As published in Thicket magazine
Architect and native son Bobby McAlpine realizes this childhood dream of building spaces that satisfy the spirit and enliven the imagination.
A gracious southerner with a romantic sensibility, architect and designer Bobby McAlpine has launched careers, spawned a legion of imitators, and for the past 25 years has created a successful business dedicated to the art of living well.
Quoting esoteric music lyrics or expounding on the poetic nature of inspiration, all with an entertaining flair and a humble sincerity, McAlpine is as captivating and eclectic as a character straight from the pages of a Truman Capote story. Born in the sawmill town of Vredenburgh, close to Monroeville, McAlpine never settled in one home for long. His father, an itinerant mill manager, moved the family from one small town to another. Constant relocation forced McAlpine to turn inward, to cultivate an interior world, a sanctuary and reprieve. “I was not a person shaped by exposure or education,” he recalls. “I created paradise inside of myself. I have been building a house inside myself since I was a little boy and I’m still working on it.”
What at first glance might seem like an impoverished childhood has been a great advantage, McAlpine says. “As southerners we experience a lot of isolation and because of that, there’s a lot of appetite born and gladness to accept eccentricity. There’s an internal worldliness that comes into play. And when your surroundings are not up to your heart’s expectations, you find a way to make it so.”
When he was in ninth grade, McAlpine lived in Haleyville, a small town with a rare commodity, an architect. McAlpine gravitated to the architect’s office, and later, when he graduated from high school, he attended the only college he knew, Auburn University, which also happened to have one of the premiere architecture schools in the country. In a program created specifically for him, he obtained a degree in architecture and interior design in six years. He later taught at Auburn for nine years.
After graduating from college, McAlpine moved to Alexandria, Virginia, but one year later headed south again, and by chance, settled in Montgomery, starting his own firm in 1983. McAlpine’s work was soon featured in Southern Living and Southern Accents and has continued to garner national recognition since. Greg Tankersley joined him in 1985 and became his business partner in 1997.
McAlpine says the interior design side of his business, McAlpine Booth & Ferrier Interiors, established in 1997 and located in Atlanta and New York, has always been part of firm’s mindset. “We created this part of practice defensively. We were doing inheritable, good work, but the vehicle to recognize the architecture is through the interior design publications industry,” he explains. Adding this end of the business was “putting the rest of colors in the crayon box to flesh out the vision.”
Next, he found himself custom designing pieces of one-of-a-kind furniture he couldn’t find anywhere else. Again, this particular aspect of the business, now McAlpine Home, had always been an avid interest of his, his college thesis being on furniture design.
McAlpine now lives in Nashville, but the company, with 18 architects and 18 interior designers, remains based in Montgomery, where architects live within walking distance of the office. McAlpine describes his company, composed mostly of people who have worked with him for 20 years or more, as a group of “peers and great friends who have woven their lives around each other. The work is gravy.” When McAlpine hires new people he says, “I don’t Google them. I don’t pour over drawings. I rarely ever ask to see their work. I look them in the eyes and talk to them. Is there tenderness and compassion in their delivery and tone and how they answer?”
Compatibility is important when designing and building a house from inception to completion. McAlpine explains that the design process alone takes nine to twelve months and construction can last one to three years. Typically, the firm manages 20 projects annually, but usually has 30 to 40 things in progress during a given year.
McAlpine’s clients are “independent minded and resourceful,” and have made a concerted effort to find him. Staying in Montgomery as long as he did became a “self editing process” McAlpine says. “The people who find me seek me out, and I know they really want me. I wasn’t across the room at the country club wearing a seersucker suit for the past 10 years.” He also says his clients aspire to something different from the expected. “Many houses built today are like a five-can casserole with everything in it, and they have a short shelf life. You’ve got to have a modest and tender quotient to render a house attractive.”
As of yet, McAlpine says his business has not been adversely impacted by the downturn in the economy. “Most of my clients operate at high level of confidence and plow on through.” McAlpine’s development, Quattuor, located on Highway 30-A in Inlet Beach, Florida, offers only four residences, and his project The Camp at the Ridge on Lake Martin has been successful in fulfilling its intent, he says.
Gifted and single-minded, McAlpine has been living, eating, and breathing his passion since he was a little boy growing up in rural Alabama. Consequently, throughout McAlpine’s career, architecture has not simply been a profession; it has become a curative path for him personally. “If you’re smart, you find work that heals you, and it’s not unusual if you’re on a lifelong search to discover what home is for you, you would get into the business of making homes.”