Mackie and Kamrath: Big 3 Industries Building

The Prairie School of American architecture, commonly associated with Frank Lloyd Wright, his son Lloyd and other associates had a practitioner locally from the 1940’s through the 1970’s in Karl Kamrath, chief designer of the firm of Mackie and Kamrath, who both officed in a building of Kamrath’s design on Ferndale in River Oaks from the 1940’s. When, during the 1990’s I interviewed the firm’s last remaining partner Lloyd Borget in that office, there was a two-foot-tall model of a building in a display case in the waiting area. It was of the 1974 Big 3 Industries building at 3535 West 12th Street. This chemical company (now generally referred to as Aire Liquide) principally produced liquid oxygen in a plant down the street, with the Kamrath building serving as head office and housing an open control center on the first/second floors. At one time the building and its activities were so crucial to local industry that, by the testimony of workers still at companies on 12th Street, the facility was guarded by local police during the days immediately after the September 11th 2001 attacks. The building is currently for sale and seeking other uses, but shows its age well.

At first glance it would appear to be based on tilt-slab construction (a prefabrication method) but not only do many details appear custom, the building’s completion predates tilt-slab’s popularization by a decade or so and the six stories would be over double the height of that method’s capability to account for it. It is in fact a steel-framed building with external features of reinforced concrete, as with many skyscrapers. In addition to aspects of the Emil Bach house in Chicago, the clear homage to Wright comes from the Larkin building in Buffalo, NY (no longer extant) which was one of Wright’s few taller industrial buildings and had the distinction of being the first office building to use air conditioning (with fans forcing air through vanes of cascading water). The Big 3 Industries Building (as Air Liquide was called in the US in the 1950’s and 60’s) used modern methods of ventilation but mimicked details of arrangement used by Wright, such as stylized column capitals, overhanging balconies and integrated wrought iron fences. The overall lines, rather than the horizontal ones used in his one-story Prairie ranch homes, are vertically in sync with the structure’s greater height than width and the fences are terminated with finial columns of the same brick oriented in the same manner, mirroring the main structure.

Some fortunate circumstances of the siting work to the building’s advantage.On the west side are one-story facilities that do not compete much with the view of the higher Big 3 building from down the street, and to the east is Big 3’s own parking lot, offering no obstruction. Unlike the Larkin building, this one has no internal atrium-like space, but a large two-story space in the center of the first floor suggests it. One can get a sense of its scale at night when the lights are on. I understand that the first/second story space was used for an operations center with large mainframe computers at one time, probably scaled generously to allow for the raised floors that computer centers used extensively then. The structure is as massive as any I’ve seen and would serve well in a second life not only as an office facility but could be converted into luxury apartments with a lobby on the high-ceiling first floor. I suggest that you drive through this industrial edge of the Heights and experience this admiring and substantial shadow of the Wright Larkin building. Several more studies of Kamrath structures will follow from me here on this site.

Comments are closed.