Think You Know Houston's Skyscrapers? Think Again

A curated guide to the tallest, most historic, most beautiful (and sometimes the ugliest) buildings that make up the downtown skyline

By Emma Hurt November 11, 2014

Pennzoil Place via Flickr user telwink; 712 Main via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Shutterstock

How often do you look at the beautiful Houston skyline and wonder what exactly you're seeing? Well, prepare to leave those times behind and become an expert on Houston’s famous skyscrapers, with some help from Houston’s preeminent architectural historian Stephen Fox and his indispensable AIA Houston Architectural Guide. (All Fox quotes are taken from the AIA guide.) 

1. J. P. Morgan Chase Tower: 600 Travis Street

Year Built: 1981
Architect: I. M. Pei & Partners and 3D/International
AKA: Texas Commerce Tower in United Energy Plaza
Fun Fact: At 75 stories, the Chase Tower is the tallest building in Texas and the tallest five-sided building in the world 
Public Art: Joan Miró’s Personage and Birds, a giant colorful bronze sculpture, has dominated the central plaza since 1982.
Stephen Fox: “The building is understated and precise in composition and detail but nonetheless aggressive, both in its height and in its site planning.”

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The Bank of America Center's red Napoleon granite came from Sweden.

2. Bank of America Center: 700 Louisiana Street

Year Built: 1983
Architect: Johnson/Burgee Architects and Kendall/Heaton Associates
AKA: RepublicBank Center, NCNB Center, NationsBank Center
Daring to Be Different: It was designed in explicitly stark contrast with its simple, modernist skyscraper peers. Everything down to the wood in the elevators is characterized by ornate detail.
Fun Fact: Its red Napoleon granite came from Sweden.
Twist: It contains a building within a building. Because the telegraph cables of Houston’s Western Union headquarters couldn’t be relocated, the Bank of America Center had to be built around it. The building can still be seen, fully intact, inside the skyscraper’s lobby.
Stephen Fox: “Philip Johnson and John Burgee tried to create a neo-1920s skyscraper, with all the richness associated with such buildings. Their exaggerations of scale and disregard for the realities of constructing the building are not sufficient to reproduce that richness, however, and the building’s efforts to entertain and amaze have little substance behind them.”

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The Esperson Building at front; Pennzoil Place behind it; Bank of America Center at rear.

Image: Shutterstock

3. Pennzoil Place: 711 Louisiana Street

Year Built: 1976 
Architect: Johnson/Burgee Architects and S. I. Morris Associates
Acclaim: Hailed as the “building of the decade” by the New York Times in 1975
Twist: Pennzoil Place is actually two mirror-image buildings, separated by 10 feet and a glass-roofed lobby.
A Special Request: The Pennzoil Company chairman explicitly requested a building that did not resemble One Shell Plaza (#6). He got his wish.
Cinematic Moment: Sean Penn was filmed in this building in Terrence Malick’s 2011 film Tree of Life.
Stephen Fox: “Pennzoil became the harbinger of a new generation of American skyscrapers by flouting the engineering logic so perfectly expressed in One Shell Plaza.”

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The Gulf Building was once the tallest in Houston.

4. Gulf Building: 712 Main Street

Year Built: 1929
Architect: Alfred C. Finn, Kenneth Franzheim, and J. E. R. Carpenter
AKA: J. P. Morgan Chase Bank Building, Texas Commerce Bank Building
Claim to Fame: Commissioned by Jesse H. Jones, it was the tallest building in Houston from 1929-1963 (36 stories).
Detail to Notice: The Main Street lobby’s murals of Texas historical scenes
Stephen Fox: “The Gulf Building, with its striking chamfered corner bay dominating the intersection at Main and Rusk, is an urbane skyscraper in the best tradition of 1920s American city buildings.”

