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Established: 1996
Location: Austin, TX
Employees: 150

Texas Architect Features McGarrah Jessee Building

Post Date: 3/1/2011


Author: Stephen Sharpe

McGarrah Jessee's relocation to larger quarters in downtown Austin neatly coincides with the home-grown creative agency's bursting out of its regional sphere of influence. Affectionately known as McJ, the company has steadily ratcheted up its staffing level as its roster of clients has expanded and its recognition for innovative and hugely successful advertising and branding campaigns has gone national. In December, after having outgrown its former offices in a converted warehouse, McJ re-established its base of operations in a former bank building, a midcentury treasure that had fallen on hard times.

That modernist landmark is the Starr Building, completed in 1954 and designed by local firm Kuehne, Brooks and Barr for the offices of American National Bank. The project achieved widespread acclaim at the time for its distinctively crisp interiors by Florence Knoll and a monumental mural created in situ by Seymour Fogel.

Until recently, the Starr Building was in dire straits, having endured years of rough handling by previous occupants who crammed dozens of cubicles into its marble-columned piano nobile and sullied its crystalline street facade with dark gray window film. When the Texas Comptroller's Office moved out in 2005, the building appeared to be destined for demolition because of its coveted downtown location. The fear of losing one of the city's few significant modernist structures prompted Preservation Texas to place it on the organization's 2009 Most Endangered Places list. Later that year, devotees of midcentury design welcomed the news that the Starr Building had been purchased by a local developer with a reputation for sensitively repurposing historic properties.

In close collaboration with clients Mark McGarrah and Bryan Jessee – also investors partnered with developer Bill Ball in the building's ownership – McKinney York Architects set to work on a plan to salvage the best elements of the Starr Building while adapting the former bank lobby to complement McJ's free-spirited creative culture. The project's initial scope was confined to the building's 25,200-sf second-level space with its double-height central volume accentuated by Fogel's 28' x 10'8" artwork. Renovation of the 24,600-sf ground floor awaits an anchor tenant, most likely a high-end restaurant that will benefit from Austin's burgeoning population of residents occupying the towers that have sprung up within the compact central business district.

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