Monday, July 22, 2019

The end of First Pasadena State Bank

A piece of Houston (and more specifically, Pasadena) history came crumbling down last weekend:

Citylab's Kriston Capps explains why the building was significant:
For Texas architecture, and for modernist history, the loss will sting. Built in 1962, the First Pasadena State Bank is a rare example of a tower inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright (and actually completed). The building’s architects, of the firm MacKie and Kamrath, were Wright devotees, and they made the building in keeping with his design principles. Vacant since 2002, the tower tells an unlikely story of Houston’s evergreen economy, the consolidation of American banking, and Wright’s lasting legacy—and its demolition will claim a bit of the history of all three.
“The building is very distinctive in terms of not only its spatial organization, but the way in which its detailing is derived from the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Stephen Fox, an architectural historian and lecturer at Rice University.
The First Pasadena State Bank building was remarkable not only because of its obvious Wright influence, but also because it was (aside from its refinery towers) the tallest building in the industrial town of Pasadena, located directly east of Houston proper and directly south of the Ship Channel. The building was readily visible from nearby freeways such as State Highway 225 and marked what was essentially the "center" of Pasadena: a large block that contained the tower along with the city's main post office, its city hall, library and municipal complex, and what was then known as the Pasadena Town Square shopping mall.

While such a distinctive building might today seem out of place in a low-slung, blue-collar town such as Pasadena, back in the early 1960s it served an important civic purpose:
The First Pasadena State Bank would be the only tower the firm ever saw completed, and the only building of distinction in poor Pasadena. It was not unusual for a Texas town to throw up a single skyscraper in the middle of the 20th century. Oil boomtowns across Texas built similar signature structures, one apiece, in the 1920s: a five-story bank building, an eight-story hotel, and the like. Often, by the time these upstart cities got the treasured tower open, the good times had already moved on. (San Angelo, the place where this writer’s family is from, is one of these one-horse towns: The Cactus Hotel, built in 1929, is the only feature of the city skyline.) 
“There was this impetus to go out and hire an architect and design a landmark building, which obviously is not the case any more,” Fox says.
Back then, banks were reliable suppliers of these community-affirming projects. They had the capital, but more importantly, they had the local imprimatur: Through the 1950s and ‘60s, U.S. banks were required to be locally owned. “Deals were sealed with handshakes, and the bank’s president, Buddy Jones, waved hello to his customers,” writes Lisa Gray, columnist for the Houston Chronicle. That changed in the 1980s, when states began permitting the entry of out-of-state bank holding companies. Once-proud towers hosting state-chartered banks were relegated to branch status or closed. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, the number of U.S. banks dropped from 14,500 in the mid-1980s to 5,600 by 2014.
The great wave of consolidation hit First Pasadena, too, and the bank went through multiple mergers and acquisitions over the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s. JPMorgan Chase got the bank, while another entity ended up with the building; it was shuttered in 2002. Yet another private investor held the tower from 2005 to 2018, but to no end. Finally, its space-age swag long since stripped, the First Pasadena State Bank building came into the possession of the Pasadena Economic Development Corporation. Harris County recently assessed the building’s value at a sorry $100.
The private investor who owned the building from 2005 until 2018 repeatedly made claims that they were going to renovate the building but never followed through. The vacant building continued to deteriorate, and was badly damaged by Hurricane Ike. What was once an icon of Pasadena had become an symbol of neglect and blight.
“When I first became Mayor, I was looking out my office window and realized I had a perfect view of the First Pasadena State Bank Building,” Pasadena Mayor Jeff Wagner told the Chronicle. “However, instead of looking out onto a stately piece of architectural history, I realized I was looking at a run-down, neglected and dangerous empty building.” 
The mayor added, “That’s when it really hit me: For a lot of people, this is their image of Pasadena. And I knew then, we needed to start changing perceptions.”
It's unfortunate that such a remarkable building - a local landmark, a symbol of civic pride, an excellent example of mid-century Texas modernism, a product of a different, more-forward-looking era - was allowed to decay to the point that there was no choice but to bring it down. But this building's story is all too common in the architectural world: the civic and economic conditions that brought the building into being change, the structure itself ages out of profitable use, collective inertia sets in, and eventually what was once a proud landmark becomes a blighted eyesore. And so another piece of the region's history is lost.

Paper City has more.

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