For nine decades Fretz Construction has built – and preserved – a vast catalogue of Houston’s iconic structures. For the company, which celebrates 90 years in 2013, the ideals put into place by its founder Edmond A. Fretz remain pillars of the company today.
After 10 years as the City of Houston Engineer, Edmond Fretz founded the Standard Construction Company in 1923. Nine years later he changed the name of the firm to Fretz Construction Company, and today the company continues under the management of the Fretz family. Edmund Fretz’s son Bob Fretz served as president from 1967 to 1998, and was succeeded by Bob Fretz, Jr. the company’s current president and CEO.
Fretz Construction grew with Houston, teaming with the prominent developers and architects of the time, including Jesse Jones, John F. Staub, Maurice J. Sullivan and A.C. Finn. Their work was varied, from building Houston’s first shopping center, River Oaks Shopping Center, to the Tower Theater, to the Heights Senior High School, now known as John H. Reagan High School. Time and time again, Fretz Construction has been called upon to build and restore Houston-area churches and religious facilities, including St. Anne’s Catholic Church and School, Temple Emanu El, and Saint Vincent de Paul Church, just to name a few. The company has built an impressive roster of medical and research facilities as well, including Diagnostic Hospital and Clinic and the GeneMedicine headquarters.
Fretz Construction works exclusively in the private, commercial market and is driven by repeat business. The company prioritizes staying on budget, working closely with architects to develop projects that fit client budgets, but still maximize the results for money spent.
Since 2009, Fretz Construction has won four Outstanding Construction Awards from the Texas Building Branch of the Associated General Contractors of America and four additional awards in the area of safety from the AGC. Preservation Houston has recognized Fretz Construction with eight Good Brick Awards since 1996.
“Our company has done more historic restoration than probably any other company in the area,” says Bob Fretz, Jr. “And we like that. I feel it would be crazy to let these beautiful old structures go away.”
Fretz explains that the purpose of specializing in restoration construction is to make it possible for building owners to be able to avoid demolition by neglect. Today, Fretz Construction employs 90 people. Most work in the field on various construction projects, and some are third and fourth generation employees of the company.
Return to downtown
For its first 20 years, the company’s offices were in the iconic Esperson building on Travis, but the company spent many recent years headquartered on the South Loop. “We were so proud to relocate back to downtown in 2012," says Fretz.
The opportunity to return to a downtown location was much more than happening upon available office space. Fretz Construction’s connection with its future headquarters began in 2009 with a bid to refurbish the drastically dilapidated façade of the former Wilson Printing building at 500 Fannin.
Fretz was contracted to restore the façade by the previous property owner, who had also retained Ziegler Cooper Architects. Soon after, building permits were acquired. Then the owner decided to sell the building, but gave the façade restoration plans and building permits to Fretz and Ziegler Cooper with hopes that the project would continue to move forward.
That prior owner set up what would turn into the full restoration of the entire building. Charmed by the old building, Bob Fretz and a group of investors formed 500 Fannin LLC to purchase the building to ensure a full restoration of the entire structure inside and out.
Initial research for the job had revealed the long-neglected building to be the 1932 Wilson Stationary and Printing Company building, designed by William Ward Watkin (the longtime Rice University architecture professor and department head). Wilson Printing occupied the building from its opening day in June 1932 until the company ceased operations in the summer of 1979. The building sat vacant for the next 30 years, essentially left for dead. Never air conditioned, the empty building grew less and less desirable over the years as the downtown office market trended toward modern, climate-controlled spaces.
When the 500 Fannin group purchased the building, their goal was to make it an operable and functional office space, with the necessary features, such as air conditioning, elevators, and safety measures like sprinkler systems.
For the renovation, Fretz Construction was able to use Watkin’s original drawings to guide restoration and construction. Fretz Construction collaborated with Ziegler Cooper to revive the stunning structure that Watkin intended as well as to develop a viable commercial building for modern-day downtown Houston.
“Our goal was to pay respect to the old building,” says Bob Fretz. “We left the old concrete walls and floors exposed – there had never been anything on them, so why cover them up? We also tried to recreate the exact look of the 1930s exterior. If someone from 1934 were to walk by this building today, we hope they wouldn’t see any difference from the building they saw back then.”
As Fretz Construction crews began prepping the exterior surfaces for renewal, the original character of the building came through. “Under layers and layers of white and cream paint, we discovered this great pale green color. So we said, ‘green it is’,” says Fretz. “For us, the point of the restoration was to bring this beautiful old building back to a useful life. We saw that it was beautiful and it just needed some tender loving care.”
During the extensive restoration process, Bob Fretz and other company leaders began to see the magnificent old building not just as another example of the company’s fine restoration work, but as an ideal environment for the offices of Fretz Construction. In September 2012 the company moved into the third and fourth floors of the structure they had spent almost a year restoring.
Bob Fretz admits his living just blocks away made the idea even sweeter, but explains that the company’s relocation from the South Loop “reduced commutes for everyone in the office, some by as much as 30 minutes each way – that’s an hour per day.”
In spite of his company’s vast experience in restoring commercial buildings, Fretz says “the end results far exceeded our expectations. The beauty of Watkin’s design shines, and I have to highlight the great work of Zeigler Cooper, especially Paul Lodolz.”
A major part of restoring the 1930s exterior was replacing all of the windows. To be true to Watkin’s design, all windows were fabricated to match the look and function of those original to the building. And because the building had never been air conditioned before, Ziegler Cooper’s design team managed to keep most of the ductwork hidden and minimized the look of ducts that could not be completely obscured. Furthermore, the restored building is LEED Gold certified.
“It’s been very positive for everyone,” says Fretz. “The staff is excited to work downtown and to office inside the project they worked on. The building is a showcase for our work and shows off the true quality of our work.”
“Here, we are surrounded by the history of Houston – so many architectural marvels are right here,” says Fretz. “This is what we get to look at every day. There’s an excitement that comes with that. I don’t know if you can quantify it or put your finger on it, but it’s very tangible, very real. Our staff enjoys being here – the brightness of the space is conducive to positive thinking and working. I never would have imagined the effect is has had but it’s completely real.”
Bob Fretz says he is proud to follow in the tradition of his father and grandfather. “My grandfather was known for doing buildings on handshake,” says Fretz.
“If we can’t do that, then what good are we? Our clients become friends, and you take care of your friends – that’s how we look at it.”
“Customer satisfaction drives what we do – we stand behind our work long after warrantees are expired,” says Fretz. “We strive to build quality buildings and quality relationships. Many of those buildings still stand and many clients remain. We approach and carry out each job with the hopes to shake hands with the client upon completion and say ‘let’s do it again’.”
Fretz says he appreciates the friendly and respectful competition in the marketplace and points to other long-running, family-owned construction companies such as Tellepsen, Bellows, Linbeck, Miner-Dederick. “These companies built Houston,” he says. “Houston is fortunate to have the caliber of architects it has, and so many world-class architects right here.”