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How a City in Decline Sold Itself to Its Own Residents

The 14-story Cactus Hotel stands out prominently in the skyline of San Angelo, a distinctive landmark for this oasis of a small city situated amidst the arid scrubland of west-central Texas. Built in 1928–29 as part of Conrad Hilton’s then-fledgling chain of hotels, the Cactus symbolized the city’s burgeoning prosperity during the onset of the region’s first oil boom. With 250 rooms in a town of only 30,000 residents and several other hotels, the hotel proved initially to be a bullish investment in San Angelo’s future. To this day the tallest building in San Angelo, the Cactus remains a symbol of the city’s tenacious optimism.

In the late 1980s, however, this beloved icon was empty and abandoned. Many locals saw its derelict state as a glaring emblem of San Angelo’s general decline. In 1986, a three-year attempt by private investors to renovate the Cactus failed. Meanwhile, with the oil bust drying up the region’s economic fortunes and new shopping malls luring customers to the city’s fringes, nearly half of the downtown’s available retail space was vacant. Civic-minded residents fretted about the discouraging situation, meeting informally but unable to pinpoint the necessary steps toward progress. Above all, what was missing was a unified vision for wrangling the disparate pieces of San Angelo into a cohesive working whole.

Help arrived in February 1992, when an AIA Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) was invited to town. The ensuing design charrette is considered one of the AIA’s most successful R/UDATs in the program’s 45-year history. Twenty years later, it continues to guide the investment of new infusions of private and public money.

Known as a "plan for planning" to empower cities to resolve complex urban design problems, San Angelo’s R/UDAT came at a pivotal moment in the collective realization among its leaders that a better future was possible, and hinged upon repairing and reinvigorating the fading urban fabric of their city’s downtown core.

Visions and choices

"There were conversations going on in the community," recalls Howard Taylor, director of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts. Taylor, who moved to San Angelo from Philadelphia in 1984, took a keen interest in architecture and urban planning. "Civic leaders were looking for opportunities to improve the community, but frankly there were no specific plans on the horizon-nothing that one could say was a master vision."

Toward that objective, Taylor opened an exhibition in 1986 called Visions and Choices to initiate a broader discussion within the community. The idea resonated in particular with Henry Schmidt, AIA, a local architect who sat on the museum’s board of directors, and who volunteered to design and build a pavilion-like installation highlighting San Angelo’s architectural assets. Schmidt’s renderings depicted a number of historic buildings downtown, including the Cactus Hotel and others scattered immediately south across the Concho River, which flows through the heart of the city. Those located beyond the river, such as the clustered remnants of the late-19th-century Fort Concho army post, and the 1910 Santa Fe Railroad depot, were cut off from downtown by a clutter of dilapidated metal warehouses. "[Schmidt’s installation] was a wonderful vision that cleared away the debris where you could see what the R/UDAT later called ‘the icons of the community,’” Taylor says. “It kind of unified all these disconnected things.” The museum also hosted a forum on the AIA’s R/UDAT program to coincide with the exhibit.

While the exhibit and forum reinvigorated discourse among residents about San Angelo’s architectural heritage, no one in the community seemed prepared to take on the necessary leadership role to bring a R/UDAT to town. That was until local businessman Lee Pfluger accepted Taylor’s request to step forward and help develop its framework, as well as to lead the effort to raise $37,000 in cash and in-kind donations to fund the event.

The four-day R/UDAT began on Feb. 7, 1992, with an intensive study of San Angelo by a team of eight volunteer design specialists from cities across the nation. The architects, historic preservationists, economic development officials, and transit planners, as well as many local citizens, developed a plan for revitalizing the city’s historic center. Their report, "Connecting the Past to the Future," called for a strategic knitting together and preservation of the architectural icons in the downtown area.

