Designing Longevity: Craig Gaulden Davis celebrates 60 years

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(L-R) Scott Powell, Scott Simmons, Edward Zeigler, Andrea Kuhfuss, David Dixon, Gwinn Harvey, and Charles Gunning. Photo by Will Crooks.

In 1957, Kirk Craig and Earle Gaulden, who had been classmates at Clemson University, started their firm when both were just 27 years old. They began designing homes from an office on Augusta Street and were soon joined by Bill Davis.

Six decades later, Craig Gaulden Davis has grown from a small local firm into a thriving regional practice known for creating some of the most popular spaces in Greenville, along with high-profile projects in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.

With several employees celebrating 20 or even 30-plus years with the company, as well as a crop of younger employees beginning to make their mark, the company is well-positioned to continue designing transformative spaces for the next 60 years and beyond.

Scott Simmons, a principal and architect who joined the firm in 1987, said the common thread throughout the past 60 years is a focus on great design. “All firms will say that, but we have always been focused on unique projects that require some expertise,” he said. “We like to do buildings that require some gray hair – a little time and experience.”

Scott Powell, who joined in 1993, agrees, adding that Craig Gaulden Davis also prides itself on being an institutional firm. “Our clients are institutions that are about a bigger purpose – libraries, schools, churches. It’s about service to their communities, so they are building for the long term.”

Locally, the firm is known for designing the Peace Center for the Performing Arts, Greenville County Museum of Art, the Hughes Main Library, the Kroc Center, the Roper Mountain Science Center, and many more. They’ve worked on 70 libraries, totaling more than 2 million square feet, as well as schools in 14 South Carolina districts within the past decade.

Churches are another major category for the firm, which became evident when the staff recently noticed they were working with First Presbyterian churches in four cities across two states.

While commercial buildings aren’t the focus, the firm does take on certain projects, including all of Rick Erwin’s restaurants, Joe’s Place on Williams Street, and the downtown CVS, the company’s first urban drive-thru.

“We pay a lot of attention to details,” said Ed Zeigler, principal and president, who has been with the company 34 of its 60 years. “It’s not just about cool designs, but how do we execute the designs, and how are they used? That’s a real focus of ours.”

William T. Davis (Bill), Kirk R. Craig, and F. Earle Gaulden

Steady growth

The size of the company has varied widely over the years, from eight people when Zeigler joined in 1983 to 40 employees during the design of the Peace Center in the late 1980s. Now at 18 people, the principals agree that the current size is right where they want to be.

“Rather than grow just to be bigger, our interest is really growing our reputation, more than growing in number of people and amount of work,” said David Dixon, principal and vice president, who joined CGD in 1987. “The growth that I look forward to is more people becoming aware of the distinctive character of our firm.”

Instead of seeking quantity of work, the company looks for projects where the team can make a positive difference in a community. “We didn’t do all of the buildings in Greenville, but the really key ones, we can lay claim to a lot of those,” Simmons said. “If Greenville is a great place to live, and it is, then I feel like we had a big part in helping with that and being there for those projects.”

One reason for the firm’s longevity is its focus on public projects, which can offer more secure revenue than private projects, where delays are more common, Powell said. He cites riding out the recession as the biggest challenge the firm has faced.

“Most of the larger firms in Greenville were forced to merge with other firms,” he said. But the principals wanted to keep their experienced staff and hands-on, team approach to projects, so emerging from those lean years with much of the team intact was an accomplishment.

The staff also expresses pride in the decentralized organization of the firm, “where all professionals are well-educated, talented people who can manage all aspects of the practice,” according to Dixon. “We think this is a unique approach to a firm with our length of service and with so many significant public projects.”

Simmons said founders referred to the system as “no handoffs, no fumbles,” meaning the same team members follow a project from beginning to end. “You win it; you conceptualize it with the client; you design it and carry it out; and the little details and big concepts don’t get lost along the way.” This can happen if projects get handed off between departments, he added.

Planning for the future

Zeigler said it’s fortunate that several staff members have been around long enough to have worked with the company founders. “We had great cross-pollination between generations,” he said. “That has allowed the original mindset, the philosophy of the firm, to move from one generation to the next.”

He views the history of CGD in terms of 30-year generations, and notes that the first generation led from 1957 to 1987, when ownership of the firm shifted to a new crop of employees. “Now, 30 years later, we’ve just recently done that again with a third generation,” Zeigler said, with younger staff members like John Hanson, Stuart Stegner, and Andrea Kuhfuss.

As he helps guide the firm into the next decade, Hansen, a principal and architect, plans to focus on the aspects that have led the firm for its first 60 years: teamwork, design quality, and integrity. “To maintain that level of integrity, that’s a huge accomplishment,” he said.

The collegial atmosphere and diversity of work opportunities drew Stegner to CGD. “It’s not cookie-cutter. The legacy projects were a big draw, as well as the family atmosphere.” he said. Kids, spouses, and dogs often show up at the office and occasional – and very noncompetitive – carpet golf tournaments keep the mood upbeat in the open workspace near Cleveland Park.

High-profile projects in the works include the South Carolina Children’s Theatre, expected to be complete in 2019 near the Greenville Drive Stadium, and Fountain Inn High School, slated to be complete in 2021, which will be the first manufacturing-focused high school in South Carolina.

“With a growing community, we look forward to the future, because it’s a fertile field to work in,” Simmons said. “It’s been a good 60 years, and it could be another good 60 years.”

Photos and renderings provided by Craig Gaulden Davis 

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