Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The First Pasadena State Bank, a 12-story modernist tower inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, has dominated this small town near Houston since 1962.
For years, the abandoned tower in Pasadena, Texas, has beckoned adventurers. Drone pilots and urban explorers have surveyed the derelict building inside and out. What was once a pledge to the future of this industrial Houston suburb is now a relic from the past.
No more. Early on Sunday morning, the city of Pasadena will demolish the First Pasadena State Bank building, its one and only skyscraper. The 12-story tower is one of only a few buildings taller than a house anywhere in the city, which boasts a population of about 153,000 residents. When the bank tower comes down, those residents will lose the city’s most prominent landmark, a time-worn symbol of civic pride that some say has lost its luster.
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.
Karl Kamrath and his partner, Frederick James MacKie Jr., who both studied architecture at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1930s, met in Chicago. They decided to start a firm and settled on Houston, where the local economy was buoyant. MacKie and Kamrath moved to Houston cold, Fox says; but by the 1940s, they were nationally recognized as the most important modernist firm in the region.
“Kamrath considered himself a significant proponent of organic architecture in Texas. He continually designed buildings that drew on Wright’s principles, without imitating his work,” says Katie Pierce Meyer, head of architectural collections for the University of Texas Libraries. “He was especially attuned to creating organic architecture that start from and correspond to the surrounding landscape, with tendencies to design horizontal structures, with attention to views, and using natural materials.”
The firm’s principal designer, Kamrath, came to know Wright’s work in Chicago. Many of the firm’s residential projects followed Usonian design principles, referring to Wright’s vision for a New World architectural style that incorporated the landscape as a significant element. Surviving homes by MacKie and Kamrath in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood have the low-slung, forest-fresh look of a Wright house. Some were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.
“Kamrath had the opportunity to go to Taliesin,” Fox says, referring to Wright’s 800-acre studio, school, and home in southwestern Wisconsin. “The story that he told was that he was so warmly received by Frank Lloyd Wright that he made the decision that he was never going to design any building that was not influenced by the precepts of Frank Lloyd Wright. He stuck to that.”
After the firm’s namesakes returned from serving in World War II, MacKie and Kamrath really got to work. By the 1950s, the prolific studio was pulling down corporate commissions larger in scope than anything Wright was building at the time. In Houston, the architects built research divisions and office complexes for Humble Oil (later ExxonMobil) and Schlumberger, among others. The firm’s 1956–57 Farnsworth & Chambers Building served as the home for NASA from 1962 to 1964. Late in his life, in 1974, Kamrath designed a corporate headquarters that could be described as FLW Brutalism: a structure built entirely in cast concrete that nevertheless follows Wrightian ideas about massing and detailing.
MacKie and Kamrath’s bank tower features a central spine, detailed in brick, which contains the elevator shafts, stairs, and service spaces. From this structural column, the building’s office floors project forward, contained within a glass curtainwall. It’s a stylish conceit that distinguishes the project from the more-familiar, rational tower templates promulgated by Mies or Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. First Pasadena’s swoopy interiors were filled with soap-finished Danish mid-century furniture; the company relished in its proximity to the heart of the Space Race.
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.
“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.”
In the many years it has sat empty, the First Pasadena State Bank building has already undergone substantial changes. It wasn’t designed to have a green roof, but vegetation grows there now. Mother Nature has already started the demolition: Hurricanes have blown the brickwork right off the facade of the building. Most if not all of the leaded stained glass, another Wright flourish, along the cantilevered roof overhang is gone. Architectural historians and YouTube pioneers alike have taken note of the tower’s forlorn state—the latter, while exploring Pasadena’s nearby undead mall or haunted hospital.
With the demolition of the First Pasadena State Bank building on Sunday, the city has an opportunity to try to stitch together a downtown fabric between all these disused sites. (A tall order.) It’s hard to blame the city for the current state of affairs: Pasadena worked for years to force the owner to get the building up to code, to no avail.
But this outcome is still disappointing: For Pasadenans, the expensive demolition will leave the city without its lonely landmark and erase a stately example of Texas modernism. For the rest of us, it will be a missing marker of Wright’s influence.