Houston aviation landmark threatened

 Opening of Intercontinental Airport with West Airport Traffic Control Tower in background, 1969 /  courtesy of Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

Opening of Intercontinental Airport with West Airport Traffic Control Tower in background, 1969 / courtesy of Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

Preservation Houston has requested official consulting status from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding the Houston Airport System's proposed demolition of George Bush Intercontinental Airport's original West Airport Traffic Control Tower (1966), which was designed by I.M Pei & Associates. Pei later designed Houston's Texas Commerce Tower (now JPMorgan Chase Tower) and Texas Commerce Center (now Chase Center), its parking garage.

The airport system has requested approval for the demolition of the decommissioned control tower for a possible expansion of Terminal A. The request is being reviewed under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which requires that preservation be considered in projects that have federal involvement. Under Section 106, local historic preservation organizations may request to be designated as consulting parties.

The control tower resulted from an effort by the Kennedy Administration to improve modern design in federal projects. The FAA commissioned Pei's firm to create "the most contemporary, state-of-the-art control tower" as a permanent symbol of air safety. Architect James Ingo Freed conceived a flared, five-sided tower in four heights to be used at airports across the country. Twenty-three of the Pei/Freed control towers were constructed; 19 remain.

The Houston tower was the first built; it was also the tallest of the four designs at 160 feet. At the time, it was expected that air traffic controllers at the then-named Jetero Intercontinental Airport would be required to guide supersonic aircraft along with the coming generation of jumbo jets.

Texas Historical Commission (THC) has concurred with findings that the West Airport Traffic Control Tower is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in politics, government, transportation and architecture. THC has requested to see alternatives that could avoid or minimize the proposed project's adverse effect on the tower.

National Register listing would not prevent the tower's demolition. Mitigation of adverse effect can include comprehensive documentation followed by the structure's removal.

Preservation Houston will update its members as this process continues.