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BINZ BUILDING. The Binz Building is often called Houston’s “first skyscraper.” The tallest building to have been constructed in Houston at the time, the six-story brick office building attracted attention throughout the state when it opened in 1895. The Binz Building, located across the street from the Capitol (Rice) Hotel, sat at the northeast corner of Main Street and Texas Avenue, the most prominent intersection in Houston.
Jacob Binz, a German immigrant, dabbled in real estate and other business ventures after he arrived in Houston by way of Chicago in 1860. In 1894, despite warnings from skeptical friends, he determined to construct a building unlike any yet seen in Houston. Binz hired architect Olle Lorehn (then of the architectural firm of Lorehn & Friz) to design his new building. A year earlier, Lorehn had worked as a consulting architect on the five-story Kiam Building, two blocks north of the Binz Building on Main Street. For Binz, Lorehn designed another office building with all the modern conveniences of the time and one floor taller than the Kiam.
Swedish-born Lorehn had arrived in Houston in 1891 to supervise construction of the American Brewing Company. He became one of Houston’s most notable early architects. Only a handful of Lorehn’s buildings still stood in the 2010s, but they included Houston Fire Station No. 7 (1898–99), which was home to the Houston Fire Museum in 2016; James Bute Company Warehouse (1910); and Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral (1912).
Binz hired contractors from Chicago, as no Houston firms had experience with such a substantial structure. He stopped work every time crews poured concrete in order to allow it to set for twenty-eight days to achieve its maximum strength. This delayed completion by more than six months. By the time the building was finished, the cost to Binz came to $120,000.
The Binz Building was constructed of heavy wood planks faced with buff-colored Roman press brick, without the structural steel frame used in later construction. The building was almost square with 104 feet of frontage on Main Street and ninety-eight feet on Texas Avenue. It sat on a deep basement, with storefronts at ground level on Main Street and offices on the five floors above. The Binz had the distinction of being the first Houston building to be illustrated in an architecture journal—the November 17, 1894, issue of American Architect and Building News.
The Binz Building featured both electricity and gas, was fully wired for telephone service in all offices, and had a double elevator operated by hydraulics. Large windows as well as an interior shaft provided ample light and ventilation, respectively, to the office space. For fire protection, a roof-top water tank drew water from an artesian well on Texas Avenue to feed pipes connected to hose valves on each floor.
In an era dominated by Victorian architecture, the Binz Building was notable for its clean design, without the gingerbread, gables, or towers then in vogue. Gray Texas granite clad the base of the building, and carved limestone provided some restrained ornamentation to the façade. Three floors of stacked window pairs topped by arches at the fifth floor provided the building with its most distinctive feature. A stone ledge visually separated the top floor from those below, and a two-foot-wide cornice capped the building.
When the building opened in September 1895, newspaper reports heralded its unique qualities. People came from all around the region, some on special train excursions, to see the impressive new building and to ride its elevator to the top floor.
The Elks moved their lodge to the top floor, with its unimpeded city views, as soon as the building opened. Much of the leasable space had been claimed before the building was even finished, and the offices soon filled completely with lawyers, doctors, real-estate brokers, and other professionals.
Another ten years passed before Houston’s skyline began to fill with other tall buildings. By 1910 Houston’s downtown had almost twenty buildings of six stories or more.
By the 1950s the Binz Building was the last wood-frame building on the surrounding blocks, as well as the last building still hooked to the old, failing sewer line serving Main Street. The upper four stories had been closed in prior years over concerns about fire and health hazards. The Binz Building was taken down in 1951 to make way for a new, more modern structure. When demolition began, the Binz Building proved to still be exceptionally sturdy; the wood planks were found to be, according to the Houston Post, “as strong as rock” and in excellent condition.
The replacement building that opened in 1952 kept the Binz name and was itself replaced in the 1980s with a third structure (consisting of fourteen floors), also named the Binz Building, which still stood at the corner of Main Street and Texas Avenue in the 2010s.
Stephen Fox, “Scraping the Houston Sky: 1894–1976,” Cite 6 (Spring–Summer 1984) (http://offcite.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2010/02/ScrapingHoustonSky_Fox_Cite6.pdf), accessed December 18, 2016. Galveston Daily News, August 25, 1895; September 1, 1895. Houston Post, November 1, 1951; September 14, 1952. WPA Writers Program, Houston (Houston: Anson Jones, 1942).
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