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It Was Always Fun, and It Was Fun, Always: The Legacy of Tom Fernandez

SHP

SHP partner, principal and executive vice president, Tom Fernandez, is sitting in his home office, pausing to reflect on a career that has spanned more than four decades. It’s only natural; after spending the last 27 years at the firm, he will retire at the end of this year to pursue a second act as a jack-of-all trades.

He has big plans, after all: continue donating time to community engagement and service projects, working with bird dogs, building a canoe, visiting his daughters and, most importantly, “trying to stay out the way of my wife!” he explained.

He also plans to renovate a home in Michigan, which is fitting, given his deep and longstanding love affair with his craft. While he’s been working in the architecture and design industry officially since graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1981, one could argue his career goes back much further than that.

 

Getting an Early Start

“Like many designers, I was always interested in architecture, ever since I was eight years old,” he explained.

That love of architecture led to jobs as a laborer and draftsman before Tom entered UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) in 1976. Upon graduation, he was offered the opportunity to work at the firm Murphy/Jahn in Chicago, under a young upstart architect, Helmut Jahn. Jahn had already made a name for himself as a leading interpreter of modernism within Chicago’s robust architectural scene, but Tom was still weighing his options: enter the profession or continue his education in graduate school. Advice from a trusted professor helped seal the deal.

“My senior year, I was trying to decide whether I wanted to go to graduate school or just go to work, so I talked with one of my architectural professors, David Niland,” Tom recalled. “He asked me, ‘Do you want to teach, or do you want to practice?’ and I said, ‘I definitely want to practice.’ He said, ‘Well, then go to Chicago, work with Helmut Jahn and treat that as your graduate school, because you’ll be working with the best of the best.’ And that’s it. My decision was made.

“It turned out to be true, too,” he continued. “When I reflect on my career, I can say I truly worked with the best of the best.”

Tom spent the next couple of years honing his craft at Murphy/Jahn. To hear him tell it, it was a heady, exciting time. From Jahn’s example and tutelage, he learned the value of dedication, hard work and a genuine interest in the contribution that great design can have on the world around us.

“As a young architect, I lived, breathed and ate architecture. I was competitive; I had a drive to see how I stacked up against other talented architects. I didn’t really take vacation time, not that I had any. But it was a phenomenal time and place,” he said.

 

The Lure of Love

The lure of love and family drew him back to Cincinnati in 1984. Working for the City of Cincinnati’s architecture and planning department afforded him the opportunity to explore the city in a way he hadn’t when he was attending college, while stints at several local architecture and design firms gave him experience in urban and healthcare design before he joined SHP in 1994.

It was during this period when Tom made the acquaintance of another upstart, Jim Tarbell. Together, they and several others began pitching the city to replace the aging Riverfront Stadium—longtime home of the Cincinnati Reds—with Broadway Commons, an urban ballpark that would spur economic development, reinvestment and interest in downtown Cincinnati. The grassroots effort centered around building the park on an underutilized and derelict parking lot at the nexus of the city’s downtown neighborhoods: the Central Business District, Pendleton and Over-the-Rhine.

“There was a real conversation happening around what we wanted the City of Cincinnati to be. An urban ballpark encapsulated a lot of big ideas about what a city center could be,” Tom explained.

Even though the dream of Broadway Commons was never fully realized—the proposal was defeated by voters in November 1998, Riverfront Stadium was demolished and replaced by Great American Ballpark, and the derelict parking lot eventually became the Hard Rock Casino—Tom’s pride, his giddiness even, is evident as he reminisces about the project.

“One of the main arguments our opponents made was that the site couldn’t work for a baseball stadium. We decided to prove them wrong. We filed all the right permits, got all the right sign-offs… and then we painted our proposed stadium right there on the parking lot! I remember the woman in the permits department looked at me like I was crazy, but it created quite a stir,” Tom said with a laugh.

He continued, “While we ultimately didn’t prevail, the process was worth it. I’m convinced we changed a few minds through it all. Plus, it was such a hoot coming up with one crazy idea after another to get people talking.”

 

Crazy Ideas and Creating a Stir

Creating a stir and coming up with crazy ideas is a through-line of Tom’s career.  He looks back fondly on his time as program director of AIA Kentucky—an assignment he parlayed into regional and national leadership positions—where he found inventive ways to foster connections and build relationships within the local architecture and design community.

“We rented an entire movie theater to screen the film, The Fountainhead. We organized an overnight road trip to tour a Michael Graves building in Louisville. We brought in a guy who taught us how to blow perfect smoke rings, because everyone thinks all architects do is blow smoke,” he recalled. “I tried not to take everything too seriously.  I woke up every day—I still do—and say, ‘Okay, what can I do today that’s gonna be a lot of fun?’”

Tom admits this attitude has, “gotten me in trouble all my life,” but it has its benefits. “When there’s a room full of people saying, ‘Oh, that’s never going to work,’ I like to be the guy that says, ‘Yeah, let’s try it!’ I like to surround myself with those people.”

That’s one of the pieces of advice he offers for young professionals just entering the field, as well as to the more experienced friends and colleagues he’ll leave behind at SHP.

With nearly 40 years in the business, architect and SHP partner, principal and executive vice president, Tom Fernandez, has pretty much seen it all. Here, he offers his advice to up-and-comers.

“Surround yourself with good people. Leave every place you’ve been a little better than when you got there,” said Tom. “It’s one of the things I have always loved about working at SHP. Service is on the hearts of a lot of people here. That was what attracted me to the firm then, and that’s what will make it hard to leave behind.”

 

A Lasting Legacy

Depending on how you look at it, Tom’s retirement comes at either the perfect time or the worst one. After all, the last year has been fraught with the tensions, uncertainty and rapid change brought about by a global health pandemic. Yet Tom remains buoyantly hopeful for the future of the industry—and the firm.

“The work we do, especially with our focus on education, is a real source of pride,” he explained when asked about some of the things he’ll miss about working at SHP. “We think about the big picture. We think about how many lives we touch on a daily basis, all the different facilities where students and teachers are going. We think about how we’re developing those spaces, how we design to not only provide for functional needs but to create memories. What a tremendous responsibility.”

As he prepares to ride off into the proverbial sunset, we asked Tom about the legacy he hopes to leave. Unsurprisingly, he goes back to the beginning—to the hungry young architect he was at the start of his career, certainly, but also, to his eight-year-old self, who just wanted to design and create beautiful things.

“I hope that’s the legacy I leave behind: that I advocated for the practice of design and that I elevated it from commodity to craft,” Tom shared. “That, and: that it was always fun, and it was fun, always.”

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