Historic Building Improving Street-to-Tunnel Connections

Downtown’s Esperson tower nears end of makeover to underground, lobby levels

Pedestrians seeking a way into the tunnels that snake beneath downtown’s skyscrapers will soon have a new option for getting underground.

The owner of the historic Niels Esperson building is nearing the end of a $2.5 million makeover to the lobby and tunnel levels of the 1927 structure commonly identified by its rooftop cupola.

When pedestrians walk into the building from a new entrance on Rusk, they will be greeted with a bright, modern space with white Terrazzo floors accented by some of the original mosaic flooring. A backlit glass “art wall” will rise two stories alongside a set of escalators descending into a redesigned food court in the underground.

The top half of the glass wall will be covered in an opaque geographic design. An architect on the project hopes that will be a memorable image for downtown workers. “When they’re going to meet for lunch and need a rendezvous point, they’d say, “Let’s go to the art wall at Esperson,’” said Robert Owens, associate principal with the Page architecture firm.

The renovations, which are expected to be completed in about eight weeks, are part of a $10 million project to upgrade other common areas of the 27-story tower and the adjacent 19-story Mellie Esperson building.

The owner of the buildings at 808 Travis and 815 Walker, Cameron Management, launched the renovations to help attract tenants and to improve pedestrian connections between the tunnel and the street, where a new light rail line is being installed.

“We’re already seeing more pedestrian activity on the street,” said Jano Nixon Kelley of Houston-based Cameron.

The improvements come at a time when traversing the tunnels is about to become a little more challenging in this part of downtown.

The owner of the Houston Club Building, Esperson’s northern neighbor, plans to close a busy portion of the tunnel beneath it in May. The section will be closed for at least two years as the owner demolishes the building above it and builds a new tower in its place.

“It’ll be a godsend to downtown to have this available for connections between the street and tunnel levels,” Owens said.

When Cameron purchased the Esperson buildings a couple of years ago, about 40 percent of the space was vacant. Some of the empty space has been filled.

Kelley said the building’s hip factor has been growing.

In addition to the stylish first-floor space occupied by interior architect Lauren Rottet, other new tenants, including a public relations firm, a car-sharing service, and a software company, are adding to the building’s cachet. A gallery, too, has opened in the storefront corner at Travis and Walker where a copy store used to be.

The newly designed food court will include existing tenants–Schlotzsky’s and two Asian concepts. There also will be space availabe for another restaurant, as well as additional retail space in the lobby.

Cameron held an open house for leasing brokers Friday to show off the progress that has been made to the new space.

The architecture firm that designed it said the lobby and tunnel renovations are in part aimed at creating an “architectural bridge” connecting the past with the present.

“We’re retaining the history with an updated feel,” Kelley said.