Imagine you’re a talented young man with a gift for drawing, who’s lived his whole life in the same town. You go to architecture school in the same town, as well. And then, right out of school, you win the Paris Prize in Architecture. Well, that’s James Choate, AIA, principal at Surber Barber Choate + Hertlein Architects of Atlanta, who leads a somewhat charmed life in design.

“I went to college in the early 1980s at Georgia Tech, and then entered this design competition. And I won the thing,” says Jim, seemingly still a little surprised at his good fortune. “They gave me six months to travel around Western Europe, and all I had to do was mail back sketches of what I saw. I was like George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ I had never been on a train or gone anywhere outside of Georgia.”

To say the experience was eye-opening for the budding architect is an understatement. It was mind-blowing and, ultimately, life-changing. “I wandered the streets of Paris, London, Rome. I saw great things—limestone, scale, texture, patina. That really resonated with me.” And he capped the experience with a stint at Cambridge, a place he’s returned to over the years since. An abiding love of honest materials, pleasing dimension, and balanced proportion has continued to permeate Jim’s 30-year career since. The singular experience also shaped his broad interest and abilities in multiple periods of architecture. He is stylistically agnostic, because he’s architecturally omnivorous. Materials, dimension, and proportion have no dietary restrictions.

“When I’m looking to be entertained, I’ll pick up a history book,” he says. “That’s what traditional architecture is—it’s evidence of history. Beyond all that, it comes down to the fundamentals of composition: symmetry, or balanced asymmetry; proportion; cadence. I got to evaluate examples firsthand, and that’s been backed up by books that break down proportions. But it really helps to have spent a lot of time traveling and looking at those things. Each time I’ve returned to Cambridge, I’ve seen it in a different light and noticed it in different ways.”

After his grand tour, Jim returned to Atlanta and joined the premier firm Surber + Barber Architects. “Gene [Eugene] Surber was the preservation guy in Atlanta. In the office were all these old drawings and chunks of balustrade,” Jim recalls. “I was struck by that continuum of creativity from antiquity. And here I am, 30 years later, owning the firm.”

From the very beginning, he was given an unusual amount of freedom and responsibility. Part of that was due to the prestigious glow of the Paris Prize, and part of it came from the talent that earned him the fellowship in the first place—his gift for hand drawing. “It helped in meetings with clients that I could just draw something on the fly and say, ‘What about this?’” he says. “I could also draw upside down.”

That, no doubt, impressed everyone. “It gave me an advantage early on,” Jim confirms. “Within my first year of getting out of school, Gene Surber and Rusty Barber—who were two of the most fine, good people—gave me a house project and said, go design it.”

Another stroke of good luck came from an interior designer acquaintance, who knew of an extended family that needed an architect. First came one high-end house commission, then another, and then three more. All over the country. All designed by Jim when he was just in his 20s. “It was amazing for a kid to be able to do,” he says. “Everything I got to work on, I got to design.”

What’s more, the clients were deep pocketed, refined in their tastes, and graciously hands-off. “They were just the right kind of clients—they told you what they wanted, sat back and let you respond, and then gave thoughtful suggestions. And they were open to materials. I got to indulge my desire to use stone,” he says.

The houses occupied enviable sites in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Seattle; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Naples, Florida; and Cashiers, North Carolina. The buildings were modern, traditional, transitional. They employed the best materials, in service to Jim’s muscular, meticulous architecture—the result of some 60 to 100 pages of drawings per project. Very few clients in the region are willing to pay for such care and attention on their house projects, but somehow Jim found that rare vein of gold—the true patron client.

The synergy of talent and kismet has earned the firm dozens of awards over the years, many of them for Jim’s houses specifically. Surber Barber Choate + Hertlein is now on its second generation of partners, with Jim still primarily focusing on his house commissions and Dennis Hertlein, AIA, handling more of the preservation, commercial, and multifamily work.

Apart from Jim’s custom residential practice, the firm is best known for its rehabilitation and repurposing of a Sears distribution center’s 2.1 million square feet into the mixed-use Ponce City Market in 2015. The 16-acre project combines housing, retail, restaurants, and a tie-in with the Atlanta BeltLine—the Southern city’s version of New York’s High Line, albeit even further reaching and more ambitious. The vibrant urban project has catalyzed a moribund section of Atlanta known as the Old Fourth Ward and become a go-to activity zone for residents and tourists alike. It’s won multiple design and preservation awards.

