I’ve said before that I never met a building I didn’t like. Even among the structures most hated by the general public — from the eyesores brought about by brutalism, to absurd postmodern self-parodies of buildings that aggressively confront the very definition of architecture — I’m usually able to dig up at least one charming element, a shred of evidence that a thinking, feeling human labored over its design with care at some stage. Usually.
So when Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission approved the demolition of the Ashbel Smith building — a nine-story tower constructed in 1974 as administrative offices for the University of Texas by architects Jessen Associates — to make way for the shiny new Trammell Crow office tower planned at Block 71, I couldn’t help but get a kick out of their comments.
“The building is a concrete mid-rise office building with minimal Brutalist details. The building does not appear to possess architectural distinction. […] The building does not possess a unique location, physical characteristic, or significant feature that contributes to the character, image, or cultural identity of the city, the neighborhood, or a particular demographic group. […] The property is not a significant natural or designed landscape with artistic, aesthetic, cultural, or historical value to the city.”
— City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission, September 25, 2017
Yikes. This is about the closest the commission ever gets to laying down a sick burn, and it got me thinking — certainly I could find something worth remembering at the Ashbel Smith building! So, like Diogenes the Cynic wandering the streets clutching a lantern in search of an honest man, I struck out for Block 71 with the goal of finding something, anything to like about this building.
Block 71, if you need a refresher, is a 1.75-acre downtown block owned by the University of Texas and bordered by West Seventh, Colorado, West Sixth and Lavaca Streets. It’s home to Claudia Taylor Johnson Hall, a historic former city post office used until recently as office space for the university. Also on the block is a parking garage and an outdoor plaza with a fountain I haven’t seen turned on in ages. Finally, Ashbel Smith Hall is located on the block’s northeastern corner.
If you approach the site from the correct direction, the first things you’ll see are the historic hall and the fountain plaza. This is the equivalent of the block telling you it’s got good news and bad news and you asking to hear the good news first.
The main entrance on the southern side of Johnson Hall is beautiful, of course. At its worst, the neoclassical movement produced buildings akin to a Disneyland take on ancient Rome, and there’s a bit of Ionic column fetishism on display even here — but when it works, it works. There’s a reason everyone remembers the U.S. Capitol.
What you might not expect is that the building looks equally good from the back. Those factory-style windows, though not consistent with something you’d find in ancient Rome, don’t deserve to be blocked by an ugly parking garage — thankfully, the site’s upcoming development replaces the garage structure with a park.
Here’s what those windows look like from the inside, by the way.
Even without its fountain, the plaza east of Johnson Hall is a surprisingly peaceful space. It probably helps that Norwood Tower, Austin’s most beautiful building, looms in the background. Lots of employees from nearby offices eat their lunch here, even though the whole block is effectively vacant at this point.
I’ve stalled long enough — let’s get to the bad news and check out Ashbel Smith Hall.
The stairs are nice enough, I guess. I can already see where this is going.
Here we are. Oddly enough, the plaque on the building is dated 1972, but the Historic Landmark Commission lists its completion in 1974. Did this really take two years to build? It’s also worth noting that the plaque calls the building “Ashbel Smith Hall,” while the commission refers to it exclusively as “The Ashbel Smith office building.” It’s almost like the members of the commission hated this building so much they never stopped by to check.
This is bleak. How many dreams died inside these walls?
Like a child perpetually embarrassed by an uncool parent, the new headquarters for the University of Texas System sits just across the street. It’s effectively Ashbel Smith Hall’s replacement.
Looking southeast from the tower reminds me of that famous joke about the much-loathed Parisian eyesore Tour Montparnasse — the building has the most beautiful views in town, because it’s the only place you can’t see it.
Pulled back, the ugliness of the building takes your breath away. I’m endlessly amused by the two little chimneys on top — did someone really design the building like that, or did they add them later out of necessity? It looks like a toaster.
Jessen Associates, the architecture firm responsible for this act of aesthetic violence, was founded in 1938 by UT graduate Wolf Jessen. Some of the company’s most famous projects in the city include the Palmer Auditorium, Texas Supreme Court Building, and the Faulk Central Library. None of these buildings are stone cold stunners — man, the old library ain’t a looker — but they’re not quite this bad, either.
I’ve got a working theory, however: Wolf Jessen retired in 1974, the same year the Ashbel Smith building opened. Feel free to draw your own conclusions, but I think the guy was tired. Out of 13 boxes of records and thousands of drawings archived at the Austin History Center from nearly 50 years of Jessen Associates’ work, I struggled to find a single mention of this building. I like to think it was omitted out of embarrassment.
Anyway, I’m really not trying to trash Ashbel Smith Hall too much — my point is just that we don’t always need to clutch our pearls when something old downtown comes up for demolition. Every once in a while, those money-hungry carpetbagger developers Austin loves to hate are actually doing us a huge favor.