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Lone Stars

For more than three decades, ARCHITEXAS has been pioneering preservation deep in the heart of its home state.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

In historic preservation projects, timing and time periods are everything. ARCHITEXAS, Texas' largest historic preservation firm and one of its older and more venerable, is a perfect illustration of this principle. The firm, whose 23 employees work out of offices in Dallas and Austin, was founded in 1978, a most serendipitous date.

Co-founders and co-owners Gary Skotnicki, RA, and Craig Melde, RA, had gotten to know each other at the University of Texas at Austin and had gotten their first taste of preservation as employees of the City of Dallas Planning and Urban Design Department.

Texas, by preservation standards, is a young state; there is very little 18th-century architecture to speak of or restore. But when ARCHITEXAS started, historic districts in Dallas were being formed, and converting 19th-century factories into residential spaces was beginning to be a lofty idea. "Preservation work was at the cutting edge in Texas at that time," says Skotnicki, adding that Dallas "had a reputation for tearing everything down."

Adds Melde, "When we came out of architecture school, in the mid-seventies, it was in the middle of the energy crisis. Penn Station in New York City had just been demolished, and there was a lot of talk about sustainable architecture. And preservation fit right in; there's nothing more green than saving a building."

The firm has won numerous awards, including a 2006 Palladio for the tower addition to the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe in Dallas. Its first project, executing a master plan to convert some historic warehouses into residential, retail and office space, started ARCHITEXAS on its solid preservation path. "The project was never constructed, but it did fund our office for two years," Melde says.

By 2000, the firm had become such a major player in the preservation field that it opened an office in Austin, headed by firm co-owner Larry Irsik, RA "We're passionate about historic preservation, and we're fortunate to work on a variety of buildings," Irsik says. "We're selective about the type of client we work for; we look for clients with great vision."

The three principals developed their love of the historic past during their own pasts. Skotnicki did his first architectural drawing at 11; Melde's summer jobs were on construction sites with his contractor father; and Irsik started painting pictures of older buildings as a pre-teen.

"We're fortunate because we get to work on a variety of historic buildings," Irsik says. "We've worked on everything from courthouses to university buildings and presidential libraries." The firm takes a collaborative approach to projects, with the Dallas and Austin offices essentially operating independently.

In Dallas, Skotnicki generally does the project renderings, graphics and design, while Melde focuses on the business end as well as early project programming and conceptual design. In Austin, Irsik handles marketing, programming, design and is sometimes project manager as well, tapping into talent in the Dallas office as necessary. "We're pretty horizontal, not hierarchical," Melde says. "If someone has the skill, we let them do it."

Although the firm has vast experience in a variety of institutional, commercial and residential projects, it has made a real name for itself working on courthouse restorations and rehabilitations in Texas. ARCHITEXAS' first courthouse project, the Hill County Courthouse in Hillsboro, is the one that put it on the circuit. When the Second Empire limestone building burned to the ground in 1993, the ARCHITEXAS team was working on a library restoration in that town.

"Courthouses are one of the finest assets Texas has," says Skotnicki. "They are the premier symbol of each county. We don't have many built before the Civil War. And this one is especially significant; of the 254 in the state, it's in the top 12." That award-winning project, which was done in three phases over six years, "was the turning point for us," Irsik says, "because we were typically working on smaller-scale projects."

To date, the firm has completed master plans for 25 courthouses and has restored 11 under the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, which provides state partial matching grants. ARCHITEXAS' latest, the Harris County Courthouse in Houston, was completed in August 2011.

The 152,936-sq.ft. courthouse, built in 1910 by Lang and Witchell Architects, had survived a hurricane in 1915 and had undergone significant alterations and renovations in the 1950s and 1970s that drastically altered its original architecture. ARCHITEXAS was in charge of the interior and exterior rehabilitation of spaces that were designated historically significant, including the entries, public corridors, rotunda and highly decorated courtrooms.

As work progressed, selective demolition of the elements of the previous renovations gave ARCHITEXAS more clues to some of the original finishes and decoration that were undocumented elsewhere. "We did have copies of early redrawn drawings from the original drawings, but most of the original elements were covered up or had been removed," Irsik says. "Where we had physical evidence, we matched it, but where we didn't, we designed historically-inspired elements that were not too literal so one could distinguish what was original and what was introduced. As an example, the third-floor courtrooms were lit naturally with art-glass lay lights from the ceiling above. Due to programming requirements, the light shafts were enclosed for more office space. ARCHITEXAS designed a plank glass floor system above the reconstructed lay lights, allowing the appearance of being naturally lit."

Perhaps the most challenging part of the project was reimagining the art-glass dome, a major feature that was destroyed in the 1915 hurricane. Because its design was not depicted in the original drawings and there were no vintage photos of it, Skotnicki drew a plan for a 6,384-pane design that was inspired by the work in the Prairie style of the original architects. Research included studying other courthouses by Lang and Witchell from this same era.

In projects like the Harris County Courthouse, where historic accuracy is the prime goal, ARCHITEXAS' new work blends with the old so seamlessly that it's invisible. "We don't get much credit for doing a really good job," Skotnicki says, "because the public doesn't perceive it very much."

