Jun 10, 2024

What's the story behind the boarded-up, windowless high-rise in downtown Houston?

R.A. Schuetz
Houston Chronicle
June 9, 2024

Amidst the gleaming skyscrapers of Houston’s downtown stands a puzzling corpse of a building. 

At street level, it resembles an apocalyptic bunker, with plywood and “NO TRESPASSING” signs boarding up openings into the concrete brutalist structure. The insides are covered in floor after floor of graffiti. The interior has been stripped down to the building’s concrete bones, and the windowed exterior has been removed so broken glass cannot fall on pedestrians. As a result, drivers on I-45 can see straight through the building.

When the 29-story building opened in 1972, it was Holiday Inn’s flagship, the chain’s largest in the continental United States. The Houston region’s NASA had just won the space race and Houstonian A.J. Foyt triumphed at three Indy 500s. The hotel was themed accordingly. 

Foyt’s race car sat in the lobby, with a track ringing the lounge. One of the hotel’s restaurants, the Orbit, used “special effects” to “give the feeling of sitting under lunar lights,” according to advertisements in the Chronicle at the time. Both restaurants featured dishes like the Calorie Eclipse and the Solar Salad with moondust dressing. 

With the opening of the hotel, the Holiday Inn proclaimed, “Calhoun St. has vaulted into an elite group that includes streets like Hollywood and Vine, Fifth Ave., Carnaby St., The Champs Elysees and Wall Street.”

Things didn’t exactly pan out as planned. 

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For one, Calhoun Street has been lost to history. In 1997, with little fanfare, the street was renamed St. Joseph Parkway at the request of St. Joseph Hospital. 

What’s more, as the area turned into a series of parking lots instead of a main thoroughfare, the hotel began to change hands. First, it was sold to Days Inn. Then, in 1993, it was acquired by a more unusual entity: a nonprofit created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the famous guru to the Beatles.

The Maharishi trademarked transcendental meditation, or TM, and introduced it to the West; at the time of his death in 2008, his organization owned some $300 million in assets, including the 600 rooms at 801 St. Joseph Parkway.

According to the Houston Chronicle archive, the Maharishi’s nonprofit purchased the hotel with the plan of turning it into a transcendental meditation training center. However, the building began to degrade, and in 1998, authorities, citing fire hazards and code violations, said people could no longer reside there, the archives say. 

The Maharishi’s nonprofit, according to the archive, also decided the building did not follow design principles derived from the Veda, the oldest sacred Hindu text, and began looking to sell. The nonprofit found investors interested in turning the building into housing. 

Unfortunately, those investors failed, and the building returned to the Maharishi Global Development Fund. 

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The next contender was New Era Hospitality, a group of doctors and entrepreneurs who bought the building in 2008, and said they would spend up to $50 million to convert it into another hotel. They had already begun gutting the old rooms and talking with hotel operators — including Holiday Inn — about a deal when financial markets crashed. 

The Great Recession, coupled with building code violations, prevented the group from securing a construction loan, according to Chronicle archives. In 2011, New Era Hospitality filed for bankruptcy.

Since then, it’s changed hands twice, most recently in 2012, when SFK Development purchased the building. 

In theory, the building is a prime candidate for reuse, said Brooks Howell, an architect at Gensler. Not only does Howell have experience converting commercial properties, but he’s also intimately familiar with 801 St. Joseph Parkway. In the early 2000s, he was tapped by investors who purchased the building to draw up designs to turn the 600-room hotel into roughly 250 workforce housing apartments.

“There have probably been dozens and dozens of schemes for this building by various architects, architecture students at Rice and (University of Houston),” Howell said. All of them have wrestled with the building’s physical limitations: eight-foot ceilings, columns every 12-and-a-half feet and lack of windows on two of its sides.

Not every building is a realistic candidate for converting to another use, but Howell believes that this hotel, which had unusually large square footage and a narrow floorplate, is perfect for workforce housing. Hotels do not want 600 units these days, Howell said. Luxury housing needs high ceilings, but he believed tearing out every other floor to create double-height ceilings is cost-prohibitive. However, combining the footprints of two of the hotel rooms could create a roughly 712-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. 

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In the past 12 years, SFK has occasionally pitched the building as a “striking redevelopment opportunity” with high visibility from I-45. It is currently listed for sale. 

Mark Hassler, one of the properties’ listing agents with the firm CBRE, could see a future for the building as a hotel or workforce housing. He pointed to the nearby apartment complex Houston House, which he said also had eight-foot ceilings and consistently leased more than 95% of its units, as an example of the demand for such apartments. He’s been focused on finding the right multifamily developer for the job. 

“There are those who are very good with ground-up development,” he said. “But a reposition or rehabilitation is not something that everyone does.”

Several prospective buyers have brought in third-party consultants to assess the building's condition. The problem has never been the structural integrity, he said — it’s been the financing. 

But he’s hopeful that things will soon change. As high interest rates make building traditional apartments more difficult, he believes projects that incorporate affordable units to take advantage of government incentives, such as cheaper financing, will become increasingly attractive to a wider range of developers.

So far, a deal has yet to materialize. 

But if the building is one day reborn, tenants will be treated to a view few have seen since the hotel shuttered.

Because of the abundance of parking lots and lack of high-rises on this edge of downtown, each of the 23 floors topping the six-story parking garage boasts a sweeping, unimpeded view of Houston’s skyline.

“Night shots,” Hassler said, “are incredible.” 


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