As the firm’s South Carolina office, gears up for it’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, firm Principal and President, Ashby Gressette, AIA, took a moment to sit down and speak with local new outlet, midlandsbiz, to discuss the firm’s most memorable moments, history, and, most importantly, navigating the future.

  1. What is your education and background?

I’m a St. Matthews native and attended Clemson University from 1970 through 1976 where I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture. Clemson was, and still is, the only school in South Carolina that offers an architecture program. I grew up in a rural southern town, which was not known for its architecture, but I always had an interest in the profession due to my love of both drawing and construction. After graduation, I moved to Columbia and worked for Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle, and Wolfe and Carlisle Associates before joining Stevens & Wilkinson in 1983. I have served as director of architecture through the years and president for the past three.

  1. Give a brief history of the firm

Stevens & Wilkinson is a multi-disciplinary firm offering architecture, engineering and interior design and began in Atlanta in 1919, which means the firm is celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2019.  Locally, the Columbia office is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

In the mid-1960s, our chairman emeritus, Bobby Lyles, and chairman at the time, Jim Kortan, were good friends. Kortan worked for Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle, and Wolfe, Bobby’s father’s firm. When the Palmetto Center, an urban renewal project, came to Columbia. Stevens & Wilkinson in Atlanta was already considering opening up an office in South Carolina, and when they got the Palmetto project it only cemented their decision. Lyles opened with two employees in the South Carolina office. Our Columbia office currently has about 35 employees and when combined with our engineering division, we are considered one of the largest firms in town.

  1. How do you balance art and function in a design?

Actually, design is a careful balance of three criteria: art, function and budget. According to Vitruvius, the famous Roman author and architect, these values make up three legs of an equilateral triangle and the triangle cannot get out of kilter. Each one of these concepts weighs the same amount creating an interesting and delicate balance. Working with our clients, we strive for an equal emphasis on each of these while maintaining a creative approach to a project’s solution.

  1. How can design positively impact a community?

Good design plays a huge role in defining the live/work/play environment of communities. Designs not only reinforce and enhance community development, but also give direction to subsequent projects. Good design also improves the image of a community through appearance, safety and participation. We have done a lot of work in downtown Columbia that has required us to fold new designs into historical settings ultimately creating a more connected and communicative environment. As we continue to help grow and develop downtown, we’ve noticed an increased level of activity, improvement in activation from the community and, most importantly, a higher number of millennials relocating – which helps the revitalization process tremendously. Downtown Columbia isn’t a nine to five, Monday through Friday spot anymore. It’s becoming a nine-to-midnight, seven days a week type of place where people want to spend time with friends and family.

  1. Specifically, how has design positively impacted Columbia?

Good designs have contributed to the quality of life in our city. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a lot of activity on Main Street. The hotels, local boutiques and other businesses had all moved away from downtown and into other areas of the city. I’m proud to say Stevens & Wilkinson played a key role in the revitalization of downtown Columbia. We believe the development of the Columbia Museum of Art, Boyd Plaza and 1501 Main Street, all Stevens & Wilkinson undertakings, were landmark projects that served as a catalyst for subsequent developments like Meridian and First Citizens that ultimately renewed interest in the downtown area and kicked off the continuing resurgence we see today.

This all began after Macy’s and Belk moved. The departure left two massive buildings. S&W had the idea to repurpose that space by relocating the Columbia Museum of Art, so we made the front of Belk into a plaza, giving the front door of the former Macy’s building and now the art museum a completely different orientation. We wanted people to forget where they previously bought their underwear by bringing them inside and using a different part of the building. This relocation had a major influence on the revitalization of Downtown Columbia by bringing people back to Main Street – it’s visited by groups of school children during the day, patrons of the arts, and people who want to attend nighttime receptions and parties.

  1. What is your vision of S&W’s next 40 years?

Our Columbia office has a renewed excitement about the next 40 years, which is due in part to the residential component being reintroduced to the central district. The 24/7 opportunities strengthen the live/work city core. As a vision, the city center will be denser and offer more and varied activities, which in turn will continue to create more excitement and more opportunities for us to provide design services.

As a firm, we want to continue to expand at a controlled growth – we don’t want to get too big. We also want to be careful about how we respond to the industries we are currently working in, like K-12, higher education, and judicial. We also want to continue to focus on our more successful markets – markets which include judicial, higher education, Pre-K-12, healthcare, and corporate. We also want to continue delivering engineering services that are exactly what our clients have come to expect from us. And finally, we want to continue making a positive impact on the city, state and region.

  1. S&W’s “Calling card is “smart design solution.” What does that mean to you and how does S&W apply that philosophy to Columbia and the region?

Smart Design Solutions is intended to describe one approach across the entire range of problem-solving. Smart solutions can address functional issues, contextual aesthetic concerns or budgetary restrictions; and more than likely, all three at once. It is all encompassing and can include elements such as site concepts, smart land use, the layout of buildings to maximize efficiency of floorplans. It also occurs at every level whether it be very general concepts to more specific issues.

  1. Is there one project in Columbia you’re particularly proud of and why?

Selecting a favorite project is somewhat like choosing your favorite child. Every project has unique stories during its design and construction process and working for the best solution with our clients is always rewarding. I’m very proud of the Columbia Museum of Art and the Meridian Office Building and their positive impact on Columbia and Main Street. The museum was built in the old Macy’s building. The Meridian office building was built to accommodate 17 floors of Class A office space. The lobby space and deteriorating facade and finishes of the Meridian Office Building presented some major design challenges during reconstruction. We wanted the building to have something appealing at the base, the middle and the top so we designed a window pattern that emphasized the vertical feel of the building throughout the middle. We designed the top of the building in an arch with lights to make it attention-grabbing. It makes a statement in the Columbia skyline and helps people identify the building. I convinced the developers to keep the intricate historic façade of the consolidated building on Columbia’s Main Street in order to preserve tradition and offer a nostalgic element for the Columbia community. I’m proud of this building and the way it contributed to the revitalization of Downtown Columbia and literally changed the way residents and visitors see Columbia and the downtown area.

  1. What advice would you offer someone entering the profession today?

I would suggest a time-honored approach to work, similar to what we strive to achieve at Stevens & Wilkinson, based on integrity, intelligence and imagination from a platform of design excellence, financial stability and personal service. I would also tell them to get ready to work hard because they don’t give it away. But it’s a profession where you will continue to grow, learn and master over a lifetime.