB principal Clara Wineberg describes as both the material and cultural history of the old headquarters, by potentially reusing materials from the previous structure and providing a garden or other space to represent the organization’s longtime presence as a gathering place for women.
You might think of this project as a gender-bent version of the Royal Arch Masonic Lodge tower plan that also had a tough time finding any fans at the HLC last year — both projects involve fraternal organizations in support of the redevelopment of their architecturally notable downtown headquarters with new towers, and both groups describe these plans as critical for ensuring their ongoing financial solvency.
But the Commission is mandated to follow historic preservation guidelines without significant consideration of the needs of a structure’s owners or even its creators, lest considerations of money interrupt the gaze of architectural merit — it’s just that in these two cases, the gulf between preservation goals and the desires of the historic building’s lifelong occupants is a little wider than usual.
And the building, we should point out, is very attractive — its design by local firm Kuehne, Brooks and Barr represents what its National Register of Historic Places nomination describes as “an excellent local example of postwar modern design . . . incorporating aspects of the International Style in its primary facade, functionalist commercial office design in its planning, and a more traditional residential aesthetic in its interior design and finishes.”
Notable for the social mores of 1956, the building was reportedly designed with input from the society’s members influencing its construction at every stage, and its final layout was intended to reflect the pioneering spirit of the women’s organization:
Delta Kappa Gamma Society members controlled the building project from start to finish. Society members researched the headquarters buildings of other organizations as well as the work flow of their own organization to determine the most suitable type of building for their own central headquarters office. In 1954, Building Committee members secured a zoning variance with the City of Austin to construct a professional office in a residential zone, interviewed six potential architectural firms, hired the firm Kuehne, Brooks and Barr, and hired a legal consultant. Working closely with the architectural firm, Society members engaged in almost every design decision from recommendations for floor plans and work schedule to specific decisions about the easement, retaining walls, carpentry, millwork, roofing, sheet metal, ironwork, plastering, plumbing, and electrical work.
In 1955, Society members collected enough money to begin construction, approved the final plans, and employed J. M. Odom Construction Company. Society members held elaborate ceremonies for the ground breaking in July of 1955, the laying of the cornerstone in November of 1955, and the final completion in August of 1956. The Society paid for every phase of the construction, furnishings, and equipment upon completion without taking out a loan.
When consulting with the architect R. Max Brooks about the form of the building, Society members agreed to let the “form of the building follow function” . . . This documented decision produced a building that is a good local example of modem commercial design as applied to an office building . . . Most significantly, the women of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society acknowledged that a functionalist scheme would allow their building to be flexible in the arrangement of the interior spaces and accommodate the diverse range of functions that the expanding organization demanded.
— National Register of Historic Places Nomination, DKG Building
It’s unclear at this stage precisely what, if anything, the new project’s developers could do to bring their vision more in line with historic preservation goals at the site. The notion of placing a tower atop the original structure was described as unsuitable by its architects, as the old building is small and apparently couldn’t hold up to that kind of addition without basically rebuilding it from scratch.
In keeping with the architectural trends of the era it was built, the structure is significantly set back and actually somewhat walled off from the sidewalks at West 12th and San Antonio Streets, meaning a hypothetical new tower design set atop the old building wouldn’t allow for an activated streetscape as demanded by design guidelines for modern projects — another example of preservation priorities clashing somewhat with current development goals.
As we said last week, the HLC doesn’t have the power to kill this project. The developers are just looking for feedback, and they definitely got it — now we’ll have to wait and see if the design receives any tweaks before showing up again. Even more than most, this plan feels worthy of our attention because its stretch of West 12th Street seems promising as a future development corridor, with several nearby projects raising the possibility that many of the low-density buildings and parking lots in this area could someday grow a lot taller — and as the biggest concept we’ve seen for the immediate area in a while, the design of this tower and its relationship with the historic building it might replace will set a precedent for growth to come.