Timing is everything

August 5, 2010
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When an architectural firm designs a project that wins a prestigious state award, there is cause for celebration. But when a firm wins two highly prized state awards in six months, then it’s party time.

A design by Cornerstone Architects for the Herbert H. and Barbara C. Dow Center for Visual Arts at Interlochen won an Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects in Michigan. Its design for Clear Water Place, owned by Ed De Vries Properties, won the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation. The award is considered the supreme honor a restoration project can receive in Michigan.

“We feel great,” said Tom Nemitz, founder and president of Cornerstone Architects. “It’s actually our third Governor’s Award.”

And that’s in just the last four years. Cornerstone first won the Governor’s in 2007 for its design of the First National Bank building in Flint. The second came in 2008 for its work on the Inner City Christian Federation headquarters — the former D.A. Blodgett Building — on Cherry Street in Grand Rapids. In all, Cornerstone has captured 46 design awards over its history. Eleven of those were awarded in 2008, with 10 being for the ICCF headquarters — which, perhaps, makes it the most award-winning renovation in local modern history.

“We’re waiting for the ideal project so we can get in there again,” joked Nemitz about next year’s Governor’s Award.

Nemitz started Cornerstone Architects in 1989 as a single office in Grand Rapids. Today, the firm also has locations in Traverse City and St. Claire Shores. John Dancer, a partner in the company, manages the Traverse City office, while Jennifer Sutton heads the metro Detroit office.

“You know, it’s probably good that I didn’t know much that first day about what we were getting into. But definitely it has worked out very well and probably exceeded expectations. I think my expectations were pretty conservative back then, so there wasn’t really any place to go but up,” Nemitz said.

“It was kind of a sink or swim, and I didn’t know a lot of the challenges of going into business at that time. But you learn in a hurry if you want to survive, that’s for sure.”

Nemitz said he was working on a few jobs when he opened the company’s doors. One of those involved a once-prominent local name: Gantos. He was designing three stores in various parts of the country for the women’s clothing retailer that was based in Grand Rapids. He also was working on a design for a house in Greenville, along with a Union Bank branch near Lake Odessa.

Then he turned his attention to downtown, where Dave Graff and Rick Enzer hired him to renovate 15 Ionia Ave. SW. They sold the building to Sam and Andy Cummings, and the brothers stayed with Cornerstone. That’s when Nemitz began to develop his sterling reputation for the historic redesign of urban buildings.

“We started off with a bang — quite a bit of work right out of the gate,” he said.

But then came 1991. “I remember it well. We were very busy, and then it was like someone turned off the faucet and we had nothing. And it was a lot of scurrying for what seemed like an eternity, but it probably was only a couple of months. It humbled you in a hurry, that’s for sure,” he said.

Nemitz said timing has been a key factor in Cornerstone’s and his success. He said the firm’s entrance into the local architecture field came at a time when the movement to preserve and revive downtown’s older buildings took hold, an effort that started around 1993.

“I think the simultaneous timing of us being involved in preservation and historic-property renovations and revitalizations, coupled with a lot of the interest in south Ionia (Avenue) and some of the arena area, really kind of kicked us into gear,” said Nemitz.

“I would certainly like to acknowledge that Sam Cummings had a great role in that — to have confidence in us at an early age to take on some fairly large projects and kind of groundbreaking projects in that area. There was Ed De Vries, also. For those guys and others to show confidence in relatively young architects at that time, looking back, was a great thing to have.”

Nemitz, Cummings and Kim Beyer, president of Constructors Inc., practically became household names in the local historic renovation field in the mid-1990s. “I don’t know how many buildings we did together, probably a half dozen,” said Nemitz.

Cummings is now a principal in CWD Real Estate Investments, but back then he owned a development firm called Macroe Properties, which specialized in urban renovations. About the only tenants the Ionia Avenue buildings had in those days were pigeons. The work wasn’t as simple as tearing down old walls to put up new ones. At 25 Ionia Ave. SW, for instance, Cummings said they had to dig about five feet below the basement’s floor to make space for the coolers for The Sierra Room, the restaurant that would occupy the first floor.

“I miss those old days. That was some good stuff back then. Everything was so new. There was a lot of pioneering going on, and it was a lot of fun. We challenged Tom to be very creative, which he certainly excels at. I’d like to think that those early days helped him develop his brand. It was a lot of fun and he certainly added a lot of value to our projects,” Cummings said.

“Back then the curbs were at carriage height on Ionia. There were no storefronts and everything was vacant. We had a framework but it was something of an open canvas,” he added. “I remember when J. Gardella’s opened. That was the first new bar downtown in I don’t know how many years, and that was 1995.”

Nemitz was born and raised in a Chicago suburb and his interest in old buildings began to take hold as a youngster. When he was about 7, his grandfather, Edward Vogel, and his father, William, often took young Tom into Chicago to tour some magnificent structures.

“Both of them were in the plumbing industry and both had done quite a bit of work on some pretty good-sized projects in downtown Chicago. That was an amazing thing to get the tours through some of these major buildings in Chicago, through some of the backrooms, and see some of the things that most people don’t get to see,” said Nemitz.

“Even though they were in the trades, they had a great appreciation for the detail and the architecture, as well. That was definitely a pretty defining part of why I went into what I do.”

Nemitz earned his degree in architecture at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield in 1982. His first job was with another highly respected local architect, Marvin DeWinter, who put Nemitz to work turning the former Pantlind Hotel into the Amway Grand Plaza. Four years later, he joined DSO Reid Architects, where he continued to do renovation design. After three years with DSO Reid, Nemitz started Cornerstone.

Tom and Luann have been married for 27 years and have been working together for a dozen of those years. Luann is a registered architect and interior designer, and she works at Cornerstone three days a week. They live on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and have three children. Their oldest, Angela, is studying family counseling at Central Michigan University. Thomas James is interested in graphic arts and is attending Grand Rapids Community College. He was a high-school rower who won a state pairs championship. Tyler, who is 12, is into soccer.

In his spare time, Nemitz likes to build stuff and has just finished a backyard deck. He also skis in the winter.

In the years since he started Cornerstone, Nemitz said one thing that has influenced the industry is technology. But he quickly added that it hasn’t changed the core of the business.

“There are technological advances in every industry. But certainly in our industry, the technology aspect of what we do is always evolving. There is a constant effort to keep up with that to make sure you’re competitive in the market,” he said.

“But I think the basic concept of good architecture really has not changed. It’s just, with the economic cycles, the perspectives of it have changed a little bit. Right now, obviously, there is a lot of competition and there are a lot of people scurrying for work. So I would say, during these times, you see the two extremes of architecture: You see some really good stuff being done, but you also see some really bad stuff being done.

“And it seems like that contrast has come about with the down economic times more than when things are churning along. So after you go through a couple of cycles, you can kind of see some patterns developing,” he said.

As for his firm’s immediate future, Nemitz said he hopes Cornerstone continues to grow slowly, as it has over the last 21 years.

“We want to continue to strengthen the renovation end of things. We’ve also been doing quite a bit of new work in the medical and educational fields, and those are things we want to expand on,” he said.

“We have an interior-design department, as well, and we are trying to move into a direction that’s at the top of people’s list when they start looking for interior-design firms. And that presence in Detroit is growing. That’s why that office is down there.”

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