[ABOVE: From left: John Jacques, Allen Freeman, Kate Schwennsen, Mrs. A. Freeman and Joel Van Dyke at Clemson University’s Centennial Symposium School of Architecture October 2013. The award was posthumously awarded to W.E. “Jack” Freeman Jr., Clemson class of ’34]
Founded during World War II, Freeman & Major Architects has grown from a one-man business into a small firm that can take on the big jobs. In addition to designing some of Greenville’s landmark structures, the firm marked 75 years in the Upstate this year.
Born in Greenville in 1911, William E. “Jack” Freeman (1911-1992) grew up helping his dad run a hardware store just off Main Street, which his dad assumed Jack would take over one day. But Freeman became interested in architecture at Clemson University. He returned to Greenville to work with architect Willie Ward, and then to open his own one-man architectural business, W.E. Freeman and Associates, in 1940 – right in the midst of World War II.
His first office was located over the People’s National Bank that once stood on West Washington Street, but he soon moved across the street to 226 W. Washington St. where the Symmes Gymnasium of the First Presbyterian Church now stands. Jack Freeman’s son, Allen Freeman, who worked at the new location as an office boy during high school, said the building was originally designed for a fish market.
Although after about a year, work was nearly impossible to come by, Jack Freeman survived the war years and soon hired additional architects, including Jimmy Wells, who would later become a partner.
Growth in the postwar years
As work picked back up after the war, particularly in schools and churches, Jack Freeman gradually hired more architects until he had eight employees in 1959. One of these employees was Charles Major, a Clemson graduate who would go on to work for Freeman and Major for 50 years. Major says he was excited to take the job because Freeman was going to raise his weekly salary “from $75 to $100.”
Major said the drafting room had a simple setup then: one telephone, sawhorse tables with backless stools and a big fan that served as an air conditioner.
“You had to hold your drawings down with bricks and be careful not to drip sweat on them,” Major said.
In 1965, Jack Freeman decided to make Wells and Major junior partners, who would transition to full partners over the course of the next year. Then, in 1971, Jack Freeman asked Wells and Major if he could gradually transfer his partnership to his son, Allen Freeman, who had graduated from the architecture program at Clemson in 1965.
“We couldn’t have been happier,” Major said.
The same year he became a partner, Allen Freeman designed the company’s new building at One McDaniel Green.
“It was a wonderful place for us because it was almost downtown but had a residential flair,” Allen Freeman said.
Jack Freeman retired from the firm in 1978 and, in 1985, Allen Freeman and Major bought Wells out and changed the name from Freeman, Wells & Major to Freeman & Major. Allen, who became managing partner of the firm in 1995, called Major “the best partner anybody ever had.”
A small company gets big jobs
Allen and Major maintain that the company has survived “the feast and famine” periods that come with architectural work because they stuck to their philosophy of being a small firm ranging from four to 12 people so that “every client got the best team we had, which was really our only team,” Allen said.
The key was that the firm was still big enough to do the big jobs – they just did them one at a time so that the client had their full attention.
“I worked there 50 years, and I don’t think there was a project that came out of that firm that I didn’t work on in some capacity,” Major said.
One of those projects was the First Federal building downtown, which was built in 1972. Major remembers the building was originally 10 stories, but Charles Scales, the president of First Federal Savings at the time, said he couldn’t see it from his house and asked them to add two more stories, which they did.
Other projects include the upper decks in the Clemson Memorial Stadium, a $15 million job that Allen and Major said made Clemson the first college stadium to have box seats; Duke Power Regional Headquarters (now First Citizens Bank) and the Greenville Water System Building, both of which were influenced by the colonial-style architecture of one of the firm’s other projects, Johns Hall at Furman University. The firm also designed the SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a $20 million job Freeman & Major landed by winning a design competition with a design based on an Italian hill village, since the school’s land sloped down toward the river, like a hill.
An architecture legacy passes
In 1992, Jack Freeman died. He was highly involved with the American Institute of Architects and helped found the Greenville Council of Architects (now the Greenville section of the AIA). He also rose to president of the state AIA chapter in the early 1950s and, later, to regional director of the AIA before being elected a Fellow in the AIA.
His actions were monumental in uniting the architects of Greenville, Major said. “Back when Jack first went to work here in Greenville, if two architects were walking down the street and saw each other, one of them would go to the other side of the street. They did not get along with each other, and Jack brought us together.”
Jack Freeman was also instrumental in the creation of Clemson University’s School of Architecture, which was just a department under the School of Engineering when he was a student, and in establishing the Clemson Advancement Foundation for Design and Building, which allows architecture students to study abroad. For these contributions, Jack was one of the 2013 recipients of Clemson’s School of Architecture’s inaugural alumni achievement awards.
Looking toward the future
In 2006 Freeman & Major Architects merged with Van Dyke Design Group, originally founded in 2003 by Joel Van Dyke. Allen Freeman said the transition was smooth because Van Dyke shared his and his father’s small firm philosophy.
As a result of the recession and a changing company culture, Van Dyke started to look for a more economical space that would promote more collaboration, which he found at 2 N. Main St., where the firm moved in 2013 and where Van Dyke co-founded OpenWorks, a community of creative entrepreneurs. Freeman & Major now shares the space with more than 20 organizations and entrepreneurs, which Van Dyke said has provided an energetic and collaborative environment.
During the recession, Van Dyke also began to use social media to expand his connections outside of the U.S. He connected with the Dutch founder of the Amsterdam-based Design Thinkers Group, which now has locations in 16 countries around the world. In 2012, Van Dyke was asked to start the U.S. presence of the organization, Design Thinkers Group USA, which helps organizations shift “from being strictly product oriented and sales driven to being service-oriented and human-centered,” according to designthinkersgroup.us.
Van Dyke said that using the tools of design to unlock solutions for non-architecture related problems has changed the way he thinks about serving his architecture clients. He helps clients see that every stakeholder in their organization’s experience is a customer.
“For example, we dig into the DNA of an organization in order to help them understand what motivates their employees and then design great office space that energizes and empowers employees to do their jobs,” Van Dyke said. “This holistic approach helps organizations hire and retain the best talent, so there’s a definite return on investment in design for the client.”