Historic Office Towers Sold

HOUSTON – By Cynthia Lescalleet – (for Realty News Report) – New owners have new ideas for Jones on Main, a pair of buildings in downtown Houston that are linked with each other as well as the city’s skyline history.

The Wideman Co., based in Orlando, has purchased downtown’s iconic 1929 Gothic-meets-Art Deco tower at 712 Main St. (aka JP Morgan Chase building, nee Gulf Building) and its conjoined neighbor at 708 Main St., now tagged the Great Jones building.

Wideman tapped BayBridge Real Estate Capital as equity partner in the cash deal with an undisclosed price.

REIGNED AS HOUSTON’S TALLEST TOWER UNTIL 1963

“We are using the historic base building, complemented with a modern industrialist finish package, to create an environment of collaboration and rejuvenation,” said Matthew Wideman, CEO of The Wideman Co. in the purchase announcement. “This won’t be your grandfather’s stodgy office building.”

The landmark property occupies a city block adjacent to the intersection of two downtown transit routes.

Previous building refurbishments in 2017 by then-owners Lionstone Investments with project partner Midway opened up through views at street level and punched open the lobbies, linking and expanding the connections to interior amenities. Other interior reboots occurred in 2002 and 1987, when illuminating the highest levels returned.

In addition to office space, the property’s current features include Finn Hall, a 20,000 SF food hall on the ground level that opened in 2018, a sixth-level terrace bar with beehives providing honey for lobby level food vendors, and a dramatic vaulted banking lobby.

“It’s no question the future of office is changing, and owners that don’t adapt to the future of remote work and the flexible work week will be left behind,” Wideman said. “We want this to be a destination for young, creative companies and people to enjoy a first class work experience as a living piece of art you can walk though.”

Capital improvements to spruce up the building’s relevance to today’s workplace expectations and habits are in the planning stages, said Harrison Loew, Wideman acquisitions director. The amenity upgrades are under wraps for now. Meanwhile, down the line, the exterior’s nickel screen accents could be unveiled from their paint-entombed current condition.

Despite the smaller building at 708 Main being identified as one of 37 candidates for potential conversion into residential units by a Downtown Houston Redevelopment Authority study of the trendy topic by AECOM, Wideman has no current plans to do so, Loew said.

KEEPING THE CHARACTER, ADDING SOME SIZZLE

The paired property will retain its Jones on Main moniker.

Loew said The Wideman Co. recognizes the unique nature of the building and its special place in the hearts of Houstonians and downtown. As the latest stewards of the property, the challenge is to make improvements while showing off its character.

That said, the building’s architectural hallmarks provide solid opportunities not available in new office product, he said.

As an example, its stacked back levels deliver a variety of floorplate size, unlike more recent office construction. This enables smaller tenant needs to still occupy a floor of their own. It’s a slice of the market not being addressed, he said.

On the docket of improvements to 712 Main is 100,000 SF of turnkey spec suites ranging from 2,000 SF to 10,000 SF. The 95,000 SF of 708 Main is fully furnished and ready to roll. The paired property’s overall occupancy sits at 70 percent.

Loew said the building’s historical bones are excellent and several of the interior elements will also remain, such as the Deco-era grand lobby, elevators and common landings with their time-in-a-bottle U.S. mail chutes.

With post-Covid work behaviors “a genie” not likely to entirely get back in the bottle with respect to workplace usage, it is imperative for today’s workplaces to inspire being there, he said. “The office will always be a part of the American work culture.”

LOOKING AT A LEGACY OF DECADES, NOT YEARS

Since the buildings carry no debt after an all-cash transaction, the asset is intended for long-term hold, Wideman said. “As a nimble, privately held company, we have the freedom to work outside of limiting capital structures.”

The company’s plan is to attract complementary new tenants with competitive leasing, in-house property management and concierge level attention.

Jones on Main is the first Houston acquisition for The Wideman Co. The 50-year old company has invested in and manages an estimated 5 million SF of real estate assets in 13 states. As such, it pegs itself as legacy based, aka “generation holders who think in decades, not years.”

That business philosophy, paired with downtown’s office market and business climate, was an ideal fit, Wideman said.

“When a firm with a half-century track record of investing in 12 other states commits to Downtown Houston, that is a meaningful endorsement of our future.” said Kristopher Larson, President and CEO Downtown Houston Plus.

BUILDING BLOCKS

The building at 712 Main is a 34-floor tower of 794,000 SF and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Properties. Its neighboring office building at 708 Main rises contains 95,000 SF in 10 stories. It’s currently vacant, given the exit of We Work early in early 2023.

Back in the day, Houston business titan and developer Jesse Jones tapped architect Alfred C. Finn with Kenneth Franzheim for the 712 Main project, built in 1929 for National Bank of Commerce and Gulf Oil regional offices, with Sakowitz Brothers department store in the six-story limestone base, architectural guides recount. At 450-feet tall, the buff brick building reigned as downtown’s tallest tower until 1963, when the fin-tipped Humble building at 800 Bell hit the skyline.

Interestingly, similar Jazz Age skyscrapers rose in most major cities in the 1920s, their tiered towers rising to a crenulated crown. As with Houston’s version by Finn, the designs were often inspired by Eliel Saarinens’s never-built 1922 submission for the Chicago Tribune Building. The Gulf Building was the first downtown to continue its attenuated elevation on all four sides. Two annexes, also designed by Finn, were completed post World War II.

Long-time Houstonians may recall the 50-foot Gulf disk that capped the tower in the mid-20th c. The bank’s three-story lobby remains and is surely worth a walk-through for building buffs.

Finn’s legacy can be spotted around town, from the San Jacinto Monument and Cullen Building at University of Houston to churches like St. Paul’s United Methodist Church to residential spreads including the Fondren Mansion in Montrose, known today as La Columbe d’Or Hotel.

Loew said a Centennial celebration in 2029 is a possibility.

May 4, 2024 Realty News Report Copyright 2024

Photo:. Cynthia Lescalleet, CALpix Copyright Realty News Report 2024

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