The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth again faces an aesthetic dilemma, this time created by the City of Fort Worth’s pursuit of a hotel related to the Cultural District. The City, in conjunction with the landowner and developer, has led hotelier Heart of America Group to the site immediately north of Louis Kahn’s 1972 masterpiece and is offering tax credits and variances which would allow the construction of a 12-story structure with over 200 rooms and related parking, services, and amenities. The contemplated site has been empty for several years now in anticipation of major development to the east reaching it and once held a pharmacy.
The height of the surrounding structures in that block of Camp Bowie Boulevard currently does not exceed five stories (the MU-2 High Intensity Mixed-Use zoning limits structures to 60 ft in height), meaning that a new hotel, 155 ft tall, would loom over the north employees parking lot of the museum. More to the aesthetic point is the potential destruction of the prime view of the museum from the southwest, from which the hotel — even if carefully-designed, which it is not — would be a massive structure in the air space and view corridor alongside Kahn’s building. The internal view from the central gallery northward over the Maillol sculpture “L’Air” and the north court would be affected as well, with the hotel removing the open sky from the vignetted museum view.
A planned vote by the City Council related to the project was postponed until March 7 due to requests by the museums (including the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and possibly the Amon Carter Museum of American Art) and others for more time to understand the proposal and its effects. A meeting of representatives of those concerned on Friday, March 3, failed to reach any immediate resolution to the problem. One possible solution would seem to be the terracing of the constituent masses with the taller elements pushed north towards West Seventh Street. While completely legal to date — and much in the way of process remains prior to the idea coming to fruition — the actions seem bereft of larger cultural, aesthetic, or urban planning concerns of any sensitivity. The City has previously become involved in hotel ownership with the Omni Hotel adjacent to the Water Garden, as Dallas later did as well with its Omni Hotel near the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. The museum proximity appears to be the ‘carrot’ offered to the hotel.
It is common in Texas to hold the legal ‘bar’ as the ‘high bar’ — that is, that if it is legal, then that is the highest and sometimes only concern. In actuality of course, the legal ‘bar’ is the threshold below which one is punished by society, and any higher concerns, be they ethical, moral, or (usually lastly) aesthetic, are frequently removed from considerations. The focus appears to be entirely on legal rights and not on voluntary aesthetic or cultural responsibilities. “Ask not what your….” We endeavor to protect environmentally sensitive locations with Environmental Impact Statement — would not a significant cultural artifact or district be worthy of such care? Whether considered “historic” and under such protection or not?
Fort Worth City Councilman Dennis Shingleton, in whose district the project falls, was quoted in the Fort Worth Business Press as saying, “We have wanted a first-class five-star hotel in the Cultural District for years.” Presently named the Hotel Renovo, the project would cost an estimated $47 million, with $36.5 million in actual construction costs. The City would purchase the site and lease it back to the developer, estimating that as much as $13.8 million in sales tax would be generated after a rebate of the seven percent occupancy tax for the 16-year length of the initial agreement. The revenues would assist in covering a portion of the $225 million the City will owe for its share of the new 14,000-seat Special Events Arena under construction south of the Cultural District along Montgomery Street.
On February 22, Rick Mauch of the Fort Worth Business Press wrote, “What’s another couple of weeks for something great?” — paraphrasing the City Council’s usual pro-development ‘all growth is good’ frame of reference, which colors most of the downtown Fort Worth business mind set. This paradigm has been a large factor in the lack of understanding of serious preservation issues and any real sense of the history of the city’s fabric despite public rhetoric regarding Fort Worth’s heritage. In fact, the Fort Worth Stockyards are undergoing major redevelopment in which it remains to be seen to what extent the original fabric is legible on completion. Tourist dollars are the primary factors, and the irony is that such work usually destroys the very thing it claims to hold dear.
In a well-known gesture of this kind of respect, upon being given the site for their new building in 1965, the owners and Richard F. Brown, the inaugural director of the Kimbell, contacted Ruth Carter Johnson — whose Amon Carter Museum had been completed four years earlier in honor of her father — and asked her how tall a new building might be before it would block the view to downtown, which was the raison d’etre for the ‘porch’ design parti of her structure. She contacted architect Philip Johnson, who set the vertical height of 40 ft. This height was adhered to with no legal requirement, but rather homage and as an act of deference. In fact, the Kahn design let the Kimbell even further into the site than this abstract limit. Such regard for the efforts of another civic achievement, let alone a work of architecture with few peers in the world, seems very far away in this current scenario.
The Kimbell Art Museum is in a very small list of the finest buildings of the 20th century, and easily the most esteemed structure in Texas from the time period. The idea that the City itself would blindly bring a poorly conceived structure to sit alongside the museum for primarily financial reasons is incomprehensible to those who understand art, architecture, and urban design.
Mark Gunderson, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.