The potential demolition of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society International Headquarters located in the west end of downtown Austin at 416 West 12th Street for a 31-floor residential tower project by developers Stratus Properties remains an unpopular proposition for the City of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission — and that’s despite two new design options presented to the HLC’s Architecture Review Committee last week by the project’s Chicago-based architecture firm SCB.
Both redesigns attempt to better bridge the gap between old and new by more visibly incorporating components of the original 1956 building into the ground floor of the tower plan, commemorating the historic structure’s long history as the home of a professional society for women in education — not to mention the eye-catching character of its postwar modernist design, which gained the building a listing on the National Register of Historic Places back in 2012.
SCB principal Clara Wineberg once again presented the designs to the Commission, with the focus remaining for the moment only on the ground level of the new building and its relationship with its predecessor — in the original design you see very little of the old building’s character reflected in the new construction, whereas the two redesigned appearances each take a different track towards keeping some of its materials intact. To refresh your memory, here’s the original ground-floor design for the new tower we saw a few weeks ago — click each image for a larger view:
Now we’ll take a look at the new designs, starting with the first option. In the image below, you can see how part of the old building’s southern wall — including that beautiful red marble around the entrance — has been reconstructed in the building’s retail space enclosed within the glass curtain wall of the new tower’s ground floor:
Allowing the building’s interior space to expand past the walls of the old building brings the public realm of the new structure closer to the corner of West 12th and San Antonio Streets — the historic building is fairly pulled back from that corner, making its integration a challenge for a new building that needs to provide an active streetscape to meet the design guidelines for participation in the city’s density bonus program that will permit the tower to rise to its full height.
If placing the old structure behind glass isn’t prominent enough for your tastes, the second new design option presented by the architects keeps the original boundaries of the DKG building with its masonry facade intact even more:
Wineberg explains that this second option allows the original building’s most prominent facades on the southern and western sides to be rebuilt and “stand proud” defining the design of the new building’s ground level — but owing to their materials and setback, this approach makes the corner of the building slightly cut off from its corner, with less visibility and lighting than the glassed-in option. If the developer went with this design, any retail use accessed from the corner would have to find another way to keep its pedestrian environment active, likely through some sort of exterior landscaping in the area between the building and the sidewalk.
As we all expected at this point, the Commission wasn’t exactly blown away by these redesigns — and though it might be frustrating to those of us who wish to balance the preservation of the old with the construction of the new, the mandate of the HLC is to maintain historic integrity, no matter how inconvenient it might be to a building’s current owners. As multiple members pointed out at last week’s meeting, neither design configuration presented here maintains the original structure with sufficient historic integrity to keep the site’s National Register status. Instead, the designs simply pay homage — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not the same.
…any way we look at it, we’re losing a significant piece of architectural history in our city, and I’m sorry for that.
— Terri Myers, City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission
To actually preserve the building, the developers would need to significantly alter these plans — the new tower would need to be an addition to the existing building rather than a new building that demolishes the old and reconstructs certain elements of it. The distinction is best explained by something like the Royal Arch Masonic Lodge tower plan — even if it wasn’t super popular with the HLC (noticing a trend here), its design creates a huge distinction between the old and new buildings, separating the tower from its historic podium by a significant setback rising several floors:
That’s not happening in the designs we see for the DKG site, and the footprint of the new tower would need to change significantly to be considered an addition to the old building rather than a replacement. Such a redesign would fundamentally alter the economics of the tower and might not even be feasible depending on the structural conditions of the historic property, so we aren’t holding our breaths to see this drastic of a change — still, we’re expecting a few more tweaks before this project is expected to appear before the Historic Landmark Commission for full discussion this November.