Friday, December 12, 2008

Snow in the Brazos Valley

Very early the previous morning of December 10, 2008, the Brazos Valley was blanketed by a sleet storm. Then, that afteroon, snow, in big accumulations of flakes, fell on the Brazos Valley—and even upon Houston, Texas. Most students at Texas A&M University had never seen snow on the campus. Many snowmen lived for a day, until temperatures in the 60s took their toll. Cars (see photo) drove around with miniature snowman mascots.

In photo at right: my friend, the bride-to-be (right), and me, at 6:00 p.m. Wednesday, with the Civil Engineering–TTI, H.R. Bright, and Engineering-Physics Buidings in the background at Texas A&M University.

Students—even graduate students—frolicked in the snow.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

From grime to glam: Brazos Valley Decorative Center

Brazos Valley Decorative Center, south view

A midcentury building at the corner of 29 St. and Main in downtown Bryan for years housed a grimy tractor dealership. Nothing wrong with tractors; the building just seemed utilitarian rather than remarkable. Remarkably, though, it was designed by Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design and the designer responsible for the Shell Oil Co. logo, a Greyhound bus fleet logo, NASA spacecraft interiors, the U.S. Mail eagle logo, and the Studebaker car.

Ambrose Furniture Works saw the potential in the building and, with the help of a Downtown Improvement Grant, turned the building into the Brazos Valley Decorative Center. The interior is a sumptuous feast of fabric, color, and texture. The service bays are converted to rental space for other design-focused businesses.

"Originally an International Harvester Service Center designed by Loewy’s firm and built around 1947, the building is being renovated and due to open in mid-July. This time, it will not provide space to service and sell tractors; instead the building will pay homage to its creator as a place for design. Ambrose Furniture Works has developed the Brazos Valley Decorative Center to house their establishment as well as provide space for other design vendors to create a comprehensive home d├ęcor center for local interior designers and do-it-yourselfers alike." (aboutTown Press, July 1, 2008)

“It is an excellent example of post-war modern design. It has high bays, a large footprint, and parking.” said Randall Spradley of Astin Partners, one of the business entities taking a leading role in downtown, quoted in abouTown Press.

Brazos Valley Decoratve Center, north view

Downtown Bryan, Texas, Art Deco

A decade ago, historic downtown Bryan, Texas, was a pastiche of excellent locally owned restaurants, an intriguing international import shop, an unfinished furniture store, several thrift shops, a homeless mission, but, more notably, a number of abandoned main-street style storefronts, some roofless, some boarded-up, others without even the dignity of plywood covering the gaping windows.

Today, downtown Bryan is a destination, a vibrant city center, with a monthly Friday evening gallery tour and live music attracting throngs of citizens and tourists. The import shot relocated to a gorgeous storefront, several new, and some upscale, restaurants have opened, there's a massage therapy studio, and a scattering of antique shops sitting cozily beside some very high-tech neighbors.

A bit longer than a decade ago, the City of Bryan procured a community block grant to refurbish the Hotel LaSalle, which converted from a derelict hulk into a charming inn.

A group of citizens worked hard to transform the old firehouse into the Children's Museum of the Brazos Valley. Old Bryan Marketplace hosted a tea room along with an Texas-eclectic antiques collection.

(The concrete reliefs are art deco details are from the First State Bank and Trust Building, downtown Bryan, Texas.)

I am crazy about art deco, and downtown Bryan offers some great examples. The tallest building in downtown and the most flamboyantly art deco is Varisco Building. Bottomland cotton farmer Biaggio Varisco, an Italian immigrant, so loved his adopted home that he changed his first name to Brazos, after the county and its river (Brazos de Dios). In some essential way, the Varisco Building resembles the Empire State Building in this photo taken at Empire State Building: 5th Avenue & 28th Street.

The Varisco Building now houses a Tier IV data center, offering data storage and disaster recovery services to corporations, mainly in the Houston area. Fibertown grew out of the location of a fiber trunk routed through downtown Bryan. Fibertown offers bandwidth management, "an advanced data center with backup power, a high-speed managed network, high-capability services, and high-security biometric and RF building controls." (aboutTown Press, October 2007). The Fibertown "campus" has expanded five historic downtown buildings.

Main Street, downtown Bryan, looking north, with the Varisco Building in the distance.