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Howorth finds niche in one of Mississippi's finest small towns

OXFORD – Architecture is largely an urban profession. Most architects practice their profession in cities – Jackson, New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco. But Thomas Howorth, president of Howorth & Associates Architects, has found there is no place like home to practice architecture – when you come from Oxford, named one of the top “100 Best Small Towns and “One of the Best College Towns in America” by USA Today.

Howorth practices architecture out of a building on the historic Oxford Square.

“The Square is just such a classic urban space,” Howorth said. “It is a beautiful place. I tell people if you want a more attractive architect`s office, you have to go to Rome.”

Howorth moved from New Orleans to Jackson in 1986 to become a partner in Mockbee Coker Howorth Architects, a firm that won recognition such as a prestigious first award for architectural design from Progressive Architecture.

Howorth left that firm in 1990 to practice on his own in Jackson until 1995, when he picked up the whole office employing five people, and moved to Oxford.

“Obviously, there is a lot going on in Oxford,” Howorth said, whose office has grown to now employ eight people. “It turned out to be a very timely.”

Family was part of the draw. He has four brothers who live in Oxford, including Mayor Richard Howorth.

“My brothers are all here,” said Howorth. “It is great to be here with extended family. My kids will grow up knowing their first cousins. The schools are good, and I’m able to go across town in 10 minutes even with road construction.”

Howorth has friends who practice architecture in global centers of architecture such as New York and Chicago. But he says while they may work on more glamorous projects, he doesn`t think they have any more fun plying their craft than he does.

“From an architect`s standpoint, I’m really lucky to be able to live in a small town,” Howorth said. “I’m trying to do more of my work locally so I don`t have to spend a lot of time on the road, and because it is rewarding to make a difference in a small town. It is almost like working in a laboratory. Every project I work on has a disproportionate impact. In a big city, unless you are involved in the project the scale of the World Trade Center, people don`t notice it that much.

“Working in a small town, projects cycle much faster – two instead of five years. You see results right away. You have a real opportunity to shape the environment where people live in a positive way.”

Howorth said the practice of architecture stands on three legs – design, technology and service.

“As our most expensive, complex and durable artifacts, our buildings measure and indicate our culture`s values – some constant, some changing,” he said. “Howorth & Associates seeks to define our present in buildings that connect our past with our future.”

Howorth & Associates does a lot historic preservation work involving renovation and restoration. Currently the firm is involved with restoration work at famous Rowan Oak, William Faulkner`s house.

Another interesting historic renovation project recently was the adaptive reuse of the old Tatum Lumber Company building in Hattiesburg for the headquarters of the Molpus Woodlands Group. Molpus Woodlands Group bought the two buildings that were an office and commissary at the height of the timber boom in Mississippi.

The former Tatum buildings, located in the community of Bonhomie near Highway 11 in South Hattiesburg, had a number of unique features such as all heart pine lumber and fireplace mantles made of quarter-sawn long leaf pine that looks like burled walnut.

“One of most rewarding things to do as an architect is to take an old building at the end of its useful service life, and put a 21st-century function in it to give it another 100 years of life,” Howorth said.

Howorth & Associates does a good bit of work for the government, most of it in the renovation and restoration area. The firm has also designed some major laboratories for the University of Mississippi. But the firm may suffer from what could be called the home court disadvantage when it comes to competing for larger contracts from Ole Miss.

“The University of Mississippi dominates the economic landscape of Oxford,” Howorth said. “The university tends to like to hire Jackson-based architects. Once I moved to Oxford, I was no longer an expert because I was local.

“The problem with Oxford is it is basically a one-client town. When I was in Jackson, we were doing a lot of work for the university. I was never willing to move up to Oxford until I was confident that I would be able to support the firm if we never got another university contract. Given the vagaries of funding for public universities, and the prospect that any favorite client can all of the sudden have another favorite architect, I didn`t want to be in the position that if we didn`t get hired by the university, we wouldn`t succeed. We only moved to Oxford when I was confident there was enough other work to support us.”

Since moving to Oxford, Howorth & Associates continues to work for Ole Miss – just not as much as they would like.

One area of practice they didn`t do much with before moving to Oxford was custom residential work. But now the firm does a lot of work in that area including projects at the home of Morgan Freeman, and homes for U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Jim Barksdale.

“We are doing some pretty large residences now,” Howorth said. “Since I’ve been in Oxford, the scale of the projects that we are working on that are residential is tremendous. Here lately we’re doing some work for condominium projects. Over the years, I have tended to avoid doing those kinds of projects because I have a bad habit of wanting to be paid for my work. Lots of developers want to speculate at the architect`s expense. They feel if they don`t build what you design, they don`t owe you anything. But you do a large portion of your work before the first nail is ever driven.”

Howorth is taking on the current projects because he has confidence in the developers he is working with.

“We are very clear about what our mutual expectations are,” Howorth said. “Also, the developers who come to our firm are really looking for some design value added. They are not looking to throw together a shoddy project. We don`t have anything to contribute to that process.”

Currently Howorth & Associates is working on three condominium projects with a fourth in the wings. Howorth attributes that strong amount of activity to the low interest rates combined with growth at the university and in the population of Oxford.

Churches are also a major growth area for their practice.

“We’re very ecumenical, currently working on projects for the Oxford-University United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church and a complete new facility for St. John`s Catholic Church, all in Oxford,” Howorth said.

The firm projects average in the range of $500,000 up to $5 million or $6 million. For bigger projects, Howorth usually works in partnership with other, larger architectural firms.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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