Located in the industrial center of the historic Houston Heights, the collection of buildings that make up the Heights Textile Mill were constructed between 1894 and 1917. The series of connected volumes served first as a mattress factory and then as a textile mill operation. Totaling just over 60,000 sf today, the primarily two-story facility features a prominent clock tower rising five stories above the surrounding residential fabric. The buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, but had previously fallen into significant disrepair. Working with the guidelines set for historic restoration, Nonya Grenader Architects was able to obtain the original building plans for reference and employ tax credits to transform the structure into commercial and residential space perfect for 21st-century working and living.
This restoration and repurposing demonstrates — both architecturally and financially — the benefit of time spent. The building is owned by a group of seven local families, now in their second generation, who directed the restoration to proceed in small stages as resources became available. This phased strategy allowed Nonya Grenader, FAIA, to prove the market viability of her approach at each step, and also to learn from the building itself during the detailed documentation and construction of each discrete portion of the project.
Grenader describes her approach as “first do no harm by learning from the inherent qualities of the existing building and embracing the constraints.” The owners had been approached by multiple developers proposing to carve up the largely open floorplates into separate condos, requiring significant reworking of structure. Instead, Grenader worked within the building fabric to identify a program requiring minimal intervention to achieve functional lease space. The first phase consisted of live/work loft spaces leveraging the high ceilings and generous daylight with modern kitchen and bath cores inserted centrally as both necessary functional updates and strategic spatial zoning. Subsequent phases developed a ground-floor restaurant, nine studio offices, and a tower apartment with covered tenant parking in a converted metal warehouse structure behind the main buildings.
The second key strategy was to salvage the original building materials removed during construction and incorporate them into the restoration. Stair treads and public space benches were made out of beams that once supported factory machinery, and metal plate bridges varied floor elevations, lending authenticity to the common area changes required by current codes. The majority of the original wood flooring was salvageable in place, having been protected from the elements by the thick coat of grime that accumulated during the period of building disuse. Cleaned and sealed, the footprints and oil stains from textile machinery are visible in the open-plan office spaces — distinct traces of the original building use.
Additional richness and interest are achieved through celebration of details left in place. The original fire doors serve as decorative features, polished against clean, white walls. One office retains a built-in floor scale in the reception area, and original panes of glass contrast with the new to create interesting patterns within restored window assemblies. In support of the most prominent retained detail, the San Jacinto Chapter of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors was so thrilled to be asked to help restore the clock topping the tower that they refused compensation, calling the opportunity an honor and treasuring the work.
Generous windows and large open spans combine with loft-like floor-to-floor heights, making the office lease space feel surprisingly modern. Adhering to the existing structural grid results in common circulation areas that are unusually generous for commercial space of this scale, contributing to the quality and appeal of the environment. The thriving tenant community comprises numerous creative, technology, and engineering firms, and the ground floor bakery bustles with a steady crowd of locals. As the surrounding fabric benefits more and more from the resurgence of urban core neighborhoods, the restoration of the Heights Textile Mill stands proudly as a restrained demonstration of the power and commercial viability of adaptive reuse.
Jamie Flatt, Assoc. AIA, is a principal at Page’s Houston office.