Freeman Kennett Architects and the reawakening of High Point
By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Michael Blevins & Amy Freeman
On a quiet afternoon as winter gives way to an early spring, upstairs in a cozy office on High Point’s busy North Main Street, architect Peter Freeman glances at his left foot and laughs.
“That will teach me to go away on a vacation.”
His left foot and calf are wrapped in a thick cast from recent surgery for a torn Achilles tendon suffered on the cobblestones of Old Madrid during a vacation last October. The leg in question rests on a miniature rolling trolley.
The irony, of course, is that Freeman and his partner, John Kennett, aren’t just among the busiest architects in High Point, a city that’s in the midst of a significant economic renaissance they both helped create and are benefiting from; they’re probably among the busiest — and most creative — in the entire South at the moment.
“It’s amazing what’s finally happening in High Point,” Freeman is moved to say. “There’s so much energy around the university and the baseball park and a reawakening of the furniture market that has new people coming here every day. We’re just thrilled to be part of that comeback.”
Indeed, over the past five or six years, the partners of Freeman Kennett are responsible for designing at least a dozen new buildings that are redefining the profile and skyline of downtown High Point, including the first new buildings raised in the furniture market district since the 1980s. The structures are as strikingly beautiful as they are multifunctional.
Not surprisingly, trustees of the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame, an industry-wide organization founded to preserve the history and contributions of the home furnishings industry, awarded the duo a coveted contract. Chosen over a number of leading design firms, Freeman Kennett’s signature will be reflected throughout the new home of the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame, a multimedia showplace and museum that is expected to open sometime in April 2021. In many ways, their design success story is a mirror of High Point’s own rise and decline and rebirth over the past few decades, for the two histories dovetail almost perfectly.
Peter’s grandfather, William F. Freeman, was a civil and architectural engineer who started his firm on Main Street in 1929. His son, William Freeman, Jr., joined the firm in the 1950s and together they made it a design powerhouse across the region.
Among their notable local creations: They did the original designs for Bald Head Island’s development, both Beech and Sugar Mountain resorts, including the Land of Oz theme park and hundreds of colleges, medical buildings, public schools, private residences and corporate offices across the Southeast.
At their peak in the 1970s, the firm employed 75 workers and maintained branch offices in Santiago, Chile, the Virgin Islands and Madrid, Spain. They even had offices in the infamous Watergate building in Washington, D.C.
“They really went everywhere in those days,” Peter remembers. “As a result, I got to spend my seventh grade living in Spain.”
John Kennett’s family was a mainstay in High Point’s thriving retail furniture scene, owners of iconic Wood Armfield, having opened its doors in 1939, and Utility Craft. During the peak days of High Point’s retail furniture, according to Charlie Simmons, the de facto ambassador of the Southern furniture industry, High Point’s Main Street was once home to 40 or more retail furniture stores.
“As late as the early 1990s,” says John Kennett, “the city was a travel destination for buying furniture. Someone who lived in New York City, for example, could hop a flight to the Triad, stay in a nice hotel for several days while they purchased furniture, then fly home for much less than they could buy the same furniture back home. That’s why High Point was the furniture Mecca of America.”
The handwriting on the wall, most industry watchers agree, began when major manufacturers began opening their own retail stores in places other than High Point — offering competitive pricing and swift delivery. Venerable names like Thomasville and Bassett followed this prescription, and other big names followed suit.
Then along came the Internet, direct sales and shipping to customers, dispersing the retail flow even as traditional manufacturing moved offshore to Asia and other cheaper locations.
By the year 2000, as one North Carolina furniture expert once described it, “High Point looked like a ghost town — the place that used to be Furniture Town USA.”
After expanding to the Northern Virginia market (Gallahan Furniture, Fredricksburg) Kennett’s own family closed Wood Armfield’s High Point retail store in 2006. Kennett had joined Freeman in 1998 just as Peter merged his firm with Hayes-Howell, another longtime architectural firm based in Southern Pines. The new partnership specialized in designing buildings for public schools, colleges and universities.
In 2005, after a slowdown in state funding for such construction, Freeman and Hayes- Howell amicably parted ways, allowing Freeman to hang a new shingle with partner John Kennett, a natural pairing born and bred in the city of High Point.
“It was a bit challenging in the early days,” John recalls, “but Peter and I realized that we simply weren’t having fun anymore.” The pair quickly found new energy and inspiration in the form of local residential work and smaller-scale jobs that came their way as word of mouth spread, including design work for the likes of High Point Friends School and new club houses for Oak Hollow and Jamestown Park golf clubs. “The city was still in a recession but these local projects really connected us with the people of our city in a new way.”
They also found new life in restoration of some of the city’s most notable historic homes and estates. Chief among among them was Hillbrook Mansion in Emerywood, a 1931 Luther Lashmit Norman Tudor design that featured hidden doorways to bathrooms and closets. Another showstopper was the Henley Estate, a comprehensive reworking of the 7,000-square-foot Luther Lashmit mansion on Ferndale Avenue.
“The restoration work was really fun, challenging and different,” Peter remembers. “It stretched our creativity and really laid the foundation for what we are doing today.”
