Michael Friebele

Michael Friebele

As we wish a happy 50th to the First National Bank Tower in Dallas we reflect upon a staple of the skyline and the future that is taking shape.

At the halfway mark of the 20th century, Dallas was a city experiencing unprecedented growth. With it would come one of the defining building booms of the era. Fueled by a burgeoning oil industry, inland port, and continued success as a financial center for the region, the consolidation of banking operations would result in the largest construction boom of towers since the late 20s. The historic buildings along Main Street could no longer meet the spatial and functional requirements of this growing industry. In a city built upon the notion that everything bigger is better, modest solutions were a thing of the past. Towers would define the future.

Republic and First National banks were long-time neighbors and competitors. Both were located doors away from each other along Main Street. Republic Bank made the first move toward a new headquarters. Designed by Harrison and Abramovitz (the architecture firm responsible for the aluminum-clad Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh) the 36-story Republic Bank opened at the corner of Ervay and Saint Paul streets in 1954. Topped by a vertically stretched crossed spire, an adaptation of the bank’s logo, the Republic Bank tower would stand as the tallest in the city until 1959 and would send a visual message to the world of Dallas’ rising modern prominence.

As the Republic Tower opened to the public, First National continued to face immense growth that led to challenging functional constraints. At its peak, the bank’s offices occupied eight buildings stemming out from its original home on Main Street. With the merger of Dallas National Bank in 1954, First National built its final addition on the corner of Field and Elm streets. The annex marked the first piece in the 13 parcels—one of the last remaining vestiges of the Elm Street Theater District—the bank would acquire to construct its new tower.

The tower’s design was the result of a partnership between two prominent Dallas architects: George Dahl and Thomas E. Stanley. George Dahl’s celebrated career covered nearly every function and style throughout the 20th century. From the early adaptations of the Chicago style in the design of the Neiman Marcus and Titche-Goettinger department stores in Downtown Dallas to the focal art-deco structures and planning of the Texas Centennial Fairgrounds, Dahl’s work would shape into the mid-century modern era with projects that embraced the evolving built landscape of the city.

Where Dahl was the seasoned architect of the team, Thomas E. Stanley, by comparison, was the up-and-comer. Stanley spent his formative years under noted Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick and later opened his own practice in the early 1960s. His office would ultimately be short-lived, but it amassed an impressive portfolio of corporate and retail architecture, including a series of tower projects in Austin, Chicago, and Indianapolis. The Gulf and Western building at 15 Columbus Circle in New York City marked the height of his career. The tower was converted into the Trump International Hotel and Tower in 1997.

Open to the public on January 31, 1965, the 52-story First National Bank Tower more than doubled the space of the eight-building campus, uniting the bank’s operations under one roof for the first time in decades. At 628 feet, the tower claimed the title of tallest west of the Mississippi River and visually supplanted the rivaling banks with one iconic gesture. As an anchor of the skyline, the design focused heavily on the tower’s vertical stature with an alternating series of black and white vertical banding, conveying a height taller than constructed. The stretched hexagonal plan gave the massing a slender appearance as well as a leasable advantage in offering expanded views outward. The building’s most unique gesture came at dusk through an integrated fluorescent lighting scheme that runs vertically up each white band. The feature, meant to give the tower the same visual presence day or night, was the first in a common design element seen on towers throughout downtown Dallas today.

The achievements of the First National Bank went beyond the marks for height. The bank held many distinctions for largest usage of building material, from Burmese Teak wood and Persian carpeting to a tinted-curtain wall system that would set the industry standard. The tower also held claim to the highest escalator in the world, which was located within Dallas’ first observation deck.

The design of the podium was an exercise in image and contextual response. In a defining trait of Stanley’s architectural language, the banking operations were lifted in a single mass atop a series of periphery columns. Meant to evoke the Parthenon in Athens, the columns taper downward from a curved capital, a similar design move as seen in Stanley’s neighboring Sanger Harris department store project. The language carried over to the details of the podium, which is clad in Pentelic marble extracted from the Battle of Marathon site in Greece.

Beneath the modern entablature retail, the lobby and banking elements could be arranged freely. Stepped back from the street, the massing provided angles of daylighting into a series of sunken plazas and courtyards. Clad in black granite, the cubic formation of the podium blends seamlessly with the storefront, creating a series of frames at night to view the tenants within. The tower and podium are anchored to the ground plane through an extensive use of Texas granite, extracted from the same quarry as the stone used on the Texas State Capitol in Austin.