Making Rain

The diversity and complexity of the firm’s commissions is compelling for everyone who works there. But as Jim approaches his milestone 60th birthday, there’s a growing acknowledgment that he and his partner Dennis (who just turned 60) need to establish value for the firm that’s transferable to the next generation. The rainmakers must ensure the flow of work for others.

“I’ve never had to market,” says Jim. “I’ve had more than enough work from organic word of mouth. But Dennis and I are the old-growth tree, my organic word of mouth is not transferable. And the introvert approach to business is perhaps not the best way to go.”

To that end, the firm is uploading its work to online architecture galleries and social media sites. The efforts are gaining traction. “We put a few houses up on one site and got thousands of likes,” he says.

And they rehired Debbie Fritz, a key architecture employee they lost in the last recession, who’s helping to sharpen the firm’s message and presentation in the marketplace. Her first order of business? A complete overhaul and relaunch of the firm’s website—a task that was much overdue.

She was actually tasked with leading the redesign of two websites. There’s a central website for the firm (sbcharch.com) and one exclusively devoted to Jim’s custom residential work (choatehouses.com)—with links back to each site from the other. Segregating the two sites is a tantalizing idea. Jim was concerned that his custom residential practice could be lost among the firm’s bigger, attention-getting projects. “We thought the custom clients might feel intimidated about approaching the firm that did Ponce City Market with their smaller house projects.”

Both websites are much streamlined and simplified, allowing the work to shine on its own merits. And navigation is vastly improved. Jim’s residential site now organizes the work by style, showcasing his virtuosity. His portfolio is admirably far flung, with projects in Mexico, Colorado, Connecticut, California, Washington. Most of these have originated from Atlanta clients spreading their wings elsewhere, but there’s no doubt that the firm’s invigorated marketing efforts will result in a more diverse client base as well. Maybe he’ll do another penthouse for Jane Fonda, whose Atlanta pied-à-terre he designed in the 1990s.

Taliesin South

So, what kind of house does the Paris Prize wunderkind live in himself? It’s neither strictly traditional nor purely modern, but it’s a classic in its own right—or should we say Wright?

“Five years ago, a friend sent me an email telling me I had to go see a house that was recently on the market,” he recalls. “The house was by Robert Green. He was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices. When Wright died, he moved to Atlanta for a commission, and ended up staying here. He was just a few months out of Taliesin and the house has a lot of that DNA. Lots of redwood and stone. The home has not one molecule of sheetrock in it.”

Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, Jim’s house has required some remediation under his ownership and had had several renovations over prior years—several of them led by Robert Green himself. But Jim couldn’t be more delighted in how the place lives. “For some people, the house is a shock, because we spend so much time around eggshell painted sheetrock. And this house has old-growth redwood, all that glass, and stone,” he explains.

“The eye takes in values from white to black, and the house changes so much with the transition of light through the day. It’s so three-dimensional, it recomposes itself every time you move through it. I think about all those things when I’m designing—light to dark, smooth to textural, how one material meets another.”

The lessons of the Paris Prize infuse his work, adding a voluptuousness that’s rare in residential architecture today—especially modern houses. Creativity on the continuum from antiquity, indeed.


Houses by James Choate

Project information provided by the architect

House Near the Marsh

Bray’s Island Plantation, South Carolina

Photography: Phillip Spears

The project is a single-family house located on an isthmus between a pond and a freshwater marsh, on a spot of ground ringed by unusually tall and slender live oak trees. The focus of the house is a large room with walls of glass providing views of the natural setting. The house is built to age gracefully by using materials like cedar, copper, board-formed concrete and stacked stone. Winner: 2011 AIA Georgia Honor Award

 


House and Guest House Near Monterrey

San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico

On a site tucked under the northern ridge of the “El Cerro de Chipinque” in northeast Mexico, this house is composed of vertical planes of concrete, which define interior and exterior zones of living, maximizing views of the parallel ridgeline. The composition is an honest expression of materials, selected to provide a range of textures, and configured to provide a hierarchy of scale.

Photography: Phillip Spears

 

 


House in Mountain Brook

Mountain Brook, Alabama

Photography: Phillip Spears

 


House Near Los Angeles

Belmont Shores, California

Photography: Phillip Spears


House in the Berkshires

Salisbury, Connecticut

Photography: Phillip Spears


House on Elder Mountain

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photography: Gabriel Benzur


House Near Seattle

Woodway, Washington

Photography: Fred Housel


House in Oklahoma

Tulsa, Oklahoma


House in Marietta

Marietta, Georgia

Photography: Usha Menard


House Near Whiteside Mountain

Cashiers, North Carolina

Photography: Rion Rizzo