Houston's historic Big Three Industries building reimagined as midcentury penthouse
Diane Cowen, Staff writer
Jan. 17, 2023
The Big Three Industries building designed by Karl Kamrath in the 1970s was bought by Diane and Ray Krueger, who gutted the top floor and turned it into a penthouse. This shows the space after offices were demolished.Divya Pande
As the sun starts to set, the foyer and front hall in Diane and Ray Krueger’s penthouse is bathed in stripes of red, yellow, green and orange, a chromatic projection that is the signature of work by the late artist Carlos Cruz-Diez.
Collectors of art and admirers of great architecture, the Kruegers jumped at the opportunity to purchase a piece of art by Cruz-Diez, a Venezuelan-turned-Parisian artist whose work is also featured in a tunnel immersed in a rainbow of color connecting the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building to the main Museum of Fine Arts, Houston campus.
Cruz-Diez, who died in 2019 at the age of 95, paired light and color in immersive art installations in museums all over the world. A smaller piece of his work — part of a set of six multicolored plexiglass panels produced in 2008 and refurbished more recently — is in the Kruegers’ home, placed exactly where the artist would have wanted it, in front of a western window that sends color dancing across the floor when the late-day sun hits that side of the building.
In the four-year process that turned the 7,400-square-foot fourth floor of an iconic commercial building into their sprawling new home, the Kruegers could finally think about where they’d hang or display all of their art as they worked at a steady pace to gather more.
“We have always taken older properties and repurposed, remodeled or restored them. Our son lives in a home that was restored, too. Our factory down the street was built in the 1960s and is a pretty plain, industrial building, but we didn’t demolish it, and we got a Good Brick Award for preserving it in 2014,” Diane Krueger said. “That is a real passion of ours.”
A complex history
For 37 years, the Kruegers lived in a 1,536-square-foot bungalow in Montrose, a Craftsman-style home built in 1926 by Ray’s grandparents. The couple completely renovated the home in the mid-1980s, and it was time to do something again.
They searched for new homes in River Oaks and Memorial and thought they might end up with a home on Tiel Way, designed by architect Karl Kamrath, but ultimately missed out on it.
Then Ray discovered that a big concrete structure once known as the Big Three Industries building was for sale and he called his wife.
“I’ve always liked that building,” said Diane, a Houston native whose NuSmile offices are just down the street from it. NuSmile Ltd. makes pediatric and endodontic dental products; she is its principal, CEO and president.
Located in an industrial area west of the Heights, the four-story reinforced-concrete building stands apart from its neighbors, mostly smaller industrial buildings, with some newer apartment buildings nearby.
Designed in 1974 by Kamrath of Mackie and Kamrath, it was to be the headquarters for Big Three Industries, a natural gas distributor. The commission to design the building came later in the five-decade career of Kamrath, known for designing distinctive modern homes, sacred spaces, such as Temple Emanu-El (1949, with Lenard Gabert) and Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church (1957, 1973), and major commercial projects, including the Dow Chemical complex in Freeport (1953), Schlumberger Corp. complex (1953), University of Texas M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute (1954) and the First Pasadena State Bank building (1962).
A close friend of Frank Lloyd Wright and an admirer of his Usonian style, Kamrath decided to make his Big Three design a tribute to Wright’s most famous public building: Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., widely considered the first modern building in the world.
After a lightning strike and fire destroyed the Unitarian Universalist congregation's home, they approached Wright to design a new church with a budget of $45,000. He chose the cheapest material he could find: concrete. Finished in 1908, Wright’s design defied traditions in church architecture, appearing from the outside as more of a fortress, with high clerestory windows hidden behind decorative piers and overhanging eaves. It's on the UNESCO World Heritage List and since 1970 has been a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
The Kruegers' building was occupied for many years by Big Three Industries, which was bought by Air Liquide in 1986. More recently, the Ancorian real estate investment firm bought the full property and sold it off in parts, including the 2.5-acre tract that the Kruegers bought.
They spent four years updating the commercial space on the lower three floors and turning the top floor into their home, moving in in late 2021. Diane Krueger moved her company's headquarters to the building, as well.
The couple brought in architect Kyle B. Humphries of Murphy Mears Architects to handle the renovation and he, in turn, brought in his longtime friend Mary Lambrakos, an interior designer with an art history degree from Rice University and experience working at the Menil Collection.
