Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
As its founder prepares to retire, Samsel Architects prepares to keep on keeping on.
In 1985, architect Jim Samsel stood on Biltmore Avenue and looked upon number 60, where a flight of steps led to an abandoned and partially collapsed second-floor space. Asheville’s Biltmore Avenue wasn’t much to look at back then.
It was a down-at-heel remnant of what had once been the southern spoke of Asheville’s central business district, where it meets Pack Square, by the boarded-up corpse of the Plaza Theatre. From there, things went literally and figuratively downhill. Another movie house, the Fine Arts Theatre, was there, showing grainy, third-run adult films. Across the street was Fain’s, a bargain department store owned by Belk’s. The Junior League thrift shop was tucked into a narrow, dusty storefront. There was a shoe shine parlor that did about a dollar’s worth of business a day. The west side backed up to alleys and vacant lots paved over for parking. The east side backed up to The Block, once a vibrant social and business center, now a gutted victim of urban renewal.
Altogether not a promising place to consider opening a business, but Jim Samsel looked upon this place with the practiced and imaginative eye and saw possibilities. He was hoping to set up shop in a town, that even then, was showing signs of waking up and remembering that it was the cultural and economic hub of an entire region.
Thirty years on, upper Biltmore Avenue is a 24/7 buzzing hive of activity. The old Plaza was razed and became Pack Place, which houses the Asheville Art Museum as well as the Diana Wortham Theatre, a nationally known entertainment venue. The now-sophisticated Fine Arts Theatre serves wine to patrons watching just-released, critically acclaimed movies while sitting in rocking-chair seats. Fain’s has transmogrified into the Asheville location of Mast General Store, selling everything from upscale sportswear to camping and hiking gear to frying pans and jelly beans. In between are trendy shops, restaurants, brew pubs, bakeries, a yoga studio… and the flight of stairs next to Number 60, which still leads to the offices and studios of Samsel Architects, P.A..
We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. —Winston Churchill
Architects, plural. There are three owner-architects working here now, among a staff of a dozen or so. But soon, there will be only two owner-architects. Jim Samsel is about to retire. He is entrusting the governance of the firm that he founded all those years ago to a team from a new generation, who are prepared to meet the challenges of the future using the core principles that have driven Samsel Architects for nearly a third of a century.
The visionary who started all of this is a tall, genial, quiet-spoken man with a self-effacing habit of dwelling more on what his firm does, and is looking to do, rather than on himself and how he has brought the business to where it is today. Although obviously a great deal has been accomplished since 1985, he manages to encapsulate both the history of the firm, and the philosophy on which he founded it, in a few sentences.
“I grew up in Maryland,” he says. “I ended up here after I got my architectural degree from the University of Arizona. (He does not mention that he also holds a Master’s from MIT.) I’d been here nine years, working for other firms, and we saw an opportunity [on Biltmore Avenue] and took it. We purchased the building with partners about a year and a half before we moved in and were the first tenants in this building after it was renovated.”
“At that time, it was all about building a future downtown. We saw this building and thought it was the worst building on the best street in Asheville,” Samsel remembers. “This is, after all, the main north-south street through town [Biltmore Avenue, which is also U.S. 25, becomes Merrimon Avenue after crossing the square and runs as such all the way to Weaverville, five miles away]. We knew that when the revitalization came – and we were confident it would – [that] it would happen along this corridor.
“What we were committed to early on,” says Samsel, “was great design; and to providing a whole variety of services – a complete architectural package. Also, we wanted to engage civically; to use our talents to help create well-designed public space; to work with nonprofits on a pro bono basis whenever it was feasible. We wanted to establish a legacy of giving,” he says. “We have always supported nonprofits financially whenever we could; the pro bono work was part of that. It still is.”
Community participation paid off for Samsel’s firm. “We got involved in the renovation of South Pack Square, in Pack Square Park, in what was starting to happen along the riverfront,” he says. “And this led to our getting awarded a diverse group of projects that we’ve been able to enhance over time – hospitality, medical, private college, retail, custom residences – and so today we’ve grown somewhat; we do those kinds of projects in six or eight states.”
Asheville and its environs are thickly dotted with Samsel projects: the Allanstand Shop at Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway east of town, the Southern Highland Craft Gallery in Biltmore Village (which involved the painstaking renovation of the historic Biltmore-Oteen Bank building, originally constructed in 1928), the Sourwood Inn, a dozen projects at Warren Wilson College, and many others. One of the firm’s recent projects, the Pinnacle Cottages at Primland, a resort on the Dan River in southwest Virginia, was instrumental in Primland’s being named “Best Designed Resort in the World” by Travel and Leisure magazine.
