This past weekend, I had to the opportunity (with several hundred others) to watch a major building in Houston be turned to dust.
The former Prudential Building (later given the more generic moniker Houston Main Building), built in the 1950s, had been the Southwestern headquarters of the insurance giant. When it was built, the 20-story structure was the tallest building in Houston outside of the central business district, and it was considered an architectural iconof its era.
To be honest, while the building, one of the stalwart structures of Houston’s famed Texas Medical Center, had long been part of the background of my hometown’s history, I hadn’t thought much about it for years before it was announced in 2010 that it would soon be imploded to make way for new construction by M.D. Anderson Hosptial, which long ago had purchased the building and used it for administrative offices.
But the Prudential Building had stood as a premiere example of mid-20th Century modern architecture in Houston, a town which, sad to say, doesn’t often pay much homage to its past.
Last Saturday, I took a final opportunity to take some photos of the building before its destruction, planned for early the next morning. My longtime friend and sometimes collaborator, photographer Pin Lim, had agreed to meet early Sunday to take the Metro light-rail train from nearby Hermann Park to the Texas Medical Center to set up to shoot the building’s destruction, planned for 7:52 a.m.
Unfortunately, each of my first scouted locations proved to be fruitless, as TMC and Houston Police officials had prepared to keep observers far away from the actual implosion site, ostensibly for safety reasons. Pin and I thought we’d found a near-perfect location, in an enclosed skyway between St. Luke’s Hospital and an adjacent parking garage, directly across the street from the Prudential Building.
But as Zero Hour neared, a police officer told the fairly large group of people who had gathered in the skyway that we would not be permitted to stay. He said the nearest place where the public would have a good look at the implosion was outside a hotel that, while within walking distance, would not provide nearly as good a look.
Pin and I made our way to the hotel (actually, at a street that ran behind it) and set up camp with hundreds of other people already there. We actually found a spot that gave us a straight-on look at the Prudential Building , if not a particuarly close one.
As it happens, the spot turned out to be opportune — particuarly since, because of an unusual late-morning fog, officials kept pushing back the time of the demolition. As we gathered from rumors and various news reports, officials were concerned that the fog might make the windows of nearby builings (including St. Luke’s) blow out from the force of the explosions.
Ultimately, we got the word: the implosion would go forward shortly after 11 a.m., several hours after originally planned. Just minutes before the new time, I ran into Tom Fowler, a former colleague from a daily Houston newapaper who now works for the Wall Street Journal, and his young daughter. Tom told me that his editors had asked him, since it was a slow weekend, to contribute a story on the implosion, which you can read here.
The plan was for Pin to shoot still photos, while I used his flip-cam to shoot video. I had just turned it on when I heard the first explosions, and was fortunate to capture the entire event — including the aftermath, when the crowd quickly dispersed in the wake of the ensuing dust cloud which was much larger than I anticipated. You can find Pin’s photos here and his blog entry here, and my video here.
Are there any great lessons to be learned here? Perhaps not. Houston has long been thought of as a town that moves relentlessly forward, with little regard for the relics of its past, even monumental ones like the Prudential Building. That attitude has been undergoing a slow adjustment, but it still seems to prevail.
In any event, I did watch the implosion with some sense of bittersweet nostalgia.
NOTE: Here’s a link to a photo slideshow of the implosion, courtesy of the Houston Business Journal.
Copyright © 2012 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.