McGarrah Jessee Building

121 West 6th Street, 78701
2011, 2013, 2016, 2018
Kuehne, Brooks & Barr (1954), McKinney York Architects (2009)
AKA Builders (2009)
Florence Knoll (1954)
Mid-Century Modern


The McGarrah-Jessee Building is a revitalized mid-century modern office building that currently houses a creative advertising agency. Originally built for American National Bank, the five-story structure is characterized by its glass-and-brick façade, prominent escalators, crisp interiors, and innovative parking garage.


From the outset, the McGarrah-Jessee Building was an iconoclast both in form and function. Locating parking atop the building, accessed via double helix ramps; debuting the first escalators in Austin; hiring Florence Knoll for the interiors; and commissioning a monumental Seymour Fogel mural were just a few moves that set it apart from its contemporaries. Saved from demise in 2011, the building continues to surprise and delight.

When McGarrah-Jessee asked McKinney York to reimagine Austin’s version of a Mad Men office building for their freewheeling firm, they were insistent that the results be authentic and unexpected. Today, passersby are struck by the stunning glass façade, which was carefully restored and then enlivened at street level by the addition of an enigmatic, shiny red portal framing twin escalators. But where do they go? Numerous noseprints on the glass have apparently been left by people stopping to gaze up those streamlined escalators, perhaps to catch a glimpse of the spectacular abstract mural beyond. Something creative and exciting is happening inside…

This impression is reinforced by a series of seemingly random punctures in the orange brick façade (originally windowless) along Colorado Street. The largest of these punched openings is a new outdoor space for perching and engaging with the city. Here again, the strong original architecture has been given a little added kick.

The same could be said of the interiors, where the original finishes were restored and peeled back in various places. New balconies and a suspended bridge link spaces visually and physically, allowing the creative energy within to be seen and felt. Materials salvaged from demolition were repurposed in unexpected ways: original plate glass was sliced into four-inch-wide planks and stacked to create the conference room walls, and floor grates from the basement were repurposed into privacy partitions between workstations.

The crown jewel of the building is the new, hidden rooftop terrace. The center of the terrace is occupied by a “helipad” complete with an old VW bug retrofitted with a helicopter rotor. The bar area is sheltered by a shade structure made of inverted steel studs angled to catch both the sun and the rain. This is the perfect place to relax after work. This is the perfect place for a little SXSW concert. This is a quintessentially Austin place. – Mariah Green, Assoc. AIA and Heather McKinney, FAIA

Photo Credits:

Thomas McConnell (1-8)