The building won a national design award from the American Institute of Architects — recognition bestowed on only a handful of other Houston buildings. (Others include the now-demolished Foley's Department Store, Jones Hall, the now-demolished YWCA Masterson Branch, the Menil Collection, and Rice University's Brochstein Pavilion.) More than four decades later, the Alley very much needed an update. The bathrooms, particularly for women, were woefully inadequate and the main stage, originally planned for productions with little to no scenery, couldn't handle today's highly complex stage sets.
The Alley's board obviously had good intentions. Laudably, the Alley chose to remain in its historic building instead of moving to new location (as the Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore did) or demolishing it (as the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis did). Perhaps that's why, in October, Houston Mod gave the Alley a preservation award for its remodeling project. And in November, the Texas Society of Architects gave the Alley its 25-Year Award, recognizing a building 25 to 50 years old that has "withstood the test of time by retaining its central form, character, and overall architectural integrity."
For the renovation job, the Alley hired Studio Red, an architecture firm best known for its conversion of the Summit, where the Rockets played, into Lakewood Church. How did the Alley decide the right approach to preserve its historic building? An Alley spokesperson told me that the theater consulted with historic preservation specialist, Anna Mod with SWCA Environmental Consultants. When I spoke with Mod about the extent of her involvement, however, she replied that she only "conducted an eligibility analysis for listing in the National Register of Historic Places" and was not consulted on the proposed alterations. Nor did the Alley care to hear the opinion of the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission.
The remodeling project received a $2 million grant for façade restoration from the publicly funded Downtown Redevelopment Authority. One of the grant's conditions was that the building became a Protected Historic Landmark, receiving the city's toughest historic preservation protection. Unfortunately, the Alley made an end run around that requirement: First, it applied for its construction permit; and only then did it apply for landmark designation. According to Diana DuCroz, preservation officer at the City of Houston Planning and Development Department, "the Alley is not required to apply for a certificate of appropriateness for the remodeling, since the permit was issued prior to the landmark application being submitted." In other words: Because the Alley already had its building permit, it didn't have to ask the historic commission to approve its plans. The commission, DuCroz says, "has not been presented with any drawings or detailed information regarding the scope of the remodeling."
Those proposed changes will be significant. The most obvious is the addition of a large fly loft, the above-the-stage area where curtains and scenery can be hoisted out of the audience's sight. That fly loft will be approximately four stories tall, and in a Studio Red rendering published by the Architect's Newspaper in May, it appears to be pushed to edge of the building's western elevation facing Smith Street. Its curving walls are covered with gridded, metallic tiles and wrapped with seven projecting stringcourses. The original building evoked a castle. In the drawing, the new fly loft looks like a gas tank or grain storage bin dropped atop that castle. One can only wonder why Studio Red's insistent design was not more restrained. It is a fundamental change to the building.
In the end, perhaps the change won't be as obtrusive as it appears in the drawing. According to architect Pete Ed Garrett, the Studio Red partner in charge of the renovation, this rendering "is a terrible fisheye view of the fly loft that completely distorts what it will look like." The rendering is no longer on the firm's website. (Oddly, the Alley's director of marketing and communications, Rodi L. Franco says, "The primary purpose of these renderings is to help us communicate with donors." One wonders what the Alley was communicating.) Since that rendering was made, Garrett says, the plan has changed some. "The fly loft is set back on the roof," says Garrett, "and is at the shortest height possible with the premium purchase of motorized rigging." It's not clear why the fly loft was ever extended out to that very visible edge.
However, the aluminum zinc panels on the fly loft's exterior will continue to be a sharp contrast with the original building's cast-in-place concrete: "By using different materials in the external skin," says Garett, "we are acknowledging that this fly loft was not part of the original design." So exactly how will that silvery four-story fly loft look atop the landmark building? Houstonians will have to wait and see. The Alley Theatre declined to share updated plans or renderings showing these changes and any others. And since the historic commission's approval isn't required, it doesn't have to. Earlier this year, in Arts + Culture Texas, I described other problems with the proposed renovation. I'm told that some have been addressed: The lighting won't be as distracting as that in the early drawings, and the original concrete floors won't be covered with terrazzo after all. For all that, we have to take the Alley's word.
This remodeling project demonstrates how Houston's preservation ordinance fails to protect even the city's most historic buildings from aggressive alterations. It's disconcerting that the Alley will be changed in fundamental ways — yet it's received a preservation-related grant for that renovation. In all likelihood, the building will still become a Protected Historic Landmark. Add the disheartening fact that this flawed project has been honored by no less authorities than Houston Mod and the Texas Society of Architects, it is seems apparent that we Houstonians still have a ways to go. We are only beginning to appreciate our architectural heritage and make the appropriate efforts to conserve it. We need to learn to rehabilitate it in more sensitive and careful ways.
Ben Koush is an architect in Houston. He is a founding member and past president of Houston Mod. He has written for Cite Magazine, Texas Architect, Arts+Culture, Architect's Newspaper, and PaperCity. He is currently writing a book about modern architecture in Houston for the University of Texas Press.
First published in the Houston Chronicle on December 17, 2014