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May 2004
Architect’s Passion Shows In Designs That Help Define City
By Ellison Clary

     Perhaps David Wagner’s passion for his adopted city is understandable. The president of Wagner Murray Architects designed some of Charlotte’s most iconic structures and, with a 21st century train station, he’s poised to help create another.

     From Seventh Street Station, which Wagner calls “America’s first musical parking deck,” to South Tryon Square, which he says is Charlotte’s “first re-skinned office tower,” Wagner can point out numerous design contributions, mostly in center city.

     Wagner and partner Mike Murray have grown with Charlotte. After working together as principals at the now defunct firm of Clark Tribble Harris & Li, they formed Wagner Murray Architects in 1989. Since then, they’ve participated in the urban boom that transformed the city in the 1990s and beyond. 

     “Charlotte’s the kind of city where you can build culture,” says Wagner, who moved to the Queen City from his native Pittsburgh in 1974. “Nothing is implanted here, nothing is taken for granted. So we have an opportunity unique for a city our size to position who we are and what we want to be.”

     Wagner says he’s particularly encouraged with the region’s support for building a public transportation system that includes rail as well as buses. He can’t contain his excitement about his firm’s newest project, which he calls career-defining. Wagner Murray will be the designer of record, working with a team of consultants, for the West Trade Street Multi-Modal Station. 

     That station is a major element of the Charlotte Area Transit System’s $2.9 billion transportation plan. At a cost of more than $200 million, the station and track system probably will begin operating late this decade, Wagner reckons. The Amtrak station on North Tryon Street will consolidate with the Greyhound Bus Terminal in the new facility on the bus station site near Gateway Village. That facility also will serve light rail as well as city buses, taxis and personal vehicles and it likely will house retail and offices.

     The multi-modal station will stand a stone’s throw from Gateway Center, which Wagner designed in 1986 while still at Clark Tribble Harris & Li. It was the first structure in what has become West Trade’s Gateway Village, a mixed-use office, residential and commercial center housing a Bank of America technology center as well as the Charlotte campus for Johnson & Wales University.

     As part of the 2025 Integrated Transit/ Land Use Plan for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the new station will be financed with funds from a local half-cent sales tax, as well as from state and federal appropriations.

     Wagner is proud, he says, that the Charlotte region and North Carolina have decided to join states such as California and Florida which are repositioning old rail systems for high speed commuter travel. He sees the design of the multi-modal station as a chance to make “a major statement about Charlotte and where this city is headed.”

     Carroll Gray, president of The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce calls Wagner “a good example of the new Charlotte. David is passionate and he cares,” Gray says, adding, “He gives back to the community.”

     Wagner designed the interior of the Chamber building 10 years ago, including Info Charlotte, an exhibit geared to newcomers and visitors. Last year, Wagner redesigned and upgraded that exhibit, now called Main Street, making it what Gray calls “a microcosm of things to see and do in Charlotte.”  

Firm Benefits From Community’s Rapid Growth

     Wagner praises the city’s political and business leadership for setting the tone for rapid growth. “We’ve had a vision about this city and this community which far exceeds even some of the older cities,” he says.

     The fast growth has been good for Wagner Murray. Among the firm’s projects is the Levine Museum of the New South, which occupies the drastically redesigned space that Clark Tribble Harris & Li once occupied on North College Street.

     “He took a building that felt dark and cramped and closed in and opened it up and created a real sense of volume and light,” says Emily Zimmern, the museum’s executive director. “He was fun to work with. He sees possibilities.”

     Wagner also designed the interior of Bank of America Stadium and revamped an upper level just prior to the 2003 National Football League season for the Carolina Panthers. That initial stadium work led to contracts from the Pittsburgh Steelers to design their new home called Heinz Field, and from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to work on Raymond James Stadium. With a growing sports facility reputation, Wagner Murray continues its relationship with the owners of all three franchises.

     Returning his attention to Charlotte, Wagner says the firm has been lucky to have worked on multiple high-profile projects in center city. “For a firm that has fewer than 10 people, it’s a testament to our skills, our commitment, perseverance, attitude and desire to do the best we can.”

     He feels Wagner Murray’s small size is a positive. “We’ve never been larger and we’re not likely to be,” he says. “We don’t want to lose our connectivity to the client. We have designers, creative people and principals dedicated to delivery and producing work.”

     Like South Tryon Square, which Wagner Murray revamped as a mixed-use project for Spectrum Properties in the second block of South Tryon Street, Wagner and Murray renovated the building they partly own at 1000 West Morehead Street. Known as the Boxer Building, the three-story brick structure originated in the 1920s as a transfer and storage facility. Later, it took the name of a textile repair firm.

