The Office That Steel Built

A local team of experts makes what could have been a sterile steel structure into a personable and interesting office for a storied Fort Worth company.

The Thornton Steel portfolio reads like a Where’s Where of Fort Worth landmarks. The local company, the leading steel fabricator in the country’s Southwest region, worked on AT&T Stadium, Ed & Rae Schollmaier Arena (the remodeled Daniel Meyer Coliseum), Mary Wright Admissions Building, Sundance Square Pavilion, the Cassidy Building, and even the shaded steel structures in Sundance Square Plaza that have quickly become synonymous with downtown Fort Worth. And the team behind Thornton Steel’s new office building is a Who’s Who of Fort Worth construction professionals. Bennett Benner Partners was the architect on the project, Muckleroy & Falls was the general contractor, and the steel that’s found both aesthetically and functionally throughout the building? Well, you already know where that came from.

“The first thing we wanted was a building that would show off the product. And we wanted to do a more high-tech, functional office space while exposing it,” said President and CEO Donny Lassetter.

And said product certainly can be found everywhere. Walk through the front doors, and guests will come face-to-face with a steel accent wall. The large piece of sheer steel is clear coated, and the result is something that could even stand on its own aesthetically, with hints of subtle watercolor and the kind of veining found in a marble backsplash. Steel’s high function is exposed along with its beauty. One hallway showcases exposed bracing against the wall like a piece of industrial art. “A brace like this is usually hidden behind the wall, but it’s the most important part of a building,” Lassetter says.

Steel was also used in furniture where possible – creating the base of the conference room tables. Above one of the tables, speakers hang like pendant lights – part of the technology push in the new office. “The high-tech function is my favorite part of the new space,” Lassetter says. “We use our webcams all the time.” The webcam connects the Fort Worth team to the 115,000-square-foot San Antonio plant that Thornton purchased in 2010. Between the two facilities, Thornton Steel handles projects from South Texas all the way to Oklahoma, Colorado and Missouri.

While the office is new, the location and the 20 acres it sits on at 2700 W Pafford St., between Granbury Road and McCart Avenue, have been home to Thornton Steel since 1946. Lassetter bought the majority interest from the Thornton family in 2006. Current company CFO Kerry Lee remembers the old office well. He’s worked for Thornton Steel for 24 years. When Lee went to work for the family, the office was in a building that sat where the current parking lot is. “You see my truck there?” Lassetter says as he points to a prime spot in the parking lot. “That’s right about where Kerry’s desk was.” The office had been remodeled and expanded numerous times. But it had become dilapidated, and the team was outgrowing the space. Now, in the new 9,300-square-foot office, Thornton Steel’s employee base can triple in size without reaching the building’s walls.

And the new space aims to keep those employees happy — there are 62 between the office and the 100,000-square-foot enclosed fabrication facility on the same property (plus more than 50 in the San Antonio location). A break room/kitchen with high tops and red chairs overlooks what Lassetter calls an “employee amenity area.” Outside stone steps lead out to steel picnic tables in a serene, modern garden setting. Lassetter and Lee have bigger plans for the amenities too. “We plan to get a smoker so we can feed employees for the holidays,” said Lassetter.

Other future office plans will infuse art into the space. Two murals by noted Fort Worth artist Alice Bateman will flank the steel panel inside the building’s entrance. She used photographs of Thornton Steel workers erecting steel structures to inspire the murals. Bateman is the hands and eyes behind numerous local pieces of art, including the steel gates for the Texas Wild entrance to the Fort Worth Zoo and a steel fence with sculptures of kids and animals surrounding the Fort Worth Animal Care and Control Shelter.

Her experience with steel is no coincidence. Bateman and her husband, Tom Vanderzyl, actually used to live and work in a small studio on the grounds of the Thornton Steel property. The studio was a prototype for a mobile school room that Thornton created. After traveling Europe for many years working with stone, Bateman returned with Vanderzyl to his hometown of Fort Worth. The story goes that the couple “found a vestige of the familiar” on the Thornton Steel grounds and lived, worked and reared a child there for nearly 20 years. “We had a small child there, and she loved the factory,” Bateman said. “At 4 p.m. Thornton Steel closed up, and she could roam the place with our Great Danes.” Now, Bateman returns to paint the murals.

As for other touches inside the office, Lassetter and Lee say there is still a lot to do in the way of new furniture and office décor. As we walk through the halls, it’s evident, as vintage chairs and desks sit inside new clean and modern offices as a charming reminder of where the company has been and where it plans to go. One might think a new build with polished concrete floors and exposed steel would lack warmth. But inside these walls, steel is personal.