Readers that have taken a stroll down the sidewalks of Main Street Hillsboro in recent years have seen his work, but few may know the story behind Brian Lee's personal mission to help renovate and revitalize the buildings lining downtown Hillsboro.
Lee moved to Hillsboro and began renovating the building located at 501 South Main Street with his father-in-law, Stan (Cindy) Huber, almost a decade ago. Lee's wife Kristen (Huber) grew up in Coffeen and when the young couple started their family (Mette, Judah and Otto) they decided to relocate from their home in Nashville, TN, and return to her home. The Lees met at Greenville University (then Greenville College) where Lee earned a degree in communications with a minor in music. Following graduation, the couple moved to Nashville, TN, where Lee toured as a professional guitar player.
It was in Tennessee that Lee rediscovered his love of architecture, design and carpentry. In his downtime from touring, Lee began picking up jobs with a fellow musician and creative mentor, Brian Bequette. Lee honed his trade on-the-job, developing carpentry and renovation skills such as carpentry, flooring and shelving.
"Kristen and I lived in East Nashville for eight years and we got to witness our neighborhood change for the better, during that time period. Cool restaurants and shops, record stores, music venues, vintage furniture stores and all kinds of exciting things were sprouting up all around us."
While he refined his skills in Tennessee, Lee's love of design and working with his hands began at a much earlier age. A child of missionaries, Lee moved from Washington State to Denmark when he was eleven years old. From there his family moved to Prague (the Czech Republic) where Lee spent much of his pre-teen and teen years scavenging for scrap materials and building small structures with his friends. Born into a family of creative people, Lee's family recognized and encouraged artistry in him from an early age; providing him with materials and tools rather than chastising his endeavours.
The same creativity that he drew from as a child building forts and later as a working musician, was channeled into restoring and flipping old houses, in Nashville, alongside his wife. This love of creating would later be the driving force behind Lee's local renovations, including the buildings located at 501, 309 and 229 South Main Street in Hillsboro, among others.
"I knew Kristen would jump at the chance to move back home, especially after the kids were born. I just couldn't imagine myself being happy in Hillsboro. I didn't think I would find a creative outlet or creative partners. I was afraid that we would be bored and unhappy in a small, rural town. Every time Stan, my father-n-law, called he would start kicking around this idea he had of the two of us (Stan and Brian) buying one of the buildings in downtown Hillsboro and fixing it up together. I kept laughing it off. To be honest, I was a little daunted at the idea of taking on such a large-scale project. He called one night and told me that he was going to buy the building and fix it up on his own. I knew instantly that I didn't want him to do it without me. Here we are a few buildings later, excited to be a part of revitalizing a town that is now my home as well as Kristen's."
Like his carpentry and construction skills, much of Lee's architectural knowledge is self-taught. Learning from personal friends and masters, Lee counts designers Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, Wharton Esherick and George Nakashima among his many teachers. While much of his heart is in his personal renovation projects, he brings the same creativity and expert workmanship to the commissioned jobs he receives through his business Brian Lee Carpentry.
"There are so many things that builders and designers used to do that have since been cut out of most buildings to save on cost, but part of what we are drawn to in well designed buildings is the craftsmanship and passion that was put into them. It is all in the details. At the heart of it, I love to create. There is a certain flow you get into when you are in the middle of a project that is like nothing else. Of course I love being able to have creative liberty to try new things in my buildings, but I find the same joy in the projects I complete for clients. It is a great feeling to bring someone's vision to life for them."
Whether working on the buildings he owns or working on a commissioned job, vision is never far from Lee's thoughts or workmanship. Inspired by the book Small Town Sustainability written by Paul L. Knox and Heike Meyer, much of Lee's work in downtown Hillsboro centers around not only renovating the city's historic buildings but thoughtfully revitalizing the neighborhood in which his family lives.
"Character is the calling card of any building, it's also the calling card of a small town. For me, the renovation projects I take on are about more than just the buildings, they are about inspiring the people in our community as well. Renovation is not just about making an edifice habitable it is about creating a sense of space. I think about sense of space a lot when taking on a project. It is a skill set that I am developing more with each project and is probably most evident in my most recent restoration project, the Blackboard Mercantile storefront. I try to be prudent about designing the sense of space I want to convey when I am working on a project and I firmly believe that cultivating a sense of space applies