In Context: The Crescent
When the 10-acre Crescent Court complex was completed in 1986, New York Times critic Paul Goldberger described it as “silly — the architecture has no more to do with Dallas than it does with Tokyo.”
It also appeared to have little to do with the surrounding Uptown district, which at the time was home to empty car lots and gritty warehouses just north of Dallas’ gleaming central business district.
Oil heiress and developer Caroline Rose Hunt imagined a place that would set the highest standards for elegance in the city, comparable to the grandeur of European cultural capitals. She had a vision for an ambitious 1.2 million-square-foot mixed-use development, its $400 million budget making it the costliest construction project in Dallas history. It would consist of two 18-story and one 19-story office tower, a five-story luxury hotel and retail podium with courtyard, all standing atop a five-story underground parking garage.
Such an ambitious program could have easily failed due to its scale and complexity, but it was the architecture’s meticulous execution that ensured the Crescent’s success as an iconic Dallas locale to this day.
To fulfill this vision, Hunt’s team sought the design talents of Philip Johnson, who at the time was one of the world’s preeminent architects and had gained media fame for his Chippendale-inspired design for the AT&T office tower in Manhattan. His radical turn toward postmodernist historicism continued in Dallas, invoking ancient Roman precedents for Momentum Place Tower (Comerica Bank) in downtown and faithfully reproducing the French classical style for the Crescent.
Johnson collaborated with his longtime associate John Burgee, and local architects Shepard & Boyd crafted a scheme that topped all buildings with slate mansard roofs, clad exterior walls in Indiana limestone, and adorned the facades with aluminum balcony railings and loggias that borrowed from 19th-century wrought iron patterns. The interiors would be equally sumptuous, specifying 10 kinds of marble in the lobbies. This ostentatious push seemed ill-timed, however, as the Crescent would open as oil prices collapsed, resulting in a depressed economic climate. Leasing efforts languished before finally taking hold with a consistent roster of high-profile financial firms and the Stanley Korshak luxury department store.
Over thirty years later the Uptown district is thriving, with numerous offices, apartments, condominiums and hotels aspiring for the levels of elegance originally set by the Crescent. To maintain the Crescent’s position as the premier destination commanding the highest rents, Fort Worth-based Crescent Real Estate Equities undertook a $33 million renovation to correct the complex’s introverted plan by prioritizing urban connectivity and enhancing the quality of public spaces with landscape.
Along with upgrades to the offices and diversifying the retail tenant mix, major open spaces like the motor court and retail courtyard were transformed into a much greener environment. A series of pocket parks and a large public park at the south end of the site, anchored by a Shake Shack, helped open the Crescent to Uptown visitors.
New street-facing storefronts and entrances further strengthened the retail’s sidewalk presence. Although Johnson died in 2005 and Burgee has been long retired, Staffelbach, which was involved in the initial construction, was tapped to lead the renovation design work, and the designers of Klyde Warren Park, the Office of James Burnett, was tapped to reinvent the landscape. The Beck Group oversaw all the construction work, which concluded in June 2018 with the reopening of the refreshed Crescent Court Hotel, an enduring and luxurious centerpiece of the overall project.
What sets these buildings apart from similar historicist ones from the mid-’80s is Johnson’s unusually high level of attention to detail. One could speculate that his famous prior forays in Miesian modernism inspired a verve for precision that applies just as successfully to structures of exceedingly beaux arts character. It established an unwavering commitment to craftsmanship and quality for its neighbors and the Uptown district as a whole to aspire to.
Julien Meyrat, AIA is an associate at Gensler and editor of Columns.