The Gulf Oil Building, Pei’s first constructed building, was realized with a very limited budget of $7-per-square-foot, made possible because Pei negotiated a discount from the owner of the Georgia Marble Company in exchange for showcasing his stone at a prime location in downtown Atlanta. Rather than follow the typical modern practice of using marble as cladding on a load-bearing wall, Pei turned the 4-foot square marble panels into the wall itself, set within an exposed steel frame with stationary glass windows. The marble was delivered at low cost from the nearby stone yard and installed from inside the building without the need for expensive scaffolding. The 50,000-square-foot building was completed in just four months for an incredibly low $375,000.
The simple Miesian box, refined and unornamented, was an exercise in pure abstraction. If not quite a masterwork, it nonetheless had a self-assuredness and elegance of proportion, even monumentality, that far exceeded its small size and budget. A clear expression of structure, it stood in stunning contrast to the heavy limestone and granite buildings that had until then defined downtown Atlanta. The project’s success won Zeckendorf’s confidence — and launched Pei’s career. (An interesting aside: The Gulf corporation greatly expanded its operations in the 1940s, buoyed by unprecedented wartime oil consumption. Serendipitously, Gulf Oil comprised a significant part of the vast Mellon fortune which, 30 years later, would fund Pei’s East Building addition to the National Gallery of Art.)
The Gulf Oil Building was demolished in 2013. The developer reused its marble panels in an entrance pavilion (inspired by the original building) for a new luxury apartment complex on the site.
Design: I.M. Pei, executed with team members: Wes Goyer, Jr., Carl Groos, Jr., Ira Kessler, Don Page, F. Preston
Webb & Knapp Real Estate Development Corp.