Heritage, Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 1986 Page: 36
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out of the index and Baker, who is shown
in another picture, is dealt with in only
the briefest detail even though he is introduced
to the reader in Chapter twelve
as being a man who had substantial influence
in the Rio Grande Valley. That influence
is never further explained. Furthermore,
the index is not always correct.
For example, the Zimmerman Telegraph
is mentioned as being on page 262 when,
in fact, it begins on page 261.
Hopefully, the New Santander Press,
who was the publisher of this book, is
now the Old Santander Press and we can
hope for a better effort the next time
around. Certainly, congratulations should
go the to Hidalgo County Historical Museum
for their sponsorship of what should
be a very well-received regional history.
Readers of all vintages should enjoy
this history. It comes close to being what
all histories should be but rarely are, entertaining
and good history. When the
reader finishes his day with Wild Horse
Desert, he won't feel as though he has
been rode hard and put up wet.
J. P. Bryan is the President of the
Texas Historical Foundation and Editorin-Chief
Presense: The Transco Tower
Photographed by Steve Brady, introduction
by Philip Johnson and John
Burgee, text by Ann Holmes, designed by
Jerry Herring. Houston: Herring Press,
1985. 52 pp, predominently color
One building stands out in my mind
when I think of Houston architecture.
The Niels Esperson building hardly symbolizes
the city, but surmounted with its
Greek temple, it is distinguished and
unique in the city's skyline. Other buildings
have captured Houstonians' attention:
the Humble building, the city's first
true skyscraper; the Hyatt, with its rotating
restaurant on top; the Pennzoil Place's
angular shape on the skyline. Presence is
about the city's fascination with the
Transco Tower. It is an essay on the transformation
of the Houston skyline; more
than that, the book is an homage to the
mythic qualities of the Transco Tower and
its effect on the city's cultural identity.
The Transco Tower was a joint project
of Transco Energy Company and developer,
Gerald D. Hines. W. J. "Jack"
Bowen, Chief Executive Officer of
Transco, wanted a building that would
signify his company, "to have a building
that would become the image of a company
with nothing else visible to show."
New York architects Philip Johnson and
John Burgee were commissioned by Hines
to design the building, continuing a collaboration
that has produced Pennzoil
Place, RepublicBank Tower, and Post
The Transco Tower is the tallest building
outside a central business district and,
according to Holmes, "it is believed to be
the tallest building from the city's West
Loop to the Pacific Ocean." A visually
simple structure, Johnson and Burgee
avoided building another boring glass box
in the International style by adding minimal
ornamentation of "bay" windows,
prismatic ridges that run the length of the
building. Near the top of the tower the
comers are set back, forming a pyramid of
giants steps that add to a sense of the
building pointing upward. A cap covers
the building's mechanical works on the
roof. From a distance, one sees dark, reflective
glass covering the building's facade
with no sense of break between window
and spandrel. The crowning glory
is the surmounting beacon sweeping
through the night sky. The building
stands solitary above its surroundings,
apart from the cluster of the downtown
Johnson and Burgess make no bones
about the Gothic quality of their building.
Likening Transco to Chartres they
call it, "a moder-day campanile standing
at the geographical heart of the coastal
plain that is Houston. ..." Such a
monument, as they call it, serves as a
landmark, as a means to locate one's self,
and as a beacon. The pinnacle ornament
is simply a twentieth century extension of
a medieval tradition. Holmes' essay affirms
the architects' intent in her florid
descriptions; "one of the world's most
shimmeringly beautiful skyscrapers" or
"shooting up like a wand of silver from
the flat coastal plain." Holmes establishes
in enthusiastic prose the Transco Tower
as something more than a building. It is
the modern day cathedral, celebrating
man and progress rather than deity. The
building becomes artifact transformed
into archetype, pervading Houstonian's
subconscious with its presence on the
The substance of the book lies in the
photographs by Brady. Fifty-four large
color images capture the building
throughout the day, under varied skies,
and from many points of view. The
photographs attempt to record the sense
of mythic presence described by Holmes.
The images are a translation of a medieval
peasant's experience of Chartres into
our twentieth century lives. A few photographs,
notably the series on the dust
jacket, illustrate the building as a whole;
a few more concentrate on a detail, such
as the bay windows or the beacon. Many
views capture the building's dynamic
changes in light and weather.
The majority of images place the tower
in different contexts, a landmark resting
on many horizons around the city. Brady
has taken his camera to Chocolate
Bayou, twenty miles away, where the
building is visible to a black woman fishing.
Transco is captured with the Astrodome,
Houston's eighth wonder of the
world. Brady points his camera from a
Westheimer streetscene, from Rice Stadium
during a game, from a junk yard,
from a neighboring urban residential district.
Over and over we see people going
about life with the landmark in view.
The point Brady is after is similar to
the photographs by Harry Callahan that
document the Empire State Building's
dominance of the New York skyline.
However, Brady's photographs are formulaic,
lacking Callahan's subtlety. The
majority of Brady's photographs are striking
and bold; color is bright and saturated.
The visual elements are well organized
and kept to a minimum, often
organized around a dominating tonality
or pattern. A few photographs are banal;
most are technically accomplished and
pleasant but uninspiring. Several times
Brady successefully captures a sense of
magic about the Tower in images that are
powerful, direct, and have the sense of
presence that Holmes writes about. His
best images portray the Tower as something
looming, not in the sense of height
but rather as portent or omen. That
mythic sensibility comes from a mixing
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 1986, periodical, 1986; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45442/m1/36/: accessed February 23, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.