The podium configuration afforded a unique organization of program. With the banking lobby and public trading floor lifted, the entry sequence from the street upward offered an intriguing approach that gave visitors a unique vantage point to view the surroundings and an opportunity to sense the weight of the podium. This move provided a free flowing path beneath that connected retail anchors with a covered walkway. A rooftop deck blurred the transition between podium and tower. Serving both public and private functions, the roof garden defined a captivating urban space complete with a sculpture park and dining terraces.

By the mid 70s, First National no longer dominated the skyline. The title of tallest building west of the Mississippi River would be taken by 555 California Street in San Francisco in 1969 and the Renaissance Tower took the title of the tallest Dallas building in 1974. First National’s prominence and the building boom inevitably came to an end with the savings and loan crisis in 1986. By 2010, suffering from a depleted occupancy rate and ceased banking operations, the First National Bank Tower closed to the public. After changing hands and going through multiple design iterations, Olympic Property Partners is now moving forward with a project to convert the building into a mixed-use development with retail as the primary occupant at the base and a conversion of the tower into 480 residential units. Merriman Associates/Architects (MAA), a perennial contributor to the historic landscape of Downtown Dallas, is responsible for the redesign effort.

The First National Bank Tower poses a unique challenge with the historic tax credit program. With the tower having turned 50 in January the project could receive up to 20 percent in tax credits from the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program as well as an additional 25 percent from the Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program, which went into effect in January 2015. For the project to be considered for the National Register it must comply with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, exhibiting a high degree of importance and contribution to historical events. Significance in the development of architectural, landscape, and engineering fields is also of consideration.

The First National Bank Tower is all but a shoo-in for historic designation, however ownership has declined to pursue it as the redesign calls for the alteration of certain key elements of the architecture, from removing the marble to reconfiguring internal spaces. Though unfortunate at first glance, the process of designation has, understandably, been and continues to be a highly considered and contested portion of the redevelopment process.

MAA’s design maintains the original intent behind the basic massing. The three-story volume housing levels 6, 7, and 8 is maintained as a parking garage with program below remaining independent of the perimeter columns. The tower architecture, from an exterior appearance, is left unchanged in form and character as well. Major additions and alterations to the formal nature of the architecture occur at the podium level. In response to changing market and cultural forces, pedestrian experience is the key driver in the design changes, including the removal of sunken plazas to the addition of a grand stair and seating element that connects the corner of Akard and Elm with the double-height retail spaces.

The changes that conflict with the historic integrity of the building occur in the material selection. The updated palette addresses safety and aesthetic issues resulting from the poor initial construction quality. Other aspects point again toward the changing market, favoring materials that enhance the public nature of the podium through the use of transparent surfaces and updated clear glazing. Removed materials are slated, if they remain intact, to be stored for potential reuse throughout the design.

The Pentelic Marble poses the single largest issue. Though aesthetically defining, the thin veneer of the marble panels—having been applied through a process of wire strung through the top and attached to the substructure with a thin coat of adhesive—requires either re-pinning or replacement. Both pose difficult constraints. Due to their thinness, some panels have cracked under multiple tests and show a series of attachment points at the corners. Replacement also raises concerns, as the panels were selected in such a number from the original quarry that sources are difficult to come by. Left in place, without any attention, the marble would continue to pose a safety issue with the possibility that panels could come detached. This represents the biggest consideration in the renovation process, but it is only one of many in the collective whole that would affect a positive outcome in the tax credit process.

The renovation design is not a far cry from the original intent of the basic massing and organization of the First National Bank Tower, but it is a clear departure from the details. The tower poses many questions and issues with the conversion of mid-century towers, many of which are being repurposed for a use that was unintended in the original design. With the MAA design, the reinterpretation of the podium is in many ways considering the evolution of the public portion of the project through the integration of design elements that will activate the building for the Dallas of today.

The debate is inevitable, yes, but let us not forget the historical context. The First National Bank Tower was built during a time when Dallas was transitioning into a commercial hub for the region. Today that evolution is just as exciting but with a mandate toward a livable inner city. In the end, re-adapting a project of this size to meet that demand may go down as a more historically appropriate move than preserving its original form.