For Its Next Trick, Bank of America Center Will Completely Digest the Secret Building It Swallowed 35 Years Ago

Something you might not have noticed about Houston’s iconic Bank of America Center (top) at 700 Louisiana St. Downtown: There’s an entire unused building hidden inside. The thrice-renamed spiky Dutch-ish PoMo tower complex, designed by architect Philip Johnson in 1982, sits across the street from his other famous Downtown Houston office building, Pennzoil Place. It’s not obvious from the exterior or interior, but the 2-story former Western Union building on the corner of Louisiana and Capitol streets (pictured above in a photo from 1957) takes up almost a quarter of the block Bank of America Center sits on. This was Western Union’s longtime regional switching center; Johnson was asked to design his building around it because the cable and electrical connections maintained within it were deemed cost-prohibitive to relocate.

Thirty-five years later, it’s the building’s anchor tenant that’s relocating: Bank of America, which now occupies 165,000 sq. ft., will move to Skanska’s Capitol Tower in a couple years. As part of a new set of renovations to the structure the bank is leaving behind, owner M-M Properties plans to completely dismantle what remains of the Western Union building, recapturing 35,000 sq. ft. of space without expanding the building’s footprint. Among the plans for the resulting space: A “reconfiguration” of the lobby and the addition of a “white tablecloth restaurant.”

The secret Western Union void is well disguised. It isn’t in the lobby of the 56-story tower but in the 12-story adjacent bank-lobby building fronting Louisiana St., more formally known as the the Banking Hall when the building first opened in 1983 as RepublicBank Center. It takes up the entire northern half of that structure: It’s beyond the colonnaded-but-blank wall on your right as you enter the lobby from Louisiana (on the left in this photo):

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As this view from the bank lobby shows, there’s an occupiable mezzanine above the encased building:

Here’s a closeup, looking up from the hallway:

And an older view of the banking hall from the exterior at Louisiana and Capitol streets: The windowless secret Western Union building fronts the corner:

Photos: Hines (exterior and lobby); Telegraph News (Western Union); 700 Louisiana (interior); Mary Ann Sullivan (banking hall)

 

 

Tales from the Vault

21 Comment

  • Does anyone recall why Hines didn’t demo WU and build around?

  • Finally! I learned about this “secret” back in the 80’s and it was a fun thing to reveal to friends when visiting. Glad to hear that a new upscale restaurant will soon appear in downtown…. it needs it.

  • I’m old enough to remember lines of people outside that Western Union office waiting to wire money back home.

  • If only we could see some pictures of the inside of the hidden Western Union building

  • @Philip
    Western Union was still in the building in 1983 and it was deemed too expensive to relocate their active lines and equipment. Ground floor space wasn’t in high demand in those days, so it really didn’t matter much to Hines in terms of lost revenue.

  • This was really poorly written. Is the building A.) literally hidden inside BoA like a sarcophagus inside a pyramid? or; B.) was the exterior reskinned, and other structural elements masked by BoA Tower? The pictures do not help in explaining what’s going on.

  • Fascinating! A sort of nesting doll of iconic architecture
    but like cmoney, I want more info.

  • @cmoney

    It is entirely encased intact and you can squeeze around it

  • I agree with cmoney. I’ve been hearing about this for decades but have never been able to tell from photos or even being in the building where this encased building is. The photos here really didn’t help either. Maybe someone will take photos during the demolition that make it clearer.

  • Northeast corner of the block. Catty-corner from Jones Hall.
    .
    Wonder if they will punch some windows in the exterior.

  • So what now with the “cable and electrical connections”? The cost of copper change the equation?

  • The article states that the old WU building was 2 stories, but it is actually 6. You can see the window openings which were likely brick, plastered over in the interior pics. Just the skeleton is left.

  • There is one slightly recessed entrance on the Capitol St side behind the light rail stop with a very small window in the door. No one ever comes and goes through it that I have seen, unless you count the bums’ usage for, erm, other things. It has been open over the past few days with workers digging around in there.

    Not much to look at, just an empty box with many supporting columns

  • My Dad Used To Work In The Western Union Building, What Memories

  • I past by there two days ago, and the side door along Capital St. was opened, with workers working around it. It was dark but I could tell that it’s a huge place. The first thought I had when I looked inside was, that is strange that they have that huge area for ‘storage’. Now I know why.

  • DHille, The WU building is only 2 stories. It is completely intact, tar and gravel roof included. The 3rd floor Mezzanine of the BOA building was built clear span over the top of the old WU building. The windows you see on the outside are for the mezzanine. As for the “gap” between the buildings, you can walk/crawl around most of it. Some areas between the buildings are big enough that you could set a desk in there, some are tight enough to induce panic. There is basically nothing left from WU in there, but there were still some curious old artifacts last time I was in there. I worked for the building for a while, and led a few of the tours of architects/designers when this project was in the concept phase.

  • I never realized that that abomination was the Bank of America building. Next to those monstrosities by Backstreet Cafe, this might be the ugliest building in Houston. What was the architect even thinking. Like, he went to go see some gothic chapel, saw the steeples, and just clicked ctrl-v all over the top of the building when designing it.

  • There are so many of these types of hidden infrastructure or artifacts throughout Houston that would be so cool to actually see, instead of just hearing stories about. Like the old Southwestern Bell building with its still active communication “arteries” that flow through 1114 Texas. I would certainly pay (and sign the attorney mandated waiver) to go on a walking tour that details this kind of stuff. Something like sanctioned/legal urban exploration.

  • @Mr. Ection,
    Completely disagree with you. This is my favorite building in downtown. And, it’s only currently the Bank of America building because they got the naming rights with their lease. It’s been named many things, but none of them were ugly.

  • Well, I’m by no means any kind of expert, so I respect your view on it, but I find it just hideous. Out of curiosity I went and looked up the architects and this who “take a bland building and stick weird crap on top” seems to be a theme with them. They have another one that just has some roman-esque columns randomly jammed on top (forgot what that’s called, UofH architecture school has one as well). Anyways, just to put it out there (because it’s too easy to critique and less easy to admit you like something), my favourite is the Heritage Plaza building on Bagby. Admittedly it’s got a similar(ish) theme of “jam something on top”, but I feel the structure speaks as a whole much better than the BoA building. Like how the reflection angle of the windows draws the eyes up to the whatnot thingy.

    ,

    And actually…wait a second, I’m way off base here. How could I call the BoA building the ugliest. Everyone knows that title goes to the pineapple king.

  • ProFixer: thank you for the clarification. Is it behind lock and key or can anyone take a peak?