My childhood (which was, all in all, terrific) included most days playing outside. When I wasn’t wading in a nearby creek catching crawdads, fish, leaches and snakes, I built “towns” under the bushes in front of our house in Columbus, Mississippi. Matchbox cars and trucks, sticks for walls and columns, large green heart-shaped Redbud leaves (the tree was above the bushes) became roofs of my garages and bridges. I certainly didn’t know it, but I was learning my trade. I was practicing, at 7-years-old, for a career in architecture and town planning.
But this particular essay of recollection doesn’t begin in 1970. Fast forward to 1993!
My good friend JT Adams loves to begin his endless and entertaining stories of his life and tales of American history with his hands in the air and this slow mysterious pronouncement using a deep Southern drawl: ”… so there I wuuz … “. And perchance that is the perfect way to commence reminiscing and recollecting the past 25 years of my professional life as a registered architect.
“SO THERE I WAS !”. . . twenty-five years ago!
I had just attained the naïve age of thirty; wonderfully married for 8 years; one daughter (Natalee) aged 3; one son (Dakota) arrived in November of that year; indebted with a new home mortgage the year before; my wife (Kimberly) was pregnant most of the year and preparing to work from home in her new business enterprise; I had taken the design portion of the architectural licensing exam that summer (again), but it takes a couple months to receive the results. And to top it off, I had decided to strike out on my own and begin a new architectural firm with two other co-workers. Pressure and stress were on the increase, but so was the excitement and exhilaration of our young family’s dreams of the future!
The architectural licensing board exam is a 4-day grueling process, given only once a year (or so it was 25 years ago). I had passed the other 8 parts the first time a couple years earlier but was preparing to undertake the 12-hour building design test for an unwanted third time. (I still don’t understand why I failed, as they don’t explain). But the third time seemed a charm – either that or I was going the other direction because I finished several hours before everyone else. I looked around too nervous to get up and leave so I added shade and shadow to “pretty-up” my presentation for another hour. I reviewed the program notes repeatedly for yet another hour, thinking I must have missed something to be so far ahead of the class of approximately 75 others in downtown Atlanta during the summer of 1993. With about 4 hours remaining on the clock, I got up and turned in my work. . . intensely fearful that I would be back again a year later.
In the fall of that same year, I resigned my position at the only architectural firm I’d ever worked for – Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart & Stewart – located in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. I had worked there the summer of 1986 (when I began the rendering below for my thesis) and started full-time with them after graduation in 1987.
After 6-7 years at SRSS, I had learned so much about the profession and the business and yet I recognized the surface had only been scratched. I wanted more, and I wanted it my way. (Ah, the exuberance of youth!) The partner in charge back then, Bill Reynolds, understood my calling and dream to be self-employed because he’d felt the same way only 10 years earlier. Not aware I was leaving with two other employees, he graciously accepted my resignation but also offered a place for me if things didn’t work out. I’ll never forget that gentle nudge and vote of confidence from a role model to his protégé that September day in 1993.
I received in the mail late that year the results of my licensing exam a few months earlier – thank the good Lord I had finally passed! After only one year, the original 3-way partnership dwindled down to two, and we re-incorporated the firm name in 1994 as Benchmark Design International, Inc. My new firm was flying solo with no idea the ups and downs that lay ahead. After a couple of years of marketing and networking, the workload and reputation was increasing. We hired a part-timer or two and purchased more computers, self-teaching each other how to use this new CAD technology because it barely existed while we were in architecture school. Within a few short months we moved out of the home basement and into corporate offices near the intersection of GA-400 and I-285 in Atlanta.
The ‘ups’ had taken their course and then. . . it happened. On my 10th wedding anniversary (June 15, 1995) our office was robbed, and 6 weeks of electronic files were stolen inside several computers. I hadn’t backed up the information regularly, and it nearly put us out of business. (thank goodness for Dropbox today!)
