The Gulf Building is one of the preeminent Art Deco skyscrapers in the southwestern United States. Architects Alfred C. Finn, Kenneth Franzheim, and J. E. R. Carpenter were commissioned in 1927 by Jesse H. Jones to design a structure of strikingly modern style and commanding height. From its completion in 1929 until 1931 it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, and from 1929 until 1963 it dominated the skyline of Houston as its tallest building.
The building, at Main Street and Rusk Avenue in the downtown financial and petroleum business district, is of steel frame construction, clad in Indiana limestone, supported by a six-story base, and T-shaped in plan; it carries a thirty-story tower faced with tapestry brick laid in Flemish bond. The architects utilized Eliel Saarinen's stepped profile design, which diminishes in volume as it rises. The construction cost of the building has been estimated at $3.5 million. Two annexes were subsequently added in 1946 and 1949, both designed by Alfred C. Finn. Between 1981 and 1986 the Gulf Building was renovated and restored by the Houston architectural firm Sikes, Jennings, Kelly for its owner, Texas Commerce Bank.
The observation deck atop the tower housed an aeronautical beacon and a telescope. It is said that on a clear day Galveston (a distance of approximately fifty-five miles) was clearly visible through the telescope. The Main Street lobby is richly decorated with eight frescoes illustrating the history of Texas and Houston, painted by New York artist Vincent Maragliotti, with vaulted ceilings, and with fixtures of decorative polished nickel and etched glass in panels of raised arches, scrolls, rays, and chevrons. In the Travis Street banking hall fluted pilasters define the walls and entrances to other parts of the building. A massive stained-glass window depicting the battle of San Jacinto was installed in 1960. From 1966 to 1974 the company insignia of the Gulf Oil Corporation, an orange fifty-three-foot-high rotating neon disc, was affixed to the rooftop where the beacon and telescope had been. Known locally as the Gulf Lollipop, it was loved by some and considered gauche by others, but was a landmark to all.
Though the Gulf Building no longer dominates the Houston skyline, it remains a treasure of Houston's past in a downtown district now dominated by glass, aluminum, and concrete. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.