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Observing Houston from the grandest of perches

January 17, 2018

Michael Rodriguez has one of the coolest office views in Houston.

The messy desk of the chief engineer of Brookfield Properties’ Heritage Plaza looks over Buffalo Bayou Park, pointing west from atop the building’s 52nd floor. He can have his morning snack and watch the rest of Houston fight their way to work from nearly 762 feet up.

“I’m glad I took this position,” he says. “I’ve experienced some great things.”

Well, some things weren’t as great as they were momentous.

He watched Hurricane Harvey blow into Houston, seeing wind formations batter downtown from his office vantage point and witnessed nearby Buffalo Bayou take on water as he held down the fort. As you can imagine, he has photos on his phone that most people weren’t able to take.

Rodriguez and his team routinely watch weather move into Houston from miles away. Cold fronts and rainstorms reamin awe-inspiring.

It’s one of the perks of working in Heritage Plaza, which was started in 1984 and completed three years later. The building is renowned in architecture circles for its broad shoulders topped by a unique formation that resembles a crumbling Mayan ruin.

The odd stepped formation at the top of the 762-foot skyscraper (Houston’s fifth tallest; Wells Fargo Plaza is 992 feet) was inspired by architect Mohammed Nasr’s trip to the jungles of Mexico. Some say it also looks like a bald eagle with its head and wings outstretched.

That portion of the structure used to be lit up with neon but Rodriguez says sometime in the past decade building managers decided to not light it anymore.

The lights aren’t the only things absent the top of this 53 floor building, most people will never set foot atop it either, to see sights that rival the views through Rodriquez’s window.

The top of the 54th “floor” isn’t easy to get to. It requires a safety harness (house rules) and nerves of steel (optional), but it affords the crazy brave not on the payroll a chance to see an epic view of the west half of the city, the Galleria-area and beyond.

Yet, here I am, perched on top of a structure so tall that I am standing inside fog on a humid day while birds fly below me.

And like any begrudging millennial knows, if you don’t take a selfie it didn’t happen, which means I’m obligated to take the shot while holding onto a wooden pier. I get a photo of the Galleria area miles away, looking like a cloud city from “Star Wars.”

At the time of its construction Heritage Plaza was the only privately-funded building in downtown Houston, which was being ravaged by a hellacious oil and real estate industry downturn. It was the last building of its kind to be built before that crash. Thus, it was the newest skyscraper in downtown for nearly 15 years, until 1500 Louisiana (formerly Enron Center South) was constructed.

Made of glass, granite and steel, the postmodern landmark that is the Heritage Plaza was a major part of Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1986 epic Rendez-vous Houston concert due to its central placement on the western side of downtown.

“I’d like to know how they got that huge flag on the side of the building,” Rodriguez says. It sounds like he is glad it was someone else’s job.

Rodriguez still marvels at how much the area around Heritage Plaza has grown since he was a kid. The lifelong Houstonian remembers visiting the long-gone Sam Houston Coliseum a block north to see wrestling matches and later, rock concerts.

As he sits on a landing on the 51st floor, watching fog bathe the city, he says he never thought he’d be in charge of one of the most modern buildings in Houston.

“With plaza level ceilings as high as a three-story building, the lobby makes a powerful first impression,” Rodriguez says. “Engineering a building of this magnitude takes a lot of skill. Particularly when changing a light bulb, you may find yourself needing a few engineers safely tied to a scaffold.”

Most Houstonians are likely unaware of the circa-1929 Federal Land Bank Building that sits on the northeastern edge of Heritage Plaza’s footprint. The limestone low-rise is connected to the skyscraper next door and houses among other things the Houston Bar Association.

Technically, you could says that Heritage Plaza was built around the bank, which served the Tenth Farm Credit District. It later became the Farm Credit Bank of Texas.

Owing to that agricultural history of offering up loans to needy farmers and ranchers, when ground was broken for Heritage Plaza in 1984 a mule-drawn plow did the honors.

The building at 430 Lamar still retains its ornate front facade. Luckily the structure was renovated about a decade before Heritage Plaza began to take shape. It still retains its “Farm Credit Banks” title out front which faces the downtown library.

“It’s a piece of Houston history hiding in plain view,” Rodriguez says.

Unlike the Heritage Plaza, one of city’s grand skyscraping structures.