The Cactus Hotel

High on the list was the restoration of the abandoned Cactus Hotel, designed six decades earlier by Hilton’s corporate architect Anton Korn in the Italian Renaissance style. Beneath the building’s reinforced concrete structure, cast stone wraps a two-story base and buff-colored brick envelops a 165-foot tower. Minimal decorations adorn its exterior, but Italianate interior flourishes—stucco cherubs along the frieze, wainscoting of polychromatic tile, and large metal chandeliers—brighten the double-height central lobby. The architect designed the U-shaped tower to admit soft northern daylight through the gridded skylight over the lobby that extends the entire breadth of the clear-span space. (A History of the Cactus Hotel by Virginia Noelke, published in 1996 by the San Angelo Cultural Affairs Council, chronicles the historic building’s ups and downs over seven decades.)

Because an attempt to convert the Cactus into apartments had failed just a few years earlier, to provide the community with methods for funding future renovations of the hotel and other significant properties the R/UDAT report offered city officials information on how to establish tax increment financing and other creative forms of economic assistance. The report recommended that the Cactus be redeveloped as luxury condominiums, with ground floor and ballroom space suited for potential retail and high-end restaurant uses.

Progress in its rehabilitation took place the very next summer when the Historic City Center Project (HCCP), a nonprofit corporation created by Pfluger to restore and revitalize the historic hotel, took possession of the property. The local First Methodist church paid nearly $75,000 to Tom Green County to cover back taxes a few months earlier in exchange for simply being able to use the hotel’s adjacent parking garage. The church, not wanting the liability of the main building, then deeded the hotel to the HCCP at no cost, provided that Pfluger paid back half the amount after 10 years. A subsequent municipal variance allowed Pfluger, the new owner, to renovate the Cactus floor by floor rather than all at once, which eased the overall burden of the long-term project, and allowed the HCCP to lease space as it became available. Schmidt provided design services for most of the renovations.

Although the Cactus has not reached its full potential as a mixed-use property, private and nonprofit tenants occupy most of the office and residential space on five of the tower’s 11 floors, and commercial businesses have street-front exposure at ground level. Seasonal events, like the Cactus Jazz Series, fill the lobby with music and festivities.

R/UDAT mojo

The Cactus has become just one of many projects changing the face of San Angelo, creating what Pfluger calls "a hell of a transformation since 1992." Some have been funded by public money, but most have been handled through private investment or public-private partnerships that resulted from the R/UDAT. By Pfluger’s estimate, more than $70 million in public and private projects were successfully completed in the decade that followed the R/UDAT. More recently, the $16 million renovation of a former department store transformed the abandoned building into a new public library designed by Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture of New York. Other projects include Killis Almond Architects’ $11.2 million restoration and renovation of San Angelo City Hall, originally designed by the El Paso firm Trost & Trost and built in 1928. Meanwhile, ongoing discussions are taking place to create a master plan for a 200-acre cultural district that will encompass the Museum of Fine Arts, Fort Concho, the historic railroad depot, and other properties on both sides of the river.

Next on the horizon is the San Angelo Performing Arts Center. Designed by local firm Kinney Franke Architects and financed entirely by private capital, the two-story project will breathe new life into an empty Coca-Cola warehouse at the north end of downtown. With fundraising more than halfway completed toward the $13.7 million goal, the design includes a 300-seat performance space, a black-box theater, two rehearsal areas, seven studios for the San Angelo Civic Ballet, and offices for the ballet company, Civic Theatre, and San Angelo Cultural Affairs Council.

“Our little downtown is slowly waking up,” says Craig Kinney, AIA, of Kinney Franke. His personal investment in San Angelo’s urban core came when he recently moved his firm into the old Greyhound bus station downtown. Relocating to the historic city center, he says, is his firm’s contribution to “continuing the mojo.”

This post originally appeared on the American Institute of Architects website, an Atlantic partner site.

Keywords: San Angelo, California

Stephen Sharpe writes for the American Institute of Architects. All posts »

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