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JBHM founder Jim Johnson retiring after nearly four decades

Award-winning architect answers call of the road

TUPELO — His Harley was calling him to the road.

So after 37 years working as a full-time architect, Jim Johnson answered the call.

“There are so many places I haven’t been, and others I want to see again. That should keep me occupied for quite a while,” said Johnson, AIA, founder and principal of Johnson Bailey Henderson McNeel Architects, P.A. “The first trip, I’ll probably head up the mountains, take Highway 1 from Sacramento to Los Angeles, Calif., through the Napa Valley and down through Monterey, Carmel, Yosemite and Santa Barbara.”

A native of Nettleton, Johnson, whose parents, L.B. and Willie Johnson, were teachers, earned a Boy Scout merit badge in mechanical drawing when Ben Coggin, a principal at Cook Coggin Engineers, was scoutmaster.

“Back in the mid-’50s, everybody was looking at engineering careers,” he told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “That’s when the Space Age started up.”

After working as a rodman on a survey crew during school breaks, and working as a draftsman, Johnson craved a career that was more creative than engineering. When someone suggested that architecture was its “first cousin,” Johnson knew it was the perfect profession for him.

After earning an architecture degree from Auburn University in 1965, Johnson joined Fuller, Christian & Blake Architects Inc., in Birmingham, Ala. When a union construction strike virtually shut down construction in the Birmingham area in 1970, Johnson returned to Tupelo, where he partnered with Cook Coggin Engineers and established Jim Johnson & Associates, Ltd. Three years later, Johnson merged with Tupelo architect Gus Staub. The firm that would become JBHM was created and a stream of award-winning work followed.

In 1978, Johnson won an honor award for design work on the Fine Arts Complex at Itawamba Community College (ICC). The next year, he won a merit award for work on a student housing design project for ICC’s Fulton campus. He also earned an honor award for design work of Fulton Telephone Company in Fulton.

Some of his most complex projects included New Albany Middle School, a nearly three-year project Johnson began in the late 1970s that involved demolishing part of the old school, building a new facility and integrating a cafeteria and gymnasium. In 1988, Johnson received an AIA honor design citation for the South Gloster branch of Peoples Bank & Trust Co. in Tupelo. It was a project that JBHM partner Richard McNeel, AIA, said, “truly broke the mold.”

“It wasn’t that simple little bank box,” McNeel told the Daily Journal. “It has a curvilinear roof that just undulates over the whole form of the building. And it’s just an expressive piece of art.”

In 1992, Johnson received an AIA Honor Award for Design of the $5-million Lee County Justice Center, a Greek Revival building featuring a curved, multicolumn esplanade that frames a plaza foyer.

“Success has not been so much becoming another Frank Lloyd Wright or someone like that, but being associated with the right people and having the right attitude toward serving clients and bringing in more business,” said Johnson. “It doesn’t seem like 40 years has passed that fast.”

The biggest challenge in the early 1980s, Johnson said, was “getting people to believe there was safety in numbers and advantages gained by partnerships.”

“The reason JBHM has been so successful is that the partners saw the benefits of collaboration by having offices in different regions,” he said. “If you were in a particular area, you would receive better reception from people who needed services than if you were only located in Jackson.”

JBHM now has five divisions — JBHM Architects, JBHM Education Group, LLC, JBHM Facility Resource Group, JBHM Interior Design Group and JBHM Land Planning Group — and employs more than 50 architects, designers and technical personnel in offices located in Columbus, Jackson, Southaven, Tupelo and Hattiesburg.

“There comes a time when you feel that you have the people in place who could take what you’ve started, carry on and never really miss you,” said Johnson. “When that happens, you know you’ve done a good job.”

Even though he is officially retiring, Johnson will continue to work on a part-time and consulting basis.

“I’ll manage some key clients, and that will be much more enjoyable than dealing with the pressure of meeting deadlines,” he said. “I won’t miss those.”

Johnson designed his own residence, a three-story Mediterranean-style home in Tupelo he describes as “a treehouse with lots of porches and glass, tucked into the side of a hill.”

“All the rooms have access to a porch, and there’s a balcony inside the great room,” he said. “It’s quite comfortable.”

Neither of his sons, Skip, 30, and Jake, 25, is involved in architecture. “They’re great kids, all grown up now,” he said. “Jake wants to be a pilot.”

Johnson and his wife, Sara, plan to motorcycle more often after she retires in a few years from her post as dean of academic instruction at ICC. “Sara was my high school sweetheart, but we only married a few years ago,” he said. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

They’ve been to Europe a couple of times — “seeing the architecture I studied in college was wonderful,” he said — and have made other non-motorcycle trips. They plan to travel across Canada by train. For fun, Johnson plans to play tennis more often. “After I had open heart surgery this year, I couldn’t wait to get back on the tennis courts,” he said. But his heart is with his Harley.

“He’s crazy about his Harley,” said JBHM Interior Design team leader Wenbren Everhart. “Just ask him about it and his face lights up.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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