Farewell to the House that Bud Built

Before the Oilers pack for Nashville, another of Bud Adams' contributions to Houston may vanish, although its passing won't cause anywhere near the civic consternation that has accompanied the probable departure of his NFL franchise.

In fact, few people outside of the city's architectural circles will miss the Adams Petroleum Center, which is likely to fall to the wrecking ball sometime this year.

The low-slung, three-story brick office building, which sits off of Fannin near the Texas Medical Center, obviously has seen better days. Along its second floor, doors have gaping holes where knobs used to bulge, and the pale yellow paint is peeling in the fraying hallway.

Adams still toils below in his basement bunker, stealing in unnoticed through a private parking garage and a side door to an office whose interior once received a "medal of honor" for outstanding design from the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

It was in this plush, wood-paneled retreat that Adams and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt announced the formation of the American Football League in 1959. In the '60s, it was where Adams personally negotiated contracts with his players, offering them pickup trucks, cattle and even houses as incentives.

That was back when Houston hailed a young Bud Adams as a visionary. Now, of course, he's viewed somewhat differently.

The Oilers' headquarters still sprawl on the third floor of the APC. But like Adams, who's moving his operations to the 5 Post Oak building, the team's front-office personnel will soon be ensconced in new digs in Houston. Those quarters probably will be temporary, a way station on the route to Nashville.

Although Adams sold the building to a group of investors in 1977, he remained the primary tenant, until recently subleasing space to various businesses and nonprofit organizations. Most of the other tenants -- the United Negro College Fund among them -- have already moved out or are packing to go.

One recent occupant, however, will stay until the end: a city of Houston fire marshal, whom we found reading a book at a card table near the vending machines on the second floor. Back in 1993, the APC was cited for serious violations of the city's building code, including a lack of sprinklers in the basement. Neither Adams nor the owner of record, APC-77 Investment Venture, wanted to spend the $700,000 or so it would take to bring the 40-year-old building up to present-day fire building standards.

So the APC will be coming down. It was originally scheduled for demolition before April 30, although that date may be pushed back. Nonetheless, tenants will vacate the building by May 4, and then the APC will be locked and secured, according to Bryan Ammann of Venture Houston, which is trying to sell the property for $12 million.

In the meantime, the fire marshal will remain. His full-time presence is part of an agreement struck in December between the city and APC-77 Investment Venture and Adams.

At the time, lawyers representing the owners and Adams said they had no intention of bringing the building into compliance with the fire code by a December 27 deadline, and asked an appeals board of the Department of Public Works and Engineering for a four-month extension.

Because the building is expected to be demolished, the city agreed to allow it to stay open if a fire marshal were on the premises daily during work hours. According to Dan Pruitt, chief inspector with the Houston Fire Department, Adams pays $6,700 a month for the service, which includes the fire marshal making routine inspections of the building.

The APC is the only structure in the city in which a fire marshal is stationed on a permanent basis. Normally, such fire watches are temporarily assigned to buildings that have a faulty alarm or sprinkler system while the owner brings them up to standard.

It's doubtful that the APC's demolition will raise much hue and cry in Houston, a city not exactly known for its devotion to historic preservation. As architectural historian Stephen Fox notes, the general public probably won't consider a vintage 1957 building old enough to warrant preserving.

But among architects and others who appreciate design, the building's disappearance definitely will be considered a loss. Designed by Donald Barthelme, one of the city's foremost practitioners of modernism during the 1950s, the APC is a "marvelous example of Barthelme's attempt to develop a responsive modern architecture, one obviously indebted to Scandinavian design," as Fox wrote in the AIA's Houston Architectural Guide.

It was in 1956 that Adams commissioned Barthelme to build office space for his Ada Oil Company and the rest of his burgeoning business empire, which would include ranching, motels, real estate and, of course, the Oilers.

Now nearing 90, Barthelme (the father of the late writer of the same name) lives in a west Houston townhome. His mind is sharp, but the hands that once drew careful sketches are now crippled with arthritis.

"Is the building falling down?" Barthelme asks a visitor inquiring about his memories of the APC. That's every architect's worst fear, he explains.

When informed that the APC is slated for demolition, Barthelme is noticeably unsentimental. Although he poured his soul and sweat into the APC, he never returned to the building in the four decades since he finished his work on it. He says he always followed the advice of an older mentor architect who advised him, "You never want to go back [to a building] because of what people do to them."

But Barthelme doesn't have to return to 6910 Fannin to remember it; the blueprint is etched in his mind. He picks up a pencil, and with gnarled fingers conjures up an outline of Adams' office on a place mat at his dining room table. Sketching an imaginary brick wall, he recalls how he instructed masons to leave out a brick here and there to provide spaces for the placement of favorite objects. Barthelme then points his pencil to show where he put a small bar area and a garden with a bubbling fountain. He also designed a "den" in which Adams cut his deals, a space that visitors often likened to a cave.

Adams was a dream client for an architect, Barthelme says. He paid his bills and he never interfered. He was also cost-conscious. Adams wanted an office in the basement not for privacy, Barthelme recalls, but so he could rent the office space on the other floors. He figured the basement would be difficult to rent. Even then he was "bottom line Bud" -- which may explain why the building was never finished as it was envisioned by Barthelme.

Original plans for the APC called for a 17-story tower to rise above its three-story base. Even though Adams never followed through on plans for the tower, Barthelme and partner Hamilton Brown won an AIA award of merit in 1958 for the building and its rich interiors.

In the early years, a top-lit court on the second floor served as a cafeteria and gathering place for employees. But Adams eventually rented out the cafeteria as office space to an imaging company that blacked out the skylights, leaving other tenants with two vending machines for soft drinks and candy to take care of their nutritional needs. The sleek, modern lobby, with its wood paneling and floor of mottled flagstone, remains impressive.

At some point, though, Adams adorned the lobby with a Phillips 66 gas pump, an Army jeep and an antique car.

To Barthelme, that kitschy touch simply underscores the value of the advice he was given by his mentor.

"That's exactly the sort of thing you never want to go back and see," sighs the architect.

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