Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
If you dream of having the corner office on a high floor with panoramic views of downtown San Antonio and beyond, the architects at Pelli Clarke Pelli who designed the new Frost Tower had you in mind.
The faceted, eight-sided tower’s “rhythmic folds seem to dance toward the sky,” in the words of the firm’s founder César Pelli, who died in July. That graceful design provides more than interesting street views. Inside, the upper floors of the tower feature eight “corner offices,” each one with its own commanding, 270-degree view.
“One of the challenges was to create something of the size needed that also would have a strong presence on the skyline,” said Bill Butler, a principal in the New Haven, Connecticut, architectural firm who led the project from the very start four years ago as a sort of homecoming gift. Butler was born in the Nix Hospital and, while growing up in New Orleans, remained a frequent visitor to the city where his father owned a business.
“We had a Coleman cooler we kept closed with duct tape, and we filled it with tortillas and tamales for the trip from San Antonio to New Orleans and with shrimp for the trip back to San Antonio,” Butler recalled.
Pelli Clarke Pelli has designed hundreds of critically acclaimed towers and other projects in cities across the globe, “but what really excites us is the opportunity to work on a transformative project that, done right, can change a city,” Butler said. “This was such a project.”
Looking for inspiration for the Frost Tower, he and others on the design team turnbed to some of the most iconic period buildings in the city.
“The faceted, eight-sided form and plan is important,” Butler said. “The Tower Life Building is a faceted spire that diminishes in area and volume as it ascends from the street to ultimately cut a real profile on the skyline. It’s far from geometric. Look at the Emily Morgan’s faceted corner and how that informs the building’s place and presence.
“Those are the buildings that informed our work,” Butler said. “The Frost Tower’s rhythmic folds and how the faceted profile cuts into the sky give the building a much more interesting profile than a simple rectangle. It would have been inappropriate to cap it.”
Butler agrees with Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith, who all along called for a building with as much presence on San Antonio’s downtown streetscape as its skyline.
“People focus on the top 30 feet of a tower and what that looks like, but it’s the lower 30 feet, what people see from the street, that really matters,” Smith said. “I care more about the ground level than the top level.”
“Randy is right: San Antonio has a pedestrian life that almost no other Texas city really has, and when you think about Houston and Commerce streets from San Pedro Creek to the west and Alamo Plaza to the east, the new Frost Tower occupies a very important space,” Butler said.
That will be especially evident, Butler and Smith noted in separate interviews, once the Phase Two stretch of San Pedro Creek to the west and Weston Urban’s still-unnamed park to the east are completed. The park will be anchored on its northeast corner by Pinkerton’s Barbecue, a celebrated Houston eatery.
A critical appreciation of the new Frost Tower at this date might strike some as premature, with some top floor vacancy and so much surrounding street level work still remaining. Yet the tower already commands the public’s attention. It heralds urban transformation, and it portends the promise of much more to come as more and more workers locate in the center city and an unprecedented building boom continues from River North to downtown.
I find myself constantly looking toward the Frost Tower. The upper reaches of its glass exterior at times reflect the sky and other times appear transparent. For pedestrians, neighboring historic buildings appear like holograms, reflected on the tower’s lower floors.
“We wanted the base of the tower to be a pavilion in the park,” Butler said. “When the ground-level retail is in place – restaurants, coffee shops, bars – with outdoor seating under the allée of oak trees, and the park is enlivened with people and activity, it will be a place unlike any other downtown.”
By night, the tower’s white ribbons of light redefine San Antonio’s skyline from multiple vantage points, my favorite being a windshield view traveling east on Interstate 10 through downtown. At a certain point, the Frost Tower takes its place perfectly between the Tower of Americas and the Tower Life Building, offering the observer three glimpses of city history and time.
It is at night that the observer imagines other contemporary towers taking their place alongside the Frost Tower. The nearby towers built in the 1970s and ’80s seem bland in comparison, underdressed for the evening next to an elegant dinner jacket.
