Justin Smith is in no-man’s land between old school and new school.
While studying architecture, he was between those who drew everything by hand and those who learned how to do everything on a computer. While he has some computer skills, he prefers to draw by hand. So much so that there are times he will scribble with one hand while driving, trying to get to the side of the road where he can stop and finish his latest idea.
He is also caught between old-school and new-school architecture. He appreciates the craftsmanship that comes with many of the old buildings in downtown Rock Hill – 18-foot-tall ceilings, wide decorative crown moldings, pressed-tin ceiling panels and polished wood floors.
He also likes the more modern style where simplicity rules and offices are designed as collaborative work spaces with few walls and lots of light.
The contrast, he says, is clearly evident in a growing Rock Hill where you have the historic downtown and the “Riverwalk urbanism.”
He is trying to bridge the stylistic gap with his own firm, Vinyet Architecture, and the firm’s new building at 127 Caldwell St.
The shotgun office on Caldwell Street has the bones of classic downtown Rock Hill. The building is circa 1940s. For many years it housed a restaurant.
Smith, his dad and his uncle gutted the building. Plaster either fell off or was chipped off the walls to reveal the bricks. Two levels of drop ceilings were torn down to reveal steel beams and a wooden plank roof. Cedar planks, installed horizontally, create the walls that divide the work space, and a large window between offices doubles as a “blackboard” where they scribbled their projects with a white marker.
To take advantage of the natural light, two skylights and two sky tunnels – round tubes instead of a rectangular openings – were installed. There is so much light that controlable shades are planned to reduce the sunlight when needed.
If a far cry from the Main Street office he moved into in the winter of 2013. That was the office with the high, pressed-tin ceiling and polished wood floors.
The change in the Caldwell Street building is dramatic. For about 20 years it was Bill Pelton’s Inside View Repair and Sales emporium. Pelton’s shop was so crammed with “stuff” that it was impossible to see the walls. His philosophy was somebody, somewhere would need what he had for sale.
All of Pelton’s treasurers were in the building when the Smiths bought it. It took them seven months to clean out the store and renovate.
In their new office now for just a few weeks, Smith’s firm fits the eclectic mix that is Caldwell Street. His neighbor on one side is the Flipside Restaurant, which has its front door on the side of the building.
His other neighbor is Jason Broadwater’s RevenFlo office, which most often uses its door off the city parking lot in back as its primary entrance.
Smith’s front door opens onto Caldwell Street, possibly because that’s the most direct route to Amelie’s bakery, where he can get his favorite beverage – coffee.
The firm’s name, Vinyet, even fits the eclectic chic of Caldwell Street. When Smith started considering names, he liked French-sounding words. He thought about naming his firm vignette, after the architectural drawing style where the edges of a drawing are darkened to “frame” the image and draw attention to the center.
He feared, though, that some would pronounce the word as “vig-net-tee,” so he used the phonetic spelling. It didn’t hurt that the web address, vin-yet.com, was available too.
When Smith came downtown in 2013, many predicted he wouldn’t last a year. Two years later the firm has moved to new offices in Rock Hill, as well as in Charleston and Asheville, N.C. Smith splits time between Rock Hill and Charleston, where the firm has much of its residential business. His partner, Myles Alexander, handles most of the firm’s commercial work from an office in the historic district of Asheville.
Old school, new school or somewhere in between, Vinyet is another example of businesses started by the young, creative class that planners hope to attract as part of the core city Knowledge Park strategy. In the process, those entrepreneurs have created Caldwell chic.
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066