RSA Union – The Concept

RSA Union and Deck

A View of the RSA UNION Taken From the Capitol Grounds Some Years After It Was Completed. The Attached Parking Deck (a 2WR Project) Looms on the Right Edge of the Picture.

By almost any standard, the RSA Union was a huge building.  It was to be nine stories high (plus basement), with floor plates of 40,000 square feet.  That produces a building of 400,000 square feet of floor area.  It was 25-percent larger than the ACC, which previously was the largest structure PH&J had ever designed.  Like its RSA predecessors, the Union was to have a reinforced concrete frame clad in precast concrete, and be trimmed in polished granite and chrome, all topped with another green roof, a truly grand edifice.  I guess it is another “ponderous State office building”, as the national press calls them, but hopefully it does not deserve the “dull” connotation inherent in the dictionary definition of the word.

Because the Union was so close to the State Capitol, the tradition that the building height be kept below that of the Capitol was a serious concern.  However, because no one had challenged us regarding the height of the ACC, we pushed the height even further.  The top of the RSA Union aligns with the bottom of the Capitol’s flagpole on top of its dome–we were indeed pushing the envelope.  To be politically safe, I personally submitted our design to the State Building Commission, which by state law had design oversight of all structures within the “Capitol Complex”.  The Building Commission had a new director by the name of Corky Pugh, and he declined to exercise his jurisdiction.  Perhaps Corky was cautious because I saw to it (via friendly gossip, of course) that he was aware that our client had sent one of his predecessors to prison.

According to Dr. Bronner there were already enough restaurants in the existing adjacent state office buildings, so we were not to include another one.  “Besides,” he said, “restaurants were too much trouble.”  John Gandy and I, in turn, told Bronner there would be no fountains, that he had made us suffer enough over the fountains at the Plaza and the Alabama Center for Commerce.  Dr. Bronner jovially accepted our rejoinder and further declared there would be no conference center in the building, which was a disappointment because those are fun to design.

Long after construction was underway, Bronner relented and allowed us to include a small conference suite, but he reversed his earlier decision only after several small tenants threatened to cancel their lease if they did not have access to a central conference space. There were two other significant departures from our previous instructions on the initial RSA buildings.  First, we were to make the Union all-electric, which ended Bronner’s policy of splitting utility service between the gas and power companies.  Probably his decision was motivated by Alabama Power’s heavy involvement in industry seeking, and their participation in the conference center on the top floor of his Alabama Center for Commerce.

The second departure involved security.  By 1992, building security had become a big issue, even in the South.  Thus, for the Union, we were to bring all parking deck people- traffic down to the First Floor, and bring it in by a security desk placed where all other building entrance paths would intersect.

-Charles Humphries (“Peril and Intrigue Within Architecture”)

This is one of many RSA Union stories. The rest can be found here.

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