Although the Kruegers had lived for years in a historic home filled with antiques and Arts and Crafts-style Stickley furniture that had belonged to Diane’s grandparents, it was time for something dramatically different.
Timeless modern style
Humphries embraced the empty shell of the fourth floor as a series of spaces where they could live, work, play and pause. Lambrakos, fueled by her time at the Menil Collection and her own appreciation of art, envisioned how each room could be created around objects, whether they be sculpture, art, furniture or anything else. Each element of the room was there for a purpose and was meant to work in harmony — not simply checking a box on a designer's or homeowner's list.
Lambrakos' own aesthetic is fueled by her family's Greek roots, the Old World feel of family homes there, as well as her own affection for midcentury modern design, particularly the Paul McCobb pieces she has picked up over the years.
To convey her own lofty design goals, Diane sent pages from AD Italia with modern furnishings to Humphries and Lambrakos and asked them to get started.
The architect and designer didn’t let the structure’s concrete-heavy Brutalist exterior affect the interior, though the concrete is evident in many exterior walls and columns, their rocky aggregate revealed.
As Lambrakos brought tile samples, fabric swatches and furniture and lighting options to Diane, the two began to speak the same language.
"As the process went on, (Diane and Ray) got more excited," Lambrakos said. "Diane is a very serious businesswoman, but we'd meet for an hour or hour and a half, and it would be a respite for her to engage and indulge. Ray was challenging in a way that makes you a better designer. I came out of this project a better designer."
Ray was very hands-on, offering his own ideas for floor plans and sounding off on materials used throughout the project. He gives props to Humphries, though, for the final work on the complicated floor plan, adding skylights to bring natural light to the light-starved center of the floor and coming up with a way to create a broad balcony by removing exterior windows and adding floor-to-ceiling sliding doors across the broad living room space.
“It was fun to reimagine this as a residence. We could wipe the slate clean and start from scratch,” Humphries said.
Inside the sprawling fourth floor, Humphries and Lambrakos created a series of galleries to display and admire art or simply pause between the main living area, TV room and the four bedrooms, two of which are part of an apartment that can be shut off from the main house.
The Kruegers already had several pieces of art but they needed much more for their bigger new home and its wide, blank walls. In addition to the Cruz-Diez piece, they bought a small Donald Lipsky sculpture and a large-format piece by Eduardo Portillo for the first gallery, which includes a series of chic Knoll upholstered benches.
Two other galleries and rooms in the home have pieces by Robert Kelly, Joe Mancuso, Gavin Perry, Lauren Luloff and Agnes Bourely. Some pieces were purchased by the couple during their travels, including a painting from Elisa Anfuso’s “Eyes Wide Shut” series during a trip to Italy.
At various points, Houston gallery owners brought in a parade of art to show the Kruegers to see what might work perfectly in different rooms.
While the flooring and walls are neutral, the Kruegers wanted plenty of color, and Lambrakos — who loves the challenge of the hunt in home goods shopping — set out to curate a home filled with bespoke furnishings.
Some rooms are a color study. For example, the TV room is filled with maroon, while green dominates in the living room, where there’s a huge green velvet L-shaped sofa on a green ombre rug. Diane’s home office has a wall covered in panels of deep blue leather and a sexy white chaise lounge chair in one corner and a bright yellow chair in another.
The dining room has a 13-foot table of walnut and mahogany on a metal base, custom made by BC Woodwork. Around it is a collection of modern chairs from CAM Studio, a Houston furniture showroom with modern European brands.
The nearby kitchen is picture perfect, with contemporary cabinets covered in a veneer of exotic Macassar ebony wood, with a dramatic striped appearance. Counters used for work and food prep are sturdy Corian, while an elevated counter and long wall of backsplash have veiny black and white marble.
Ray handles the couple’s portfolio of properties, including their East Texas timber and cattle ranch, while Diane is busy as the head of NuSmile. Plus, they each have elderly parents who require some of their time, so they don’t have a lot of free time for entertaining.
Still, they hosted 22 people for Thanksgiving, and Diane held company holiday parties in their home, too. For 10 years, the family went to their ranch for the holidays, but now they’re hosting in Houston again, giving their kitchen's two steam ovens a workout.
“We’ll be good stewards of this building as long as we can, and then we’ll pass it on to somebody else. We did it because that’s who we are,” Ray said. “It’s a big responsibility on a day-to-day basis.”