There were setbacks, however.
“The recession was something of a body blow to us, as it was to nearly everybody else,” Samsel says. “We’re so closely tied to the real estate and construction businesses that what hurts them hurts us. If money to build with is short, people don’t build, which means they don’t need an architect. We were certainly not immune to that; our numbers went down accordingly, and it was a challenging time. We hunkered down a little. But,” he says, “we didn’t panic. We realized this was a cyclical thing.”
Instead of scaling back its marketing efforts while times were lean, Samsel says, “We decided to double down. We went multi-media – including radio and print – to show we were confident things would get better, and just to keep our brand out in front of people. If you don’t remind people you’re here when times are bad, they won’t remember you when times get better.”
“We had enough projects onboard that we didn’t have to downsize. Nobody got laid off or had to take a salary cut. That’s important in a small company like ours where teamwork is a huge factor.”
The recession brought with it another opportunity, Samsel says. The slowing of the work pace gave the firm a chance to take a step back, evaluate its marketing efforts, and find ways to make a leaner budget accomplish more. “One thing we did was to overhaul our website,” he says. “I think that was key. In fact, it’s probably the single biggest reason we’ve been able to reach a bigger target audience and get involved in projects in several states.”
Reach has been an important recruiting factor too, Samsel observes. “For a city our size and the region, Asheville has more creative talent than most,” he says, “but of course nothing like cities that have universities with architectural schools. There’s not much talent just lying around. Very few people want to move to Asheville without a job…”
“I don’t know,” says a voice at his elbow. “I did.”
The voice belongs to Duncan McPherson, one of the two senior architects who have taken the reins in advance of Samsel’s retirement. Creative energy rolls off McPherson in waves. It’s easy to believe what he says next.
“I was literally shopping for a place to live after I got out of college,” McPherson recalls. “Honestly, I went up and down the east coast looking for an opportunity to do good design work. A place that had the right feel, the right culture. That led me to Asheville; it already had a reputation [in the late 1990s] as a place where a lot of creativity was going on; where there was a real interest in sustainability and quality of life. What led me to this firm was its sense of environmental stewardship. I really wanted to make sure I’d be working for a design studio that put that sense of environmental responsibility in the forefront of what it did, and didn’t just pay lip service to it. When I interviewed here I felt that was the case.”
Nathan Bryant is the other principal and future co-CEO. A native of Lexington, North Carolina, he later lived in Winston-Salem and frequently vacationed in Asheville with his family. “We had friends who lived here, and I had visited enough to know that it was a really creative place to be, so it didn’t take much to persuade me that it would be great to live and work here. I had the opportunity to interview with Jim, and when I was offered the job I didn’t hesitate.” Bryant’s way is deceptively laid back and soft spoken – he’s like Samsel in that regard – and his manner strikes what is probably a very effective balance with McPherson’s drive.
So, given that both principals [McPherson and Bryant] have been with Samsel for over fifteen years, give or take, how and when did the idea of turning the firm over to them originate?
“I’d been thinking about that for probably the last eight or ten years,” Samsel says. “I had witnessed what happened to people in the profession who did not have a plan and what happened to their firms and” – he shrugs and looks at his successors –“why don’t you guys take it from there? A lot of this was driven by your initiative.”
“I think there was the realization that certain types of firms can have a shelf life,” Bryant says. “As Jim was about to say, I think, they can be so tied to an individual that when that individual is getting ready to phase himself out, you think, what happens to us? [We] felt like we were at a crossroad. Do we strike out on our own? Do we go out together and create our own brand? We looked at our portfolio – the firm’s portfolio – and thought, [quote float=”right”]We’ve done a lot of good work here, and the company has a history of doing great work, plus all that goodwill; we’ve got a good thing going. Let’s keep it going.
This brings a full-fledged smile from Samsel. His legacy is in good hands. But the group hesitates when asked to name a single project that might encapsulate the firm’s legacy.
“In a way all projects are like that,” McPherson says. “Projects are like children.”
Back out on Biltmore Avenue things, as usual, are humming. People walk to and from the Square. Bands of roving tourists wander. An urban jogger passes by. Patrons linger over their coffee at an outdoor café. And amid it all, that same unobtrusive flight of hundred-year-old steps leads up to the glow of very modern track lighting. There amid state-of-the-art equipment, the staff of Samsel Architects plans the future, one project at a time, renewing its own legacy every day.
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