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FARNSWORTH & CHAMBERS BUILDING

Farnsworth & Chambers Building, Houston.
The Farnsworth & Chambers Building in Houston served as the home to NASA from 1962 to 1964. Courtesy University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting the Texas Historical Commission and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

FARNSWORTH & CHAMBERS BUILDING. The Farnsworth & Chambers Building, known also as the Gragg Building, was built in 1956–57 as the corporate offices of the Farnsworth & Chambers Company, at the time one of Houston’s largest construction firms. The building is located at 2999 South Wayside near the intersection of South Wayside Drive and Wheeler Avenue in Gragg Park in southeast Houston. The Farnsworth & Chambers Building is notable for its exceptional mid-century modern architecture but is most significant as the first home in Houston of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1962 to 1964.  

In keeping with development trends after World War II, Richard Farnsworth and Dunbar Chambers, partners and owners of the Farnsworth & Chambers construction firm, located their new corporate headquarters on forty-six suburban acres dotted with moss-covered oaks several miles outside of the city’s central business district. They hired the Houston architectural firm of MacKie & Kamrath to design the building. MacKie & Kamrath, who designed many corporate, institutional, and residential buildings in the Houston area, were best-known for their modernist designs heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Farnsworth & Chambers Building—Kamrath Drawing.
Drawing of the Farnsworth & Chambers Building. The architectural firm of MacKie & Kamrath designed the building. Courtesy Karl Kamrath Collection, Alexander Architectural Archives, University of Texas at Austin and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

The one-story Farnsworth & Chambers Building is constructed of reinforced concrete with a flat roof and angled exterior walls clad with pale green Arizona quartzite stone. The long, low horizontal lines of the building’s architecture are reinforced by stacked bands of contrasting material, splayed concrete at the base, narrow ribbons of steel windows, deep canopies supported by large angled brackets, and a wide concrete parapet topped by a narrow band of copper flashing. A massive porte-cochere supported by angled piers of green stone marks the front entrance of the building. The Farnsworth & Chambers Building’s grid floorplan of parallel and intersecting corridors encloses a central open-air atrium originally landscaped by the nationally-known modernist landscape architect, Garret Eckbo. The building’s interior spaces are defined by wood paneling and floor-to-ceiling windows to the atrium. 

Astronauts outside the Farnsworth & Chambers Building.
From 1962 to 1964 the Farnsworth & Chambers Building was home to the engineers and astronauts of NASA' Mercury Program. Courtesy University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting the Texas Historical Commission and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Five years after it opened, the building was sold to Oscar Lee Gragg, owner of an oil drilling company, who leased it to a series of office tenants. In 1962 NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center left Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and moved its main offices into the Farnsworth & Chambers Building while its permanent location, the future Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake, was under construction. A dozen nearby buildings provided additional office and laboratory space for NASA. The engineers and scientists of the Mercury Program, the United States’ first human spaceflight program, worked out of the Farnsworth & Chambers Building from 1962 until 1964, as did NASA’s seven original astronauts, “the Mercury 7”—M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald “Deke” Slayton.

In 1976 the city of Houston purchased the building from the Gragg family, who donated the surrounding acreage for a park to be named Gragg Park. The city of Houston Parks and Recreation Department has maintained its headquarters in the building since 1977. 

In 2009 the city of Houston completed a $16 million rehabilitation of the building, upgrading all systems and updating the interiors for modern use. The Farnsworth & Chambers Building received multiple awards for its historically-sensitive renovation and has been granted LEED Gold certification. The Farnsworth & Chambers Building is a City of Houston Protected Landmark, a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Burton Chapman, “The First Days in Houston,” Houston History 6 (2008). “Farnsworth and Chambers Building,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, October 29, 2009, U. S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Gragg Park Complex, City of Houston (http://www.houstontx.gov/parks/parksites/graggpark.html), accessed August 5, 2017). Jennifer Ross-Nassal, “The Right Place: Houston Makes History,” Houston History 6 (2008).

Diana DuCroz

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Diana DuCroz, "Farnsworth & Chambers Building," accessed October 19, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ccf05.

Uploaded on August 15, 2017. Modified on August 16, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.