• Black and white encaustic tile work references the city’s Mexican heritage. Photo by Nick Simonite.

Just north of the Pearl development in central San Antonio stands what appears to be an Art Deco gem — but the building hasn’t always evinced such restrained elegance. What had originally been an industrial bottling plant later served for decades as the kitschy, faux-stone-clad Haunted House of Grayson. As the success of the Pearl development drew attention to the neighborhood, architects Clayton&Little, along with interior designer MBH Architects and architect of record Villa Park, were commissioned to create a fresh image for the next incarnation of the building.

The original structure was rather unremarkable, but a hint of its Deco past could be found in the black tile detailing and rounded corners of the front facade. The designers took cues from these details and transformed the building — not back into what it had been, but, perhaps, into what it should have been all along. “You take the building and the program you’re trying to put in it,” says project architect Jonathan Card, AIA, “and the building tells you what it wants to be.”

It now serves as the home of West Elm, a modern furniture and home decor retailer that prides itself on creating unique identities for each of its stores, dozens of which have been settled within adaptive reuse projects. In this case, the existing building consisted of three volumes: a two-story office space fronting the street, a bow-trussed warehouse tucked behind, and, immediately adjacent, a second warehouse space with a pitched roof whose volume was completely obscured behind a rectangular blind facade.

The first steps of the renovation involved removing many of the interventions that had accumulated over the years. The secondary warehouse space was stripped down to its steel frame, creating a cool, breezy area that would become covered parking. The first bay was also peeled away to reveal the Deco detailing along the corner of the adjacent structure. The second floor of this front two-story volume was removed to create a lofty, double-height space, and the rear volume was repaired but largely left unaltered beyond the addition of partition walls to separate service areas from display. Though leaks had abounded, only the damaged ceiling boards were replaced, allowing the contrast in patinas of the wood to express the story of old and new.

The fenestration of the front facade was reconfigured to create a more elegant rhythm as well as a more prominent entryway. The existing industrial steel windows inspired the new custom door and steel windows. The architects replaced the original black tiles with nearly identical tiles, and used them to tie the first- and second-story windows together, creating strong vertical elements that provide a sense of continuity. Black and white encaustic tile work was added along the spandrels in a reference to the Mexican-influenced history of the city. “We played off what was there, but we weren’t a slave to it,” Card says. “We didn’t embalm the building, but we let it inspire what we did. I think the story is that even nondescript existing buildings have a story to tell, and if you can save them, we ought to.”

Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, works at Overland Partners in San Antonio.

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