“The most important thing to remember in viewing the new tower is that it would not be there if Frost Bank, one of the oldest established commercial businesses in the city, had not decided to invest in a continuing downtown presence,” Butler said. “The bank could easily have decided to leave downtown and San Antonio would be a very different city.”
Equal credit goes to Graham Weston, the co-founder and former chairman of Rackspace, whose service as a tri-chair of SA2020 under Mayor Julián Castro a decade ago fired his own vision of revitalizing downtown San Antonio.
That vision, and Weston’s willingness to risk a considerable part of his fortune, led to the public-private partnership engineered by Weston Urban with the City and Frost Bank. The firm now controls more than 20 acres of the downtown’s western reaches along and near San Pedro Creek. Two of its historic commercial properties, the Milam and Rand buildings, are reflected daily in the shimmering glass of Weston Urban’s newest structure.
“Downtown is back,” Weston declared in this video about the new Frost Tower. “Downtown is in the midst of an urban renaissance. It’s part of a trend that is happening across the country. City centers are becoming important again, becoming vital to the cities’ identity. Here in San Antonio, we think one-third to one-half of all the employees who work downtown in the next decade will live downtown or within bike riding distance.”
Much more is on the Weston Urban drawing board, including hundreds of residential units.
Smith recently stood on the tower’s vacant top floor and surveyed the view to the south and west. Across San Pedro Creek, the nearby Alameda Theatre will soon be reopened and become home to Texas Public Radio. The City is entertaining proposals now for redevelopment of the former Continental Hotel on West Commerce Street, the main artery through the Zona Cultural, which will be redesigned with 2017 bond funds.
The new Judge John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse is under construction, and soon the former county jail, an eyesore, will be demolished and make way for the University of Texas at San Antonio’s new School of Business, to be located between the new National Security Collaboration Center and the School of Data Science, made possible by Weston’s lead gift of $15 million. The new schools will anchor a planned $200 million ambitious expansion of the Downtown Campus east of the freeway.
A securely fenced basketball court sits on the jail’s rooftop, and Smith, a former collegiate basketball player, imagines one last pickup game, perhaps with a few present and former Spurs players, before the demolition balls swings, as amused tenants look on from their Frost Bank offices.
While several of the new tower’s top floors are still available, Frost Bank occupies floors 2-16 for a total of 260,000 square feet from the ground up of the 460,000-square-foot building. The Norton Rose Fulbright law firm occupies floors 17-18, and the financial services giant Ernst & Young has the 19th floor. Insight Global is on the 20th floor. Another 86,000 square feet remains available from floors 20 to 24.
A unique residential-like retreat hidden away on the tower’s mezzanine was designed by San Antonio’s Michael G. Imber Architects, a tenants-only event space with a demonstration kitchen, a dining room lined with wine storage, an expansive living room with custom furnishings and a giant screen monitor for Spurs games, and walls adorned with original artwork by curated Texas artists.
Alas, the space is not available for public bookings.
Alamo Architects is working with Pelli Clarke Pelli on the tower’s 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail spaces and surrounding streetscape, which remain a work in progress. Until the dust settles and the creek and park projects that frame the Frost Tower to the east and west are completed, it will be hard to bring the inviting indoor-outdoor spaces to life.
The tower lobby, home to Frost Bank tellers standing at workstations with open laptops and a display of the bank’s Mexican and early Texas paper currency and coin collection, is still an undefined space. Interior landscaping, a public art piece or two, welcoming seating areas for the public, and the hustle and bustle of shops and cafés will surely change that over time. A public staircase leads to a small bank museum worth visiting to gain a sense of Frost’s pioneer years and place in Texas history.
It’s ultimately the marriage of old and new that gives the new Frost Tower its proper context in a skyline and streetscape begging for new energy. San Antonians have always shown a special respect for its history, even as people here have struggled to imagine the city’s future. The Frost Tower signals the start of something new, a sense that San Antonio has finally overcome that uncertainty and is ready to embrace change and growth and the prosperity that cannot be realized without it.