Additions, though, do provide the firm with a chance to shine, but even then, Melde says, "we tend to downplay them because we don't want to call attention to them." Still, Irsik finds additions exciting because "we can do wonderful creative things by pulling from the historic forms, material and rhythm of the building."

One outstanding illustration of the firm's ability to distinguish itself in a period style is the addition it designed for the First Unitarian Church, a landmark building in University Park, TX. When Harwell Hamilton Harris was commissioned in 1961 to design the original house of worship, he looked to Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park, IL, and created a windowless, concrete-block cubic building to keep the harsh Texas sun and the noise of the busy intersection at bay. Light streams in from banks of skylights.

The growing congregation needed more space and commissioned ARCHITEXAS to restore the sanctuary facades, renovate its 6,000-sq.ft. Sunday School classrooms and design a 26,000-sq.ft. addition to house new classrooms and offices. The goal was to create a new corner building that complements the church and the various styles of the surrounding 1930s and 1940s houses.

ARCHITEXAS' addition, Skotnicki says, "creates a dialogue between 2011 and 1961. We let Harris' design drive us, but we didn't want to just mimic the big box. Our building, which bookends the block, is linear and symbolic of the Unitarian philosophy."

The addition includes a brise soleil whose aluminum tube grillwork of various finishes and diameters is "the character-defining feature of the project," Melde says. The brise soleil theme extends to the renovated classroom building, where ARCHITEXAS designed a "green screen" of live plants that grows up stretched-steel cables.

The project, which is on track for LEED Silver certification, includes significant gardens and courtyard spaces, natural ventilation, passive solar shading, high-efficiency HVAC systems and a water harvesting system. "We don't have that many opportunities to add to mid-century modern buildings and still be green," Melde says.

The conversion of the historic 1920s Dallas National Bank Building into the 132,000-sq.ft., luxury boutique Joule Hotel, gave ARCHITEXAS an opportunity to rehabilitate and adapt a significant historic high rise and design an addition that complements, not copies, the original Gothic Revival architecture. The hotel, on the same downtown Dallas block as Neiman Marcus, wasn't large enough to hold the 129 rooms and event space the developer envisioned for the $43-million project, so the non-historic building next door was acquired and razed to accommodate a 10-story addition by ARCHITEXAS.

Using the bank building's profile as a model, ARCHITEXAS designed an addition in the same material – limestone – as the original. "We matched horizontal stone joint lines but not the Gothic detail," Skotnicki says of the project that has received numerous awards. "We just used the essentials, so it looks like an individual building."

At the rectilinear top of the addition, a concrete swimming pool cantilevers out 10 feet, making it "the icon of the project," he says. To further expand the successful hotel, the owner/developer has bought seven adjoining buildings to add banquet/ event space, 35 suites and three penthouses. Three of the buildings, which are not historic, will be razed; the three historic buildings will be rehabilitated along with a new building and all will be internally connected. "To people walking by, it won't even look like the hotel has expanded," Melde says.

ARCHITEXAS' versatility, longevity and legacy are reflected in Downtown Grapevine, TX, an award-winning six-block historic commercial district on the city of Grapevine's Main Street whose one- and two-story masonry buildings provide a bricks-and-mortar history of architecture from 1885 to 1930.

The firm, which has been working on Grapevine projects for more than two decades, reconstructed the historic 1891 Wallis Hotel, which became the offices for the convention and visitors bureau, constructed a new city hall to fit in the historic district, and rehabbed and adapted the Palace Theater and Buckner Grocery for use as a community arts center.

For its latest project, ARCHITEXAS led another expansion: A $9-million center, which looks like a series of buildings spanning the 1870s through 1915, replaces a 1970s strip mall and anchors the district's southern entrance. "In order to keep the scale of the town, we designed an L-shaped two-story 40,000-sq.ft. building with a façade that makes it look like seven historic buildings, each a different style, not one," Melde says. "Its centerpiece is a 127-ft.-high clock tower."

Through the years, the firm has done extensive work at the University of Texas at Austin, the alma mater of Skotnicki and Melde. The campus was built in the late 1800s, and in the 1930s, French architect Paul Philippe Cret created a 40-acre master plan that includes the 1936 Spanish Renaissance-style Main Building. ARCHITEXAS has worked on several historic Cret buildings and recently restored the exterior of the 1967 Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum by Pritzker-winner Gordon Bunshaft of SOM. The library, which is sited on the outskirts of campus, stands as a monumental structure apart from Cret's designs.

Almost from the beginning, the library had architectural issues, and in the 1970s, it was re-clad with travertine because the original stones were cracking. "This time around, we had to replace and patch about 10 percent of the stone," Irsik says. "Matching the stone was difficult. We knew it came from Italy, but travertine lightens over time and what was there was sun bleached. We had some extra original travertine pieces so we were able to determine the original color."

After finding a match and after careful consideration, ARCHITEXAS decided to use replacement travertine that matched the color of the original, not the weathered ones. "The new stone will lighten to match the old eventually," Irsik says. "It's already starting to happen."

Although ARCHITEXAS has done projects in other states, notably Georgia and Iowa, "there's still a lot to do in Texas," Skotnicki says. Ultimately, wherever the firm works, Irsik says that its mission will always be to "provide buildings that have great functional structure and that will serve their clients for generations."  TB

 

 

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