Mackie and Kamrath: Farnsworth and Chambers Office Building

In the late 1930’s architects Karl Kamrath and Frederick MacKie began a practice in Houston that would shortly change course from traditional revival designs to a local variant of Frank Lloyd Wright’s take on the Prairie School approach.  In 1946, Kamrath met Wright and a lifelong friendship resulted.  Inspired by Wright’s use of interior space, natural materials and siting, Kamrath soon became the main designer for the firm and a major advocate of Wright in the US south.  In projects where MacKie & Kamrath had complete supervision authority, the Prairie School influence is clear and locally convenient for Houstonians.  A good example of such executed designs would be the 1957 Farnsworth & Chambers Construction Company headquarters at 2999 South Wayside Drive.

Set off by a large two-lane covered entrance protecting arriving parties from rain or the Texas sun, this office facility resembles Wright’s Taliesin West structure in two respects. First, the appearance of stability is stressed by the angular wall stance which slopes at about 12 -15 degrees. This makes the foundation larger than the building’s topmost points, like the stylobate footings of larger Greek structures which protected against earth movements. Second, the massive window awnings are bolstered by periodic vertical supports like the skylights of the Taliesin building, but thicker to match the long awning itself.  This was a modernist effort to reduce glare and control interior temperature, and most awning lines follow and stress the horizontal main shape of the building.

This structure was soon vacant due to a shutdown of the F&C offices at that location and in part due to the death of co-founder Dunbar Chambers in 1961. But in 1962 the expansion of NASA with a new (as originally titled) Manned Spacecraft Center at Clear Lake City would begin and temporary NASA offices were needed immediately. Bob Gilruth and his lieutenants chose this site as the stand-in for the future “Building One” administration building now in place as Johnson Space Center’s tallest structure. The original seven NASA Astronauts officed here with Gilruth until 1964.

Later known as the Gragg Building after the family that later owned it, it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places and is in use by the City of Houston. Kamrath’s 1956 client presentation drawing is shown at this page from the University of Texas, the location of much of the firm’s archives.

This site shows a photo of early Astronauts and officials in 1962, at the completion of the move-in (scroll down to headline “The NASA Manned Spacecraft Center.”

Other resources for the structure include:

Rice Design Alliance F&C page

Historical Marker coverage

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