     Wagner and Murray gutted it, cleaned it up and occupied it in 2000. Now it’s fully leased with six professionally-related tenants.

     In their 15 years as partners, Murray has been the managing principal. The Connecticut native with a Clemson University degree produces projects while Wagner concentrates on design.

     Calling architecture a tough business, Wagner says the firm’s profits fluctuate. He’d like it to make more money, but believes that comes with choosing solid clients and nurturing relationships. “I think there are good times ahead,” he says. “I think we can get our revenue back to seven figures hopefully this year, maybe next year.”

     Wagner’s interests vary widely, from reading, writing and oil painting to international travel (he and his family try to visit a different foreign city each year). Accordingly, Wagner Murray has no specialty. “We’ve chosen to find the distinctive, one-of-a-kind projects,” Wagner says.

     A recent addition to the firm’s center city portfolio is the interior of ARPA restaurant in the Interstate Tower at The Square. Some of Wagner’s oil paintings decorate the walls and a chandelier he designed and assembled is a colorful centerpiece.

     Wagner thinks of Charlotte as similar to a painter’s clean canvas. Because the South didn’t develop industrially until the 20th century, Wagner says, Charlotte is a late blooming city. “Charlotte is still defining who and what it wants to be,” he adds with bright eyes.

     “Where we fall a little short,” he adds, “is making our public commitment to the arts as strong as our private commitment has been to business and industry. And that’s our next hurdle. Once we get through that, I think this city will emerge as a great cultural center.”

 

Wagner Always Wanted To ‘Build Stuff’

     One of five siblings, the son of a Pittsburgh truck driver and a homemaker mother, Wagner says he knew early on he wanted to be an architect. By age 8, he was drawing, cutting out paper and sticking it together. “I just loved to build stuff,” he says, and quickly adds, “Still do.”

     While earning his architecture degree at Virginia Tech University, Wagner met wife Cassandra. They have two sons and two daughters and live in Myers Park.

     Wagner was attracted to Charlotte fresh out of college by Harry Wolf, another architect who saw the region’s potential. Now practicing in Los Angeles, Wolf in 1974 operated Wolf Associates and was “the greatest architect in the southeast, by his own admission,” Wagner chuckles.

     Though egocentric, Wolf pushed Wagner for design refinement and attention to detail and preached quality above quantity. Wagner believes those lessons have carried over to his and Murray’s practice. The firm is committed to high quality, well-crafted design, he says.

     What he’s delivering is more than work to Wagner – it’s art. “Architecture is the greatest of the arts,” he says. He quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late New York senator: “Architecture is inescapably a political art and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular age were.”

     What do Charlotte’s structures say about it?

     “We are fast and furious, loose and on the run,” Wagner says with certainty. “We’ve been really successful in that we’ve built a city from scratch in 20 years.”

 

Charlotte Must Strive For Memorable Architecture

     But Charlotte still must strive for architecture that is memorable, he adds. “You want a visitor to this community to leave with a legacy of memory. Great public space, great buildings, great connectivity. We’re ready for that.”

     Wagner can deliver it, says Dennis Rash, visiting professor of Transportation Policy Studies at UNC Charlotte. Rash has worked with Wagner on projects dating to Gateway Center in the late 1980s when he was a senior vice president in Corporate Real Estate at Bank of America.

     “What really engages David is a sense of the interaction that his particular project might play with the community at large,” says Rash, who also collaborated with Wagner on Seventh Street Station, a building that invites pedestrians to press panels to produce sound and light shows. “He sublimates his design ego to dynamics in the community. That’s a special talent.”

     Charlotte needs more structures that promote interactivity, Wagner believes. Public spaces must invite pedestrians to touch them and feel a part of them, he says, and points to his design for The Green, an urban park atop an 850-vehicle parking deck. Developed by Wachovia, the park forms a front lawn for the Charlotte Convention Center. It features sidewalk games, whimsical signs and fountains built to encourage children to play in them.

     Pat Mumford, a Wachovia senior vice president who was responsible for getting the park completed, praises Wagner’s creativity – and more. “What drives Dave is a desire for Charlotte to be the best it can be,” Mumford says. “That space, I believe, is one of the nicest spaces in this region.”

     Wagner smiles. “It’s the old adage of you know you’re in a great place because you can feel it,” he says. 

     That brings him back to the multi-modal station. “This station should make a contemporary statement about our community,” he says. “I think this building should be open, fearless and expressive of our city’s highest aspirations.”

     When that facility opens around 2010, where will Wagner Murray be? Designing good buildings, says the 53-year-old Wagner, who claims he’d rather die at his desk than retire.

     “Look at the opportunity I have,” he says. “With bricks and mortar, I can put something in the ground that a hundred years from now may still be here. Can any other profession actually say that?”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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