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Smith celebrates five decades as a Jackson architect

Jackson — Thomas Smith has reasons to celebrate. He has been a professional architect for 51 years and married to his wife, Nell, for 50 years. A 1954 graduate of Auburn University, he has worked for firms of various sizes, had his own firm, and for the past nine years worked at JH&H Architects, Planners and Interiors.

“It’s been a fast 50 years and I have no regrets. I have enjoyed architecture and I still do,” he said.

He says he’s liked all of it and it would be difficult to choose what part of his profession he likes best although reading and research are at the top of the list. The quality of JH&H’s library played a part in his decision to affiliate with them after he was no longer interested in running his firm, Smith & Associates.

“I was in my early 70s but wanted to keep my hand in,” he said. “I guess I like work. I know I average 40 hours a week, but I enjoy work and being active.”

Daniel Green of JH&H says of the 77-year-old Smith, “He is still contributing his vast knowledge of the architectural discipline to our architects and interns alike. He has contributed greatly to the quality control of the projects that he currently oversees.”

The gentlemanly, scholarly Thomas Smith grew up in Laurel where he was a regular visitor to the Lauren Rogers Museum.

“There was a suit of armor there that might as well have been King Arthur’s armor, “ he recalls. “My friends and I were in our glory. I still like to stop by the museum.”

He was destined for a career in architecture when he was exposed to drawing in the seventh grade in Laurel and exposed to drafting in high school and at Jones County Junior College.

“It intrigued me and I read all about architecture and schools of architecture while I was in the Navy,” he said. “I worked in the hospital corps at night and had time to read.”

Upon leaving the Navy, Smith was ready to enter architecture school but Mississippi had no such school at that time. The Alabama Polytechnic Institute at Auburn, Ala., had an architecture school and was the closest to his hometown. That was before the college became Auburn University. Smith’s class ring from 1954 says Alabama Polytechnic Institute. He also notes that those were the days when students had to show up for graduation ceremonies to actually graduate.

“It was a good school and had a good reputation,” he said.

A long-distance courtship and marriage brought Smith to Jackson. He met Nell when her roommate married a relative of his. “I was intrigued by their apartment in a large Greek Revival house,” he said. “Then I saw their bookcase and I was captivated.”

He goes on to recall that Nell and her roommate served canned biscuits, something he had never seen before. “They were so perfect and pretty so I’ve told my granddaughters not to overlook that sort of thing,” he says.

After their marriage, Smith moved to Jackson because Nell was already gainfully employed here. He joined the architectural firm of Briggs, Weir & Chandler where he worked for 12 years and says he grew up. The Smiths have two daughters, three grandsons and three granddaughters. The whole family recently returned from a cruise to Hawaii in celebration of the Smiths’ golden wedding anniversary. The daughters are Susan Elliott, a math teacher at Jackson Academy, and Janet Marie Smith, an architect who is vice president of planning and development for the Boston Red Sox and develops historical buildings in Baltimore where she lives.

Reflecting on the way architecture was before the age of computers; Smith says he used T-squares and pencils, then graduated to parallel bars and styluses. All wording was hand lettered using India ink and dip pens. Templates were used for titles.

“Blueprints were vital,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a firm that uses blueprints anymore. This may surprise you, but I’m the only person in the office who’s not computer literate.”

He likes the way computer technology has speeded up the architectural process and made it more versatile but says certain principles still remain. “Good design is still good design and good construction techniques have not changed,” he said. “To do proper design, you must do proper programming to determine the client’s needs and how to meet those needs.”

In his 50 years as an architect, Smith has not had a favorite style, maintaining that the style must always meet the needs of the client. He has done very little residential design but has done a lot of institutional design, including Hinds General Hospital, the speech and communications center at the W, and Crossgates United Methodist Church.

“We were forced to do everything in small firms and were challenged to do everything,” he said. “One time someone said ‘get one of your draftsmen to do it.’ My partner and I looked at each other and asked ‘Which one of us will do it?’”

He says he always liked to convince owners that buildings could be better utilized and found it pleasant to take older buildings and convert them to different uses. “I like seeing results and I like things that are mentally challenging,” he affirms. “My profession is mentally challenging. It’s the thing I know best and do best so that’s why I stay active in it.”

Smith also likes keeping up with the new techniques of architecture. These days he mainly does quality control working with young architects. “I like the professional way they do work at JH&H and enjoy my association with them,” he said. “My wife said it’s a good thing for me to be with them.”

In addition to his profession, Thomas Smith has had a mentally challenging hobby for 50 years — stamp collecting. He wants to leave his collection in tact and find a good home for it.

“I have gone through many evolutions of stamp collecting,” he said. “I have stamps from extinct Mississippi post offices such as Gowdy, Miss., which was near Jackson State University, and Asylum, Miss., which was in the Fondren area. I research the history of each one.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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