So did their firm’s key involvement a decade ago in something called Ignite High Point, a grassroots organization of business and community leaders that grew out of Peter’s and John’s initiative to create a “Hometown Revival” by reimagining the look and prospects of North Main Street. After raising more than $400,000, in partnership with the High Point’s business community, the Ignite plan identified 13 core projects designed to enhance the human scale of the city and “fill the gaps” left by the departed furniture world. With insights from celebrated architect and city planner Andrés Duany, who was brought in to consult on the ambitious transformation, the foundation was laid for the city’s rebirth.
“A lot of great ideas large and small came out of that collaboration,” Peter remembers. “It really led to an awakening across the city and a new human scale for the city at large, in turn rumblings for a new ballpark and the amazing growth of High Point University. The timing couldn’t have been better for everyone involved. That was about the time the furniture market began its own revival.”
Depending on who’s telling the story, High Point Market’s impressive revival either began when furniture manufacturers who’d fled to Southeast Asia for cheaper production costs discovered traditional American craftsmanship was more dependable and cost-effective in the long run, or because many of the industry’s leading and most creative designers began migrating to High Point where they found both an eager and skilled workforce and lower production and workspace costs.
In truth, it was probably a combination of these factors plus the city’s historic reputation as the capital of American furniture that sparked the comeback.
Emblematic of this growth was the stunning building Freeman Kennett designed in collaboration with Christopher Harrison, founder and head designer for Christopher Guy furniture brand, for the International Market Center – High Point’s first stand-alone new showroom built since the late 1980s.
The stark white modern design features 30-foot continuous glass windows ascending from endless edge reflecting pools and a showroom area with a 40-foot ceiling and a dramatic “floating” spiral staircase connecting to the main exhibit areas. Upon its opening in 2018, the building became the buzz of the fall Market and quickly symbolized the new urban face of the Market Center.
“Christopher [Guy] Harrison — he’s the English owner and designer — really wanted something that looked like Rodeo Drive, elegant, oversized, dramatic and with an inviting flow,” Peter says. “It was as much a statement about his brand as it was a showroom. He was demanding but really fun to work with.”
“Clients began to call us,” adds John Kennett, “curious to see what else we could do — having realized that they didn’t have to stay hidden in the IHFC main building or some dated building downtown. They realized, ‘Hey, if we move out, we can make our own statement about our brand and who we are.’”
In a nutshell, this is the logic that brought a succession of spectacular showrooms Freeman Kennett’s way, including a bold transformation of the former midcentury Wachovia Bank building off Wrenn Street that features a “glowing” monumental stairway to a rooftop garden for Made Goods and Ardmore Design. Equally dynamic are a pair of modern showroom homes for Art Addiction and a geometrically complex 70,000-square-foot corporate office and dual showroom complex for Markor Art Center, designed to resemble a giant opening Asian fan.
One side of the Markor building houses the showroom and administrative offices for Caracole Furniture using a softer, curvilinear motif that company owner and designer Richard Feng describes as a “fine wine.” The opposite side of the structure houses the firm’s ART Furniture showroom, offices and conference space using an avant-garde aesthetic the owner – China’s largest importer of American furniture – refers to as “fine whiskey.” Both spaces cleverly employ indirect natural lighting to give their exhibition spaces the feel of a fine museum. On the roof is a stunning entertainment area that features a spectacular rooftop bar and 40-foot-diameter glass dome, providing views of the entire the Market district. During furniture market, the venue is among the hottest hospitality sites in town.
“That project took us to China,” Peter explains, “and working with Richard Feng was quite an experience. He’s a gifted artist who knew what he wanted and was deeply immersed in the process from beginning to end. That kind of collaboration with our clients is central to our working philosophy. It’s their vision we’re out to create.”
This same versatility defines the duo’s latest projects, including a bold restoration of the city’s historic YMCA building for an Arkansas furniture firm that will use its original restored basketball court (where Wilt Chamberlain once competed) as its showroom and the building’s basement swimming pool, covered with glass and lighted from beneath, as a dramatic showcase for outdoor furniture line. A new glass atrium entrance is currently under construction. The building’s planned opening is the fall market this year.
The Comeback Kids have several other significant projects underway around town, including new designs for Bethany Medical Center and Peters Development complex, not to mention new development around the baseball stadium area where a European food hall is scheduled to soon open.
The American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame building, however, projected to open sometime in 2021, holds a special place in hearts of these hometown designers.
“It is shaped to look like an old-fashioned furniture factory done in glass, a modern take of the city’s heritage as the home of furniture-making,” John Kennett explains. “A tribute to how all of this began.”
The 20,000-square-foot structure will boast a giant “live digital wall” and atrium that tells the story of the furniture industry in America, a museum and large public gallery, meeting and research facilities, and a auditorium for the annual induction of new members of the Hall.
“We think it’s really going to be something very special for anyone who lives here or simply comes to High Point,” says Peter Freeman with his infectious hometown grin.
“Maybe by then, I’ll even be able to actually walk into it on my own two feet!”
Jim Dodson is the editor of Seasons and its flagships, O.Henry, PineStraw and Salt.