Julia Ideson Building, Rehabilitation Award

550 McKinney Street
Houston, TX

Historic Rehabilitation Award

This award recognizes exceptional rehabilitation projects in which a historic resource is adapted to meet the demands of modern use without compromising the site’s historic character. Projects demonstrate adherence to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, and offer creative solutions to rehabilitating historic places.

The Julia Ideson Building is located in downtown Houston, the (circa 1926) building is a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, a City of Houston Protected Landmark, a Texas State Archaeological Landmark, and a site listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Spanish Renaissance-style building is named after Houston’s first professional librarian and was designed by noted Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram, who worked with well-known local architects William Ward Watkin and Louis Glover. The Ideson served as Houston’s Main Public Library until a new, adjacent library building was built in 1976. Thereafter, the Ideson became the primary repository for state and local historical documents including millions of vintage photographs. However, its crowded shelves, dim lighting and lack of temperature and humidity control were less than ideal for old books, documents and maps including the first map of Houston.

In 2006, Houston’s Mayor Bill White encouraged the establishment of the Julia Ideson Library Preservation Partners (JILPP), which was formed as a Texas not-for-profit corporation. A capital campaign was launched in October 2007 and raised more than $32 million by October 2010.

In March of 2010, restoration work began on the original building. In addition to the abatement of hazardous materials, electrical, plumbing and air-handling upgrades, a new elevator and a new roof, all exterior surfaces were cleaned, missing cast-stone pieces such as roof finials were replaced, and the front plaza re-configured and re-landscaped while protecting and preserving the champion bur oaks. A new fence, similar to that shown in Cram & Ferguson’s 1923 presentation drawings, was added.

Inside, intricately painted and coffered ceilings in the public rooms were restored. Historic light fixtures were re-lamped and reproduction fixtures made for areas for which originals no longer existed. A major new Exhibit Hall was created in the former archival stacks location. New photo and book conservation and digitization labs were created. The volunteer and staff lounges were remodeled, and offices were created for the Houston Public Library’s executive staff and the Houston Public Library Foundation. In addition, a large ground level assembly room was refurbished.

Most of the furniture in the public spaces is original to the Ideson. The built-in bookcases in the second floor Reading Room and in the Norma Meldrum Room (the former children’s library) on the first floor are original. The hand-carved furniture in the Norma Meldrum Room featuring nursery rhyme characters was lovingly restored.

Paintings and sculptures throughout the building are from the Houston Public Library’s collection and many of the works were previously displayed in the Ideson and/or the Carnegie libraries. The Julia Ideson Building contains the city’s largest installation of public murals completed under the post-Depression-era Works Progress Administration. All of these were carefully restored by fine art conservators.

The building now serves as a grand public reception hall, an exhibition gallery and a wonderful place to enjoy vintage books. The project was awarded LEED Gold certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.