The Red Velvet Events headquarters occupies a 1940s Quonset hut in North Austin that was previously used as an airfield maintenance shed, an auto glass repair center, and a discount furniture outlet.
Architect MAGIC Architecture
General Contractor DKC Construction Group
Structural Engineer LEAP!Structures
MEP Engineer Jordan & Skala
For the better part of a century, the intersection of Austin’s North Lamar and Airport boulevards has been the blue-collar counterpart of white-collar downtown. Muffler repair, furniture and scratch-and-dent appliance outlets, head shops: These businesses still occupy low-slung industrial buildings built in the 1940s and ’50s. In the midst of this landscape, the new headquarters of Red Velvet Events, with its bold red sign announcing its intention to “Outplan, Outplay, Outparty,” looks like a gleaming vision of some energetic future. This may be true, but this reimagining of a 1940’s-era three-bay Quonset hut as creative office space, by Scott Magic, AIA, is also keenly aware of its connection to Austin’s past.
Quonset huts were designed as temporary structures for the military in preparation for U.S. involvement in World War II. Their roof section is semicircular, with metal ribs supporting a metal shell, and the result is often described as “half a tin can” — or, in the case of this building, three halves. Named for the aviation facility in Quonset, Rhode Island, that served as a testing ground for construction, Quonsets were designed to be quickly assembled and deployed. Later, the “huts” offered functional and affordable shelter for a broad range of uses, from postwar housing — “House Beautiful doesn’t consider a Quonset an ideal house,” says a magazine spread from September 1945, “but it’s available.” — to music recording: Some historians credit the rise of the “Nashville sound” to the acoustic effects of a Quonset.
The Quonset now occupied by Red Velvet Events was first constructed as a maintenance shed for University Airfield, which operated from the corner of Airport and North Lamar from 1925 to 1952 (aviation pioneer Emma Carter Browning and her barnstormer husband Robert trained pilots there). When the airfield closed, the Quonset served as an auto glass repair center and then as a discount furniture outlet before sitting empty for several years. When Magic and Red Velvet owner Cindy Lo first toured the building, a brick facade on the exterior and a dropped ceiling inside obscured the structure. “It was pitch black inside. The only light coming in was from holes in the suspended ceiling tiles, and there were a few dead animals,” says Magic. But peering through a fallen ceiling tile, Magic saw the ribs supporting the roof. “I told Cindy, buy this thing now. This is going to be an amazing space.” Lo agreed. “I knew I needed a creative space for my team, not just more space, but a flexible space that would lend itself to creativity. It was bigger than what we needed, but I saw the shape of the building, and I saw possibilities. After all, that’s what we do for work.”
The first move, says Magic, was to expose the structure. “I thought, this is beautiful, and we need to preserve it. Buildings will never get built like this again.” The contractor gutted the building down to a concrete slab, two lines of columns, and metal ribs. Then Magic tapped Tak Chu of LEAP!Structures to help “solve the weather.” Chu’s team proposed a system of corrugated metal decking that would stiffen the building, allow for the addition of insulation and skylights, and satisfy warranty requirements.
Chu also designed the detail that would allow for the big design move: replacing the brick facade with floor-to-ceiling glass. “Tak came up with a really beautiful detail that you can’t even see because he’s so good,” says Magic. Curved steel beams above each window transfer the load of the roof; look closely, and you’ll see that the beams are curved along the strong axis (it took some doing, says Magic, to find a steel facility willing to take that on. Eventually, they found one in Milwaukee). Chu also warned Magic that the roof structure, even when strengthened, would not support the weight of heavy equipment: no HVAC units; no hanging ducts. The delicate ribs holding up the roof were made of bent sheet metal, and to save money on metal during a wartime shortage, the builders did not use bolts. Magic points to a folded tab on a pair of ribs: “Basically, they pliered it together.” For Magic, this constraint was good news, allowing him to keep the structure clean and visible. In fact, only one wall in the building goes all the way up to the roof.
Responding to Lo’s request for flexible office space that would allow for different seating and group arrangements, Magic proposed open areas on either side of an enclosure where noisy activity, including a conference room, restrooms, and HVAC units, could be contained. Banks of telephone rooms at the rear of each office area offer acoustical privacy and screen messy areas like the staff break room from public view.
Simple materials are offset by a few luxurious details like the brass doorplates designed by Magic and fabricated by Litmus Industries and the angled marble reception desk designed by Sophia Razzaque. Swings at the front entrance support the theme of play. Meanwhile, at the rear employee entrance, Magic carved 20 feet off one bay to create a porch shaded by an existing pecan grove. The move also reduced the square footage, putting it under the threshold at which an expensive fire sprinkler system would be required.
For both Lo and Magic, the project illustrates an attitude to the past that they wish others shared. “So much of the 1940s’ and 1950s’ architecture is getting thrown away,” Magic says. “There are a lot of beautiful structures that our grandparents built. Who knows? Someone’s grandmother might have rolled these ribs during the War. How incredible is that?” Lo herself is proud to be holding down a piece of Austin’s history. “I was born in Texas, and I’ve lived in Austin for 24 years. This building has been here all along. It’s the same cement floor. It’s the exact same building, just beautified.”
Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.