• Cedar plank cladding in the main venue provides acoustic control and gives the interior an elemental simplicity. Photo by Julian Bajsel.

Project White Oak Music Hall
Client WOMH
Design Team Troy Schaum; Rosalyne Shieh, AIA; Tucker Douglas; Ian Searcy; Ane Gonzalez-Lara; Anika Schwarzwald; Giorgio Angelini; Anastasia Yee; Nathan Keibler; Hazal Yücel; Drew Heller; Amelia Hazinski
Photographers Julian Bajsel (events); Peter Molick (architecture)

Houston’s Near Northside is on the verge of a development boom. Property prices in the primarily Latino, working-class residential district have doubled in recent years, buoyed by the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown and the recent completion of METRORail’s Red Line expansion, which brought the light rail to North Main Street. As longtime residents brace for more change, one harbinger of what’s to come has already risen in their midst: White Oak Music Hall.

Sited above the floodplain of the Little White Oak Bayou (the project’s namesake), at the corner of North and North Main, the music hall is one of those only-in-Houston projects that leave people from other cities scratching their heads. First of all, it’s a ground-up rock club. Such venues are usually inserted into existing structures — old movie houses, ballrooms, warehouses — places that already possess the gritty patina of time, which is essential to that elusive quality, “authenticity.” To conceive and construct a newly minted version of the type seems perfectly in character for the city that built the Astrodome.

Secondly, merely three years separated conception and completion. The developers, Will Garwood and Will Thomas, came up with the idea of bringing an independent, outdoor music venue like Austin’s Stubb’s Bar-B-Q to Houston over drinks. They decided to go ahead with the endeavor a couple of weeks later, during a chance encounter in a Whole Foods parking lot. An old friend, Giorgio Angellini, suggested Garwood and Thomas hire the Houston-New York practice SCHAUM/SHEIH Architects, where he worked. “They came in and asked us to do some sketches, which we did,” says Troy Schaum, an assistant professor at Rice and co-founder of SCHAUM/SHEIH. “I thought that’s the last we’d hear of them, but three months later they were back, with the property and funding in place.”

(In addition to Garwood and Thomas, the White Oak has two other partners, who focus on booking and production: Jagi Katial, whose company Pegstar collaborates on Free Press Summer Fest, and Johnny So, the former general manager of Fitzgerald’s, a legendary Houston rock club that has been around since 1977. It occupies a 1918 Polish dance hall, a mere stone’s throw away from White Oak, in the Heights.)

“In any other city, it would take 10 years to do something like this,” Schaum continues. “It’s a $10 million-plus overall development. It would have been much more expensive other places. The contractor who did this also builds steakhouses. He has a Texan ‘get-’er-done’ attitude. The clients were first-time developers. That’s the spirit of optimism, in Houston: If you have an idea here, people come out of the fabric of the city to support it. Most people who supported this project just wanted a music venue here; they weren’t just trying to double their money.”

The architects were also new at this. Prior to White Oak, SCHAUM/SHEIH’s focus had primarily been on research projects. Both of the partners teach and had worked on building projects at other firms — Schaum at OMA and Rosalyne Shieh, AIA, at Abalos&Herreros in Madrid, as well as ARO and Stan Allen Architect in New York — but they had yet to build anything under their own shingle. The goal for the architecture of White Oak was set at the start: “It’s a modern project,” Schaum says. “We wanted to make a public space that didn’t refer to Texas’ past. We wanted something that would represent the global, cosmopolitan ambitions of our little city.”

The five-acre site was assembled mostly from empty and abandoned lots. The only structures to be preserved and incorporated into the new venue included the former fabrication shop of R.W. Walker’s Metal Enterprises and its attached Raven Tower — Walker’s “bachelor pad in the sky” — a Houston landmark since it was completed in the 1970s. The team worked with the City of Houston to get a 380 Agreement — a state-sponsored economic development tool that allows cities to reimburse developers for public infrastructure improvements, using funds from the increased tax base the project generates. This helped cover the cost of putting in new streets, sidewalks, and a sewer system, not to mention 650 parking spaces.

The new building, which establishes an urban edge at the corner of North and North Main streets, encloses two venues. One accommodates 1,200 people; the other, 220. The building massing expresses these two entities. “It’s bloody-minded, very simple,” Schaum says. “It has a chunkiness to it, which is part of its authenticity. Over time, people will inhabit it, put marks on it, and it will develop a bottom-up aura.”

The steel structure is clad in Hardie Board — the cheapest way to build in Houston, according to Schaum. The architects ripped the Hardie Board down the middle and laid it up the elevation like lap siding, setting up a 1-ft, 10-in dimension that became the module for the design. The Hardie Board is painted in a black-to-gray gradient at the base of the building, “to create a graphic identity that’s not a cheesy sign,” Schaum says. The architects did, however, also design a bold and graphic sign that wraps the main public corner. Lit up with white light at night, spelling out “WHITE OAK MUSIC HALL,” it acts as a beacon on what is otherwise currently a quiet and dark stretch of North Main.

The rear of the building faces an outdoor stage with a capacity of 3,500. Two decks on the second level and a third on the roof (that was added during construction) provide perches for taking in a show or viewing the downtown skyline. The decks are topped by timber brise-soleil, as opposed to roofs, leaving inhabitants exposed to Houston’s frequent rain showers. Angled cedar-plank siding is laid over rock wool insulation, dampening the sound reflected off the building during outdoor concerts. Raised weathered-steel boxes, platforms for wood box seating, ring the ridge of the grass amphitheater, which slopes down to the stage.

The layout of the large indoor venue is based on Fitzgerald’s. It’s a flat shoebox shape, which puts everyone in the crowd close to the stage. The oversized proscenium also gives the impression that you’re very close to the band. Angled cedar planks line the walls, spaced 1/2-in to 1-1/2-in apart with rock wool insulation behind. The architects worked with JaffeHolden on the acoustical design and with Tim Nowicke and Generations AV on the production design.

The smaller indoor venue features a window behind the stage that looks out on the skyline. There are three bars — one serving the small stage, two the large, each punched into recesses, and each expressing a different elemental materiality: wood, stainless steel, concrete. The architects worked with Gin Braverman of ginsdesigngroup on some of the interior spaces, including the artist green rooms, which are well-appointed and include facilities for laundry and showering — rare and valued amenities for touring musicians.

R.W. Walker’s old fabrication shop was turned into a separate venue. The architects sketched arched holes cut out of the metal building’s siding to create an open-air pavilion. A bar and outdoor patio space — a place to bring your dog on Sunday and watch a football game — face the bayou. The Raven Tower was turned into a lounge (also finished by ginsdesigngroup), and the architects are currently working to add a fire stair to the space, to update the certificate of occupancy so it can be opened to the public. 

Change can be hard to accept. The owners of White Oak are currently involved in a lawsuit with some nearby residents who object to the sound generated by the outdoor music venue. And yet, what the residents now have as a neighbor is an example of how Houston itself might change responsibly. “You see young people arriving by bicycle, coming off the light rail,” Schaum says. “Metro uses this building in their brochures as an example of transit-oriented development. Other things are opening in the neighborhood. Hopefully they’ll extend the bike trail up Little White Oak Bayou, connecting it and Moody Park. It’s about urban continuity. It’s more than a node. It doesn’t fit in with the more typical mess of the city.”

Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.

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