“I still get emails about this building, saying ‘Y’all messed up our historic district,’” says Jeffrey Brown, FAIA, design principal of Powers Brown Architecture. “It was a long, slogging project — we lost our shirts on it — but it’s a great project. I’m really proud of it. The current speed of architecture rarely facilitates a project like this, where we had to go over and over our argument. I accept if someone hates this building, but it’s deliberately purposeful in terms of its argument.”
Brown and I are standing on the southeast corner of 25th Street and the Strand, looking across the road at the Galveston Downtown Transit Terminal that his firm designed. To my eyes, there is nothing especially offensive about the building. It has ground-level retail behind an aluminum and glass storefront, the corner featuring a generous, recessed stair that leads up from the street to above the current FEMA flood level. Behind the retail is the terminal for all six lines of Galveston’s Island Transit buses. They pull in on 25th Street, park in one of three spots, unload, load, and pull out on the Strand. Above are three levels of car parking behind precast concrete cladding, whose faded red color and detailing recall some of the facades down the block. Vertical pilasters and a parapet of varying height indicate the four lots the structure occupies, evoking the scale and massing of the older buildings, while a dark stucco fin running up the face points out the entrance to the terminal waiting room. Aluminum steel screens provide ventilation for the parking garage and conceal the cars from the street. The screens are articulated in a way to suggest the punch window fenestration of the connecting urban street wall.
No, there is nothing especially offensive about it, given the program and tight budget. Then I remember: Oh, yes: This is Galveston, and this is the Strand, a National Historic Landmark District, home to the nation’s second-largest Mardi Gras celebration and its only Dickens On The Strand festival — a Christmas party for which people dress up in Victorian costumes and parade up and down the storied street. Once the main commercial thoroughfare of Texas’ biggest city, the Strand is now a tourist destination of T-shirt and curio shops, restaurants, and interpretive museums. As if to hammer the point home, a horse and carriage clop by, driven by a bored-looking man in a top hat. Locals are serious about preserving their remnant of the 19th century, and the coming of the Downtown Transit Terminal forced them to reckon with finding an appropriate response to a modern building in a historic district.
The $6.3 million, public-private project has its genesis with Mitchell Historic Properties (MHP), which owns a goodly chunk of the Strand. The company is part of the Mitchell Family Corporation, which was founded by George P. Mitchell, the Galveston-born petroleum engineer and son of Greek immigrants who pioneered fracking, developed The Woodlands, and started a foundation that has granted more than $400 million, primarily in support of sustainability science. MHP assembled the four lots on which the terminal now sits, and, together with the City of Galveston, put together its collection of program elements — bus terminal, parking garage, information center, and retail.
Much of the project’s financing came from a Federal Transit Administration grant to pay for the bus terminal. It replaces the city’s former terminal on 20th Street, which was really just an empty lot around which the busses parked for a time before heading off on their routes. In the new facility, there is an air-conditioned waiting room perched above the FEMA flood level, with windows that look out into the terminal so riders can see when their buses arrive.
The parking component expands the neighboring Shearn Moody Garage on 25th at Harborside Drive. The garage mainly serves cruise ship passengers traveling from the Port of Galveston Cruise Terminal, though it is also open for use to the general public. The new building adds 159 spaces and is accessed via a bridge from the pre-existing facility. The Port took the project over from MHP late in the design process when it purchased Shearn Moody, and is currently the facility’s operator.
The information center and retail component came out of Galveston’s “Design Standards for Historic Properties,” which calls for an active street edge around parking structures. The standards also make a case for modern architecture:
Contemporary design for alterations and additions to existing properties is encouraged when it does not destroy significant historical, architectural, or cultural material…. The new construction must relate sympathetically to the existing historic buildings and respect the height, scale, proportion, rhythm, massing, and scale of the surrounding buildings.
Powers Brown, which was selected as architect through an RFQ process, took this sensitive-contemporary approach to designing the building’s skin. They conducted a study of the Strand, carefully indexing the rhythm and cadence of the historic district’s facades. This research informed the articulation of the Transit Terminal. The architects went through three rounds of approvals with the Galveston Landmark Commission — each time refining the proposal to be more responsive to its context; each time sharpening their argument for a modern architectural language:
“That Nicholas Clayton building was cutting-edge for its time. So, too, should this project be cutting-edge.”
“Nobody’s going to walk out of this building in period costume and get into a horse and carriage, so why should the building wear period costume?”
“One hundred years from now, this building is going to look old, too.”
In the end, Powers Brown won over Landmarks, as well as state and federal historical commissions, and obtained the approval of the Galveston City Council. With the general public, however, the jury seems to still be out. There are the emails that Brown says he still receives. And then there’s the project’s former neighbor who, during construction, sued Turner (the general contractor), claiming that the work had caused his foundation to settle and had cracked a load-bearing masonry wall. The lawsuit dragged on for so long that Turner finally bought the allegedly affected building so they could finish up and get the heck out of Galveston before they lost too much money.
One wonders, though, whether what the neighbor really objected to was not any damage to his structure, or the architectural language of the Transit Terminal, but rather the upcoming proximity to his building of city busses and those they transport to and from downtown. For those travelers, this building, with its climate-controlled shelter, comfort facilities, and resilient design, is certainly a gift.
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.