Jun 26, 2019 | Updated: 09:24 AM EDT

Gulf Oil Building: the Project that Started it All for I.M. Pei

May 23, 2019 08:55 AM EDT

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131 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta - I.M. Pei building
(Photo : Keizers)
131 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta - I.M. Pei building

Just recently, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect I. M. Pei has passed on. The architect, together with his firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners,  built a number of buildings both across the United States and in other countries. This includes the famous glass pyramid entrance for the Louvre Museum in Paris.

As the world remembers the remarkable contributions of the architect, it is only apt that light is shone on his pilot project - the one that started it all.

In 1949, Pei built the Gulf Oil Building in Atlanta, Georgia. Pei's first project was featured as part of the series called 21 First Drafts.

Pei had come up with his first conceptual design for the Helix  Housing project but it was never built. The Gulf Oil Building, on the other hand,  was the first building that the architect has completed.

One of the highlights of his first project was that it showcased Pei's ability in finance. He was able to stretch a minuscule budget of just $7 per square foot and still delivered an innovative design.

A series of identical bays were assembled into a skeletal frame within two weeks. This was made possible by the use of prefab construction. This means that it only took four months for the 50,000 square-foot building to be built up. 

The building features marble and fixed glass panels which also is one factor that made the structure even easier to build as it resembled a simple rectangular box.

The designer made a deal with Georgia Marble Company that he would showcase the marble products in the new Gulf Oil Offices if he would get their supplies at a better price.

In February 1952, the publication Architectural Forum highlighted the architect's ability to free traditionally monumental marble from its traditional use which is a thin veneer on costly masonry walls. He turned that said veneer into the wall itself.

Looking at the Gulf Oil Building, any onlooker would not regard the building as a radical reinvention. However, the fact that the architect has delivered a contemporary commercial project on time with the budget that is still quite low even if it cost a little more ($7.50 per square foot) than initially planned, has impressed Pei's client. 

A few years ago, redevelopment had to be done at the corner of Ponce and Juniper which then reconfigured the Midtown neighborhood. The prefab façade that Pei built stood for decades but was taken down during the redevelopment even if protests from preservationists had been held. In 2013, the developers Sereo Group and Faison Enterprises purchased the marble and glass building and demolished. Later, a massive apartment complex was built in its place.

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