When it gathers for its annual gala on October 20, the East Tennessee Community Design Center will honor a person who has designed a large percentage of the best renovations and restorations in our city. He’s also designing new construction which will change the face of the city. And he has one of the best and least probable stories you’ll hear. With the city in decline in the 1960s, buildings falling to ruin and citizens fleeing to the promise of the suburban lifestyle, one of the key players who would help restore the city to health forty years and more later was born in Amman, Jordan, half a world away.
Faris lived with his Palestinian parents and grandfather in a home which was inexpensively leased years before and, basically, rent controlled. His father was a machinist for an airline and worked hard to send the children to private schools. Faris was stronger in math and science, and says he didn’t excel in literature, though he grew up speaking Arabic, English, Greek and French. He notes that, regretfully, he’s lost the French over the years. Also important to his story was the uncle who worked as an architect in Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait.
His family traveled to the U.S. in 1970 where they visited extended relations in Detroit, Oklahoma City and San José where they were urged to move to the United States for the economic opportunities afforded here. By 1973 it appeared the family’s financial situation would likely erode in Jordan and, after making arrangements to be sponsored by an uncle in Detroit, the family moved to the states on September 25, 1975, settling briefly in Detroit before joining an aunt and her husband in Knoxville. His father thought he had a job lined up here, but it didn’t materialize and his parents eventually opened the first of several small grocery stores in the 4th and Gill neighborhood. The building still stands at the end of Luttrell Street.
Faris entered ninth grade at Whittle Springs Middle School and then attended Fulton, from which he graduated in 1979. He said school felt like an experiment. His English was broken and communication with peers was difficult. He never knew who would be kind and who would not respond well to him because he was different. He said, like so many students who have a hard time fitting in, he found refuge in art classes, saying that was, “where I found my comfort.”
From an early age, observing his architect uncle, he’d determined that would be his life course and he never wavered. Attending UT on a grant, for which he is immeasurable grateful even today, he obtained his BA in Architecture in 1983. With Knoxville’s economy struggling in the wake of the World’s Fair and the Butcher banking empire collapse, he set his sights on a job in Atlanta.
He speaks fondly of his five-and-a-half years in Atlanta. He earned his license in three years and the company allowed him great freedom, which accelerated his learning. He worked on hotels and a conference center and by the end of his tenure there he was leading the company’s largest project: a seventeen story Hilton with a $26,000,000 dollar budget.
But he felt a pull to Knoxville. His parents were aging and when his aunt and uncle, Renée and Sameer Jubran lost their Fort Sanders business, the Falafel Hut, to a fire and he returned to Knoxville to design a new building and oversee its construction which was being handled by Denark Construction. It was the first building he designed on his own and, he thinks, the first that company built. Still standing, it currently is home to Caiyo’s Thai restaurant at 601 James Agee Street.
That success behind him, he stayed in Knoxville to found Design Innovation Architects. With no debt and unmarried at the time, he didn’t see it as a big risk, saying “If something feels right, as long as it is not a big risk, give it a try.” He joined forces with Denark, co-owning his new company and leasing space from them for several years, first in Homberg (above and to the back of the current Shuck location) and then in Mechanicsville at 17th and Western. He rented space from them and shared a secretary.
Claiming to know nothing about business, he none-the-less succeeded and bought all the shares to the business in the early years. When Denark brought on Frank Rothermel and needed office space for themselves, Faris moved into a building owned by Frank located just behind what was then the 5th Avenue Motel and is now Minvilla. He continued to build a portfolio, but wanted to grow cautiously. He points out that he’d done no wood construction in Atlanta and had a steep learning curve when he began work in Knoxville.
He hired Greg Campbell as his first employee and Greg is currently vice-president of the firm. He notes with some pride that many of his former employees now have their own firms. David Ewing, a CPA who currently has his business on Gay Street, offered him a 50% share in a former Roddy home in Fort Sanders and he accepted, making that his headquarters for the next ten years. Perfect initially, after he grew to around fifteen employees, he had people working in the basement and in the attic.
Realizing he’d outgrown the space, he began looking downtown in the mid 2000s, but the buildings he found were in bad shape. Hired to help design the interior of the current Mast General Store in the building being developed by Bob Talbot of Holrob and Wayne Blasius, he was drawn to the building, but Mast purchased the whole building with the intention of leaving the upper three floors empty. He asked them why and was told they did not consider themselves good partners with residents in the same building.
Seeing an opportunity, he offered to purchase the floor above them for offices. Along with John Craig and Wayne Blasius, they purchased the top three floors, which he designed, keeping the front half of the second for his company and building residences on the top two floors. Occupying the building starting in 2006, he sold the rear half of his floor to another company and has continued to grow his company overlooking Gay Street.
He says it has all been made possible through the work of others and the support of his Jerusalem-born wife Ghada who he met after his return from Atlanta and married in 1991. She works as a teaching-coach for the Knox County Schools and they have two sons, Marwan who recently received his degree from UT and is working as a mechanical engineer and Rami who is a Jr. at UT and currently works at Mast General Store.
He also credits his team at Design Innovation Architects who, he points out, do the work. Relationships over the years have mattered tremendously to him and he points out that relationships with clients and with organizations like Knox Heritage and the East Tennessee Community Design Center, as well as with the city officials have been very important to him personally and to the growth of the company.
Saying each project has led to other, often bigger projects, he recalls his work on the TIS Building on Gallaher Road as a turning point. He redesigned the third floor making very little profit, but it led to other projects. He pointed out that Mike Hatcher of Hatcher-Hill was part of that deal and they continue to do business today. He also points to Jefferson Commons in Fort Sanders as a turning point. His largest residential project to that point, he struggled with whether to accept it as the developers had decided to destroy a number of homes to make space for its construction. At the encouragement of several like-minded preservationists, he took the job and parts of his design were incorporated into the codes which were developed later.
Another important early project was taking a warehouse in the northwest corner of Fort Sanders and converting it to residential. He also points to the ten story, “Plaza” on Cumberland and the re-design of “The Tower at Morgan Hill,” at the intersection of Alcoa Highway and Cumberland. He says the company’s office and residential growth followed a similar trajectory. With twenty-two current employees, he feels the company has hit a “sweet spot,” with their projects, work space and team.
The worst time for the company, he says was in the downturn of the economy in 2009 and following. He reduced staff to eight people saying one of the hardest things he ever did was, “letting go of good people.” The remaining employees took 20% cuts in pay and he took even more. He said there were days he came to work and wasn’t certain what he would do when he arrived.
It is his work in downtown’s resurgence that may well form the nexus of his legacy. He talks with pride of his work searching for a solution to preserve the S&W building and the two adjacent buildings when Regal Theater opened downtown. He designed the current incarnations of the residence at 7 Market Square (currently on the market), 17 Market Square (the Chamber and Entrepreneur Center), 29 Market Square and the interior upper levels of 36 Market Square. He was the architect of record for the Phoenix Building (lofts and businesses including the Pheonix Pharmacy) and the Mast General Building. The $25 million renovation of the downtown Holiday Inn was his.
He recently did the renovation of the Patrick Sullivan Building before Tim Love moved Lonesome Dove there. He designed the Medical Arts Building interior transformation to residences and he’s currently doing the re-design of the Farragut Hotel. And little touches with these kinds of projects make all the difference. It was his decision to keep the tile entryway to Annie’s even though the building had to go, with the Patrick Sullivan project, for example. He also proudly showed me a precise replica of the original design work for the Farragut, which his staff had identified from historic photographs and located.
And, in what is his largest downtown residential project, the new Regas Building is his design. He pointed out, justifiably proud, how the building contains all the elements of good urban construction: retail on the street, residences above, appropriate scale, outdoor green space and interior and underground parking. It’s clearly a difference maker in downtown redevelopment. Of course, he’s in discussions about the next projects which will make a difference in the city.
Now imagine downtown Knoxville without all those projects or with each of them taking a different shape. This wouldn’t be the same place. That so much of what we appreciate and identify as our home came at the hands of that young boy born in Amman, Jordan is nothing short of amazing. It’s a good reminder that we celebrate and remember a wide range of people who have helped make this city what it is today.
And so, it is with good reason that Faris Eid will receive the Bruce McCarty Community Impact Award from the East Tennessee Community Design Center. The award, named for the architect who did so much for Knoxville, recognizes an individual who has “demonstrated a commitment to building a better future for this region.” Past recipients include Paul James, Randy and Jenny Boyd, Carol Evans, David Dewhirst and Ashley Capps. The award will be given on October 20 at the Foundry and tickets are available here.
Summing it all up, Faris said, “I feel fortunate to be here. My parents sacrificed, I received grants for education and I want to give back.” He credited Annette Anderson, former director of the East Tennessee Community Design Center as a person who inspired him to give of his time to that organization, to Knox Heritage and other groups. He wants to do more. And I suspect he will do much, much more.