But with God’s grace, long hours and hard work, we plundered through and learned from our experiences. The workload and subsequent income stream steadily increased during the next decade, from 1996 through 2006. In fact, during those early years of the 2000’s, our gross income almost doubled year to year! Our firm had moved in 2004 to Johns Creek into an office we designed and owned. The firm grew to about 14 full-time employees, as well as numerous consulting engineers and other specialty part-time help. We tried just about anything creative including a cabin retreat in the north Georgia mountains and even received a patent-pending for a Monopoly-style board game design!
But once again, the good times reversed as we experienced a slowdown. No, scratch that – it was a complete and utter standstill and economic meltdown! During late 2007 and into 2008, the incoming new work pipeline was completely blank! We knew things were going to be rough, but we had no idea the sluggish economy was a global sickness directly affecting real estate and construction. By Good Friday of 2008, one of our primary clients advised us sitting in his conference room – he got up and closed the doors and came back and said “this is not getting better any time soon. I strongly suggest you start saving your cash and laying off employees. We will start the process next week ourselves”.
By early 2009 most of our employees had been released and all we heard were the crickets chirping. So I had begun chasing connections and possible work for the firm. . . in Mississippi and Alabama, because absolutely nothing was happening for us in Georgia. The workload and project list continued as a vague and sickly version of its prior condition the previous 16 years. My 83-year-old father passed away in 2010, and then in the summer of 2011 – Mr. King Yeap and I decided to finally part ways (for the most part it was amicably) to pursue individual interests in different directions. I still say King is perhaps the most able-bodied designer/architect in Atlanta, but our partnership had run its course and sustained itself and our young families with great success for almost two decades! But I was ready for new adventures and diverse challenges!
The remainder of 2011 through 2014 were challenging yet rewarding seasons of life. Among the highlights – we completed the research and photography of two books about county courthouses in the states of Alabama and Mississippi. The Mississippi book was rewarded with a 2014 Heritage Award for “Preservation Education” from the Mississippi Heritage Trust, and the Alabama book was completed in 2015. Somewhere in this period of reevaluation and redirection, we ceased using in our marketing and publicity efforts the generic company name of Benchmark Design, PC. It seemed like the world already had too many ‘Benchmarks’. . . Benchmark builders, Benchmark plumbers, Benchmark paper towels, etc.! We re-branded the enterprise simply as ‘D. Tracy Ward, Architect’, and created a new logo.
Part of the charm and dream of being an architect is the individuality and creativity showcased in that architect’s office. When you imagine the famous individual architects of history, an important aspect of that persona is his/her office atmosphere that exhibits custom artwork and distinct choice decor style. For example we’ve always been fascinated by the whimsy and oddities of the home and office of Sir John Soane (1753 – 1837) in London (https://www.soane.org/) or the inventiveness of MONTICELLO – the home of Thomas Jefferson. With similar tastes, my wife and I fancy ourselves as creative types and always dreamed of making a statement with our very own unique office.
Early in 2014, my wife and I took a bold step toward that goal, purchasing and beginning the extensive design and renovation of a historic building on Main Street (also a dream come true) in Flora, Mississippi located northwest of the capitol of Jackson.
The last few years have seen even more changes. We finally, for the first time in 10 years, hired a full-time employee – Mr. Nathan Thomas. Our kids are grown and out of the house. . . well for the most part, ha! We are completing what is perhaps our most intriguing and intricately detailed project of my career – Liberty Hall (https://foundersclubatl.com/). The workload is full, and prospects are high for the future. God has been good to us, and taught us how to enjoy the successes and grow from the failures and disappointments. And perhaps this 25-year-long road has given us a bit of wisdom to share with others. What a ride thus far!
A still ongoing ride. . . 25 years in the making. Here’s to 25 more!
Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)
For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
D. Tracy Ward, Architect
Uploaded June 15, 2018 – DTW’s Blog #0036 (just so happens to be our 33rd wedding anniversary too!)
Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2018 by D. Tracy Ward and Benchmark Design, PC. God bless America! Treasure Liberty always and pass it on! “Architecture aims at Eternity. Architecture has its political Use; publick Buildings being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a Nation, draws People and Commerce; makes the People love their native Country, which Passion is the Original of all great Actions in a Common-wealth.” [CHRISTOPHER WREN, Parentalia]