5. Niels Esperson Building: 808 Travis Street

Year Built: 1927
Architect: John Eberson
Record Holder: It was briefly the tallest building in Texas when it opened.
The Story: Mellie Keenan Esperson had it built after the death of her Danish husband Niels Esperson. The architect, known for his work designing theatres, followed Mrs. Esperson’s instructions to make the Italian Renaissance–style building as elaborate as possible. 
Fun Fact: Mellie Esperson’s ghost has been reported by several sources to haunt the building.
Stephen Fox: “A classical architectural monument par excellence…the building’s Westminster chimes still ring the hours, and Esperson’s crowning temple-like memorial is lit nightly, just as it was when the Niels Esperson Building dominated the downtown skyline.”

6. One Shell Plaza: 910 Louisiana Street

Year Built: 1971
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Wilson, Morris, Crain & Anderson
Claim to Fame: When it opened, it was the tallest concrete building in the world, at 50 stories.
Look Up: Its 170-foot antenna brings the building’s height to 1,000 feet, just a smidge under the J. P. Morgan Chase Tower (#1). 
Symbolic Significance: Shell Oil had it built when the company shifted its headquarters from New York to Houston, heralding Houston’s new prominence as an energy capital.
Stephen Fox: “One Shell Plaza is the optimal high-rise office building: economically determined, efficiently planned, and architecturally detailed to express its engineering and constructional innovations.”

7. Wells Fargo Bank Plaza: 1000 Louisiana Street

Year Built: 1983
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Lloyd Jones Brewer & Associates
AKA: Allied Bank Plaza, First Interstate Bank Plaza
More than Meets the Eye: At 71 stories (plus four more underground stories), it’s the second-tallest building in Houston.
Notable Tenant: Home to the UK Consulate General
Good to Know: It offers the only direct access from the street to Houston’s famous underground tunnel system in its basement-level courtyards facing Louisiana Street.
Stephen Fox: “Its great curves charge the surrounding space with a sense of movement and expansiveness; this perceptual sensation becomes perilously literal when the breeze picks up and wind action at the base of the building commences.”

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Heritage Plaza's distinctive granite top resembles a Mayan pyramid.

Image: Shutterstock

8. Heritage Plaza: 1111 Bagby Street

Year Built: 1987
Architect: M. Nasr & Partners
Unusual Influence: After vacationing in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the architect came up with the building’s distinctive granite top resembling a Mayan pyramid. The lobby also features Mexican influences.
Stephen Fox: “The boom in office building construction that reshaped the downtown skyline in the late 1970s and early ’80s ended with this display of postmodern exhibitionism.”

9. “The Enron Building:” 1400 Smith Street

Year Built: 1983
Architect: Lloyd Jones Brewer & Associates 
AKA: Four Allen Center 
Can’t Shake the Name: Although Enron collapsed in 2001 and Chevron has occupied the building since 2006, its old moniker persists. 
Counterparts: Before Enron’s collapse, the company commissioned a complementary building by Cesar Pelli and Associates at 1500 Louisiana Street.
Stephen Fox: “Aligned on the Fourth Ward grid rather than the South Side Buffalo Bayou grid that prevails downtown, the 50-story, oval-planned Four Allen Center tower is always seen in perspective.”

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The former Enron building at left; the former Continental building at right.

Image: Shutterstock

10. 1600 Smith Street

Year Built: 1984
Architect: Morris-Aubry Architects
AKA: Continental Center I, Cullen Center Plaza
Signage Battles: Continental wanted to display its logo on the cap of the building, but a 1993 City of Houston ordinance restricted the height of new downtown signs. This problem disappeared in 2000 when a new law was passed exempting a company if its national headquarters occupied 45 percent or more of a downtown building of at least 750,000 square feet. The cap was lit blue at night for Continental until 2010, when United and Continental merged and the new airline’s headquarters shifted to Chicago. 
Stephen Fox: “This pearl gray, 51-story tower is faceted in plan, projecting the collision of street grids upward in tiered setbacks that culminate in a polygonal cap, which, like its neighbor at 1400 Smith, is illuminated at night.” 

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