San Antonio is known as Taco Town. And its renowned Tex-Mex cuisine has helped build several companies with a growing reputation as patrons of contemporary art. Pace Foods picante sauce generated the fortune behind the Linda Pace Foundation and its nationally recognized Artpace residency, education, and exhibition program. Poteet Architects, which designed the foundation's office, housed in a 1940's auto shop, has now transformed a dilapidated car dealership from the same era into a headquarters for Ricos Products Co., the originator of concession nachos. Football fans might recall 1976, when Howard Cosell was so smitten with the new snack being served at Arlington Stadium, between Dallas and Fort Worth, that he started describing great plays as "nachos." However, the art-filled environment at headquarters is anything but cheesy. Jim Poteet calls it "as much an art space as a work space."
"A mantra when dealing with collectors of art," he continues, "is that you need to have enough walls for it." The rapidly expanding Ricos collection already comprises more than 100 paintings, prints, photographs, and sculptures by international contemporary artists. Some pieces were commissioned for the new location, for example a conference room's neon wall sculpture proclaiming "Make Tacos Not War." To show that art to best advantage, Poteet gutted the 17,000 square feet that remained after removing several ad hoc additions that had sprouted over the years. He also removed a chunk from the corner, creating a triangular courtyard, but preserved the rest of the perimeter for display.
Saving those concrete walls was a daunting task. "They had to be restructured in an almost surgical manner, in place," he says. "The results, however, are great texture and a feeling of age." Concrete flooring and exposed beams contribute to the subdued palette. Walls aren't painted gallery white, though. He chose a greenish bamboo color that "allows light to bounce around," he explains. More important, the color makes jewel-toned artworks really pop.
In reorganizing circulation to run beneath a row of gabled skylights-each originally centered over a service bay at the dealership-he refurbished them with UV-protective glass and furthermore calculated the angle of the sun to prevent rays from hitting and damaging sensitive pieces or casting a glare on computer screens. At night, the glowing skylights announce the Southtown neighborhood's transformation from a no-man's-land into a trendy swath of galleries and restaurants. (With one notable exception. The Pig Stand, famed as the state's oldest drive-in, is still across the street from Ricos.)
"Most people thought the dealership should just be razed," Poteet says, adding that he's "decicated to the intensification of downtown San Antonio"-and loves nothing more than to prove naysayers wrong. "Our way is to extract the maximum architecture from the old parts, especially when the budget is very tight. So often, there is poetry and subtlety and toughness in ordinary buildings. Those qualities are sometimes hard to equal with today's construction materials." One element that he insisted on saving and buffing up was a section of the facade clad in limestone in an intricate cut-andfit pattern that he fondly describes as "bargain-basement Machu Picchu." In fact, he liked the limestone enough to leave it there when he turned an exterior wall into an interior one by enclosing the loading dock. Above its new glass front, now the main entry, he kept signage minimal with cast-aluminum letters in a slightly deco style that felt appropriate to the 1940's, the decade when the automobile was coming into its own in San Antonio.
Transformed into a sidewall for the reception area, the puzzle-piece limestone has a roughness that complements the rift-cut Texas white oak of the reception desk, a massive block in the center of the elegant space. Displayed on the oak screen behind the receptionist is the logo that Ricos developed in the 1960's and has hung onto ever since: a cartoon face shaped like a drop of melted cheese, with googly eyes and a lip-smacking grin. Though rendered in tasteful die-cut stainless steel, the logo still adds a touch of kitsch-making it clear, even at a sophisticated headquarters, that this is a company that equates food and fun. The fun continues outside, where the 45 employees at this location can hang out in the corner courtyard, in the shade of a Mexican sycamore. Or they can climb a staircase to a roof deck with a stainless-steel kitchen and a painted steel pergola draped in wisteria. It's the perfect spot to relax. And munch nachos, of course.
BRETT FREEMAN; ISADORA SINTES; SHANE VALENTINE: POTEET ARCHITECTS. FINE SILVER GALLERY: ART CONSULTANT. BEICKER MARTINEZ ENGINEERING: STRUCTURAL
ENGINEER. FLORES & COMPANY CONSULTING ENGINEERS: CIVIL ENGINEER. ALDERSON & ASSOCIATES: MEP. POWELL COMMERCIAL CABINETS: WOODWORK. STONE CARE OF
TEXAS: CONCRETE CONTRACTOR. MALITZ CONSTRUCTION: GENERAL CONTRACTOR.