In the downtown districts of Dallas, Houston, and even smaller Texas metros, a movement is on the rise to rescue midcentury modern buildings from would-be wreckage and redevelop them as destination spaces for major hotel chains. Developers have gone digging for these gems, chipping off decades of dust, polishing them up, and turning them about, spinning a story to beguile new guests. Architects have been called on to leverage the buildings’ storied histories to make midcentury modern — by today’s standards.
In Dallas, The Statler Hotel (which opened its doors in October 2017) and its sister project, the Cabana Hotel (still in progress), are recent revivals of midcentury properties — iconic, both in design and reputation. The Statler opened in 1956 as a 1,000-plus-room hotel and convention center designed by New York architect William Tabler with a first-of-its-kind, thin-skinned glass and aluminum curtain wall. The building was purchased in 2014 by Centurion American Development Group, which hired Merriman Anderson/Architects for the remodel. The grand re-opening featured a performance by 91-year-old Tony Bennett, one of the original hotel’s famed patrons.
Centurion also retained Merriman Anderson to revive the former Cabana Motor Hotel on Stemmons Freeway. It was opened in 1962 by Las Vegas hotelier Jay Sarno (of Caesars Palace and Circus Circus fame) and designed by architect Melvin Grossman. Iconic features include a swirling latticework concrete brise-soleil, colorful terrazzo, and swanky pool decks. The Cabana’s litany of famous guests includes The Beatles and Raquel Welch. Construction on the renovation was set to start in April.
In Houston, redevelopment projects include Le Méridien (1952), the Westin Houston Medical Center hotel (1954), and the AC Hotel (a historic 1914 building, rebuilt in 1966).
Midcentury revivalism is nothing new: We’ve been worshipping the genre’s minimalism and moxie for decades for its reprieve from digital-age clutter. Midcentury is touted as the aesthetic of choice for upwardly mobile millennials, but it’s also widely marketable. Merriman Anderson principal and founder Jerry Merriman, AIA, comments: “Midcentury seems to appeal to everyone — the Baby Boomers, because they grew up with it, and millennials, because they like the ‘Mad Men’ feel. It’s got a cool factor, and it’s different and unique.”
But there’s another reason for the current trend: money, in the form of the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program and the Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program (which went into effect in 2015). In order to qualify for funds, buildings must either be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (meaning they must be at least 50 years old) or else be a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark.
According to Merriman Anderson, The Statler and the Cabana will receive both types of tax credits. The Statler, vacant since 2001, is on the National Historic Register and was included on “most endangered places” lists by both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Texas. It sits on a city block that Adam Jones, principal and team leader on the Statler project, calls “one of the greatest examples of midcentury architecture in this part of the country.” However, many of the buildings on that stretch have already been demolished, with the land turned into a park. The preservation community feared The Statler would be considered a tear-down, and yet the glittering 19-story hotel center persisted, like a Golden Age starlet awaiting her comeback.
The Cabana has strayed a bit farther from its glitzy, mid-’60s roots, most recently having served as a prison. The Dallas County Commissioner was quoted in 2008 as saying, “I don’t ever see it reopening.” But the redevelopment community saw possibility beneath the layers of jail bars and concrete. The Cabana was listed on Preservation Dallas’s 2015 Most Endangered Historic Places list — and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 2019.
The Statler, a $230 million project, and the Cabana, estimated at $100 million, benefit from a 20 percent income tax credit on qualified rehabilitation expenditures through the federal program, as well as a 25 percent credit on eligible costs from the state.
The three hotels in Houston also qualified for incentives. The AC Hotel, designed by Mitchell Carlson Stone, was restored in 2019 with an approximately $1.2-million economic grant from the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, as well as help from state and federal programs. Just around the corner, the 21-story Melrose Building (1952) reemerged in 2017 as Le Méridien under The Beck Group. In addition to state and federal help, it received $15 million from the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program. The Westin Houston Medical Center hotel (1954), which also qualified for state and federal tax credits, was restored by BRR Architecture and reopened in early 2020.
Incentives come with caveats. Reviving historic buildings means working under the strictures of the National Park Service (NPS) and the Texas Historical Commission (THC) to preserve historical character while bringing the buildings up to date. Merriman Anderson conducted studies on the existing properties to explore ideas for working within midcentury lines to create a contemporary destination space.
One of the challenges of multistory midcentury properties is the low floor-to-floor heights typical of the time period. Squeezing contemporary systems into that space required some finagling. Merriman Anderson also worked with NPS and THC to reconfigure the building for multiuse (apartments and hotel). The preservation groups wanted the building’s corridors offset, as they had been originally, meaning you’d have smaller units on one side and larger ones on the other. However, the architects negotiated to get a centered corridor for the residential sections that would provide equal-sized units on both sides, accommodating a usable depth for apartments. “But if you were a guest or an apartment-dweller, you’d never know the difference,” Jones says. “When you get off the elevator and get on the corridor, it really all looks the same.”
The exterior amenity decks presented another design challenge for both of the Dallas projects: NPS and THC mandate that buildings should look no different at street level than they did in their heyday. In order to add the must-have rooftop lounges and pool bars, the architects pushed everything back from the parapet and used glass rails to minimize visual impact. The Statler team repurposed the original upper-rooftop mechanical space to create an indoor-outdoor bar and cut away the masonry behind the hotel sign, where riders exiting the elevator get a discreet view of the downtown skyline. The Cabana has a number of lower-rooftop decks, so turning those into mingling spaces, as planned, will be a design feat.
Where there is challenge, there is also opportunity to give inimitable architectural elements a new life. Beneath the Cabana’s layers of concrete flooring, the team found swaths of original terrazzo. Intricately tiled walls and marble sinks were still intact in the bathrooms. There are curious mushroom-like concrete umbrellas on the pool deck that will be remade in a “Palm Springs” image. The lobby’s famous grand staircase is being rebuilt according to the original drawings to restore the elegance of the indoor space.
Restoration at The Statler was careful and comprehensive, down to the zig-zag butterfly canopies on the lower levels and the cantilevered porte cochère. Degraded marble elements were replaced with matching stone from the original quarry. Bringing midcentury up to date was not much of a departure for The Statler. The hotel was the first to feature elevator music and install Westinghouse TVs in every room. “We were really trying to maintain the kind of cutting-edge, modern design that was original, but to bring it forward,” Jones says. The next-generation iteration takes high-tech to a new level, with automation (curtains, lights, and temperature) and the “fastest Internet in the city.”
While this midcentury redux in the Texas hotel space aligns with new opportunities, it’s also lagging slightly behind a national trend. Moteliers across the country popularized the aesthetic in the later 2000s by buying up derelict midcentury motor inns and rebranding them at a premium. Jennifer Picquet-Reyes, principal and team leader on the Cabana, helps us draw the throughline: “Modern travelers are looking for a unique experience — they don’t want to go where everyone else has been; they don’t want to go to the chain hotel,” she says. “They want to go to something that they can’t get anywhere else, and I think that is giving rise to this boutique aesthetic. There’s some nostalgia associated with it, because a lot has gone away. So with the revival of these buildings, people can experience something that they maybe couldn’t have 10 [or] 15 years ago.”
The higher-end hotel industry now sees its chance to capitalize on the boutique experience at scale, but it’s the interplay of different interests that has given rise to the boom in Texas: developers attracted to incentives; hoteliers looking for opportunities to create the boutique experience; preservationists who force the hand of authenticity; and architects willing to draw inside the clean lines of these midcentury properties to tell their own stories.
Janine Marie Stankus is a freelance writer and editor based in Austin.