For a noted San Antonio architecture firm, its roots in the past are its greatest source of innovation and progress.
Ford, Powell & Carson (FPC), established 82 years ago by famed architect O’Neil Ford, the only individual ever named a National Historic Landmark, is known for its celebrated founder, historic preservation, as an incubator for future architects, and some of the city’s most iconic structures.
Now with a woman at the helm, a new home and refreshed branding, FPC is striding into the future.
Last year, the historic firm named principal Rachel Wright president, and recently announced that it is now majority woman-owned, qualifying as a historically underutilized business entity and as a woman-owned business by the South Central Texas Regional Certification Agency.
Wright, 40, is a protégé of principal and preservation architect Carolyn Peterson. Hired in 1964, Peterson was, just two years later, assigned to lead the high-profile restoration of Mission San Juan Capistrano. This at a time when only 1% of registered architects were women, according to the American Institute of Architects. In 1979, FPC named Peterson a principal.
“Us becoming a woman-owned business is really just a reflection of the leadership that we had,” Wright said. “FPC has empowered women starting with Carolyn 40 years ago. So these 11 women taking ownership is a long time coming. It wasn’t like an abrupt flip of a switch.”
A San Antonio native, Wright worked at the firm Fisher Heck after earning her bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Texas at Austin. A mentor suggested she pursue an internship at FPC while earning her master’s in historic preservation from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in New York City.
Working with Peterson taught Wright a lot about preservation and even more about resourcefulness, she said. Wright recalls the day Peterson asked her to go to the Majestic Theater and meet with the engineer about the roof, then left.
“I had no other information,” she said, but Wright finally figured it out on her own, which was core to Peterson’s leadership style. “She’s also left me stranded on the roof of [Mission] San José — I had to figure out how to get down from there.”
After graduating in 2008, Wright returned to her hometown and a full-time role at FPC, and, along with Peterson and Senior Associate Allison Chambers, led the firm’s historic preservation department.
More than a decade later, the field of architecture has expanded to include more women. But visiting construction sites leaves her feeling “acutely aware” she’s working in what’s still very much a man’s world.
“Women have been traditionally underrepresented and as architects; it’s been a male-dominated field,” Wright said, so it’s important to encourage women to stay in architecture and take on leadership roles, “making it as accessible for them as possible and by supporting moms.”
Since being named president, the married mother of two has updated employment policies to be more family-friendly and inclusive, managed the firm through the sudden and unexpected remote work situation during the pandemic, and led the team that recently completed the renovation of City Hall. Her team is now working on restoring the Long Barrack of the Alamo.
In addition to recently developing a post-pandemic return-to-office plan, Wright also shepherded the firm through a rebranding process that resulted in a new logo and website.
Recently, the firm completed restoration of the former home of the defunct San Antonio Light newspaper, then took up residence in the historic building.
In April, the 28 people employed by FPC moved into the restored main floor of the Light Building’s former press room, last used as such in 1993. The spacious area has been turned into collaborative office space for employees. For almost 40 years prior, the firm occupied two floors of an office building on East Commerce in St. Paul’s Square.
Firm principals Adam Reed and John Gutzler served as project leads, drawing up their first plans for the 1930s newspaper building after meeting with owners GrayStreet Partners in 2017. The firm had been searching for a new home at the time, Reed said, and the historic nature of the building and its location a short walk to numerous clients and projects suited FPC’s needs.
The architects are currently the only tenants in the building. For now, they’re coping with ongoing construction on Broadway Street and renovation work to the adjoining Print Building. Architecture firm Gensler is leading that project.
As part of the Light building overhaul, the building’s ornate Spanish-style exterior was cleaned and windows reopened, and the south-facing wall was replaced with a window curtain. The interior of the building, designed by architect Robert B. Kelly, was basic and utilitarian — “a factory for making paper,” Reed said, with large columns spanning all four floors.
Now functional as modern office space, it also serves to exhibit large-scale images of the firm’s work, with natural light streaming into the open-concept work areas. For a meeting room, designers installed massive double doors, hand-carved by Ford’s brother Lyn for a residential project many years ago.
The building’s original lobby entrance has been fully restored with a false ceiling, ductwork, and drywall removed. The original stenciling on the ceiling has been recreated. On shelves lining the walls, Reed and Gutzler created display space for FPC books and artifacts, including the midcentury ceramic Beaumont Mood light fixtures that Ford used in many of his projects.
“It’s a real subtle palette, there’s no loud screaming, trendy things,” Reed said. “That’s because our firm’s always been more about classic spaces and use of material and that the art or the people or the furniture take center stage.”
With its recent leadership changes, the firm is making bold moves into the future. “We are not just an 82-year-old firm, but we are an 82-year-old firm that’s moving forward,” said D’Anna Wallace, marketing manager for FPC. The new branding is intended to reflect that, and despite the change in principals, the firm has never considered a name change.
Ford died in 1982, and partners Boone Powell and Chris Carson retired in 2015 and 2019. Peterson, who led a 1995 preservation project of the Texas Capitol, remains on the board of directors. As president, Wright succeeded principal John Mize, who remains with the firm.
Though taking the reins at FPC was never Wright’s aim, she said she’s gravitated toward it.
“I like architecture a lot, I like drawing, I like the construction,” she said. “The leading-the-people, leading-the-office thing, I didn’t know that I would enjoy it. My favorite thing is really identifying what people are good at and matching them with the right task.”
Now settled into the firm’s new home, Wright is looking forward to a project restoring the 1932 Jefferson High School building. She hopes to get students involved and as a result interested in a future career in architecture.
Historic buildings are a mystery and they hold secrets about what they want to be, she said. The job of an architect is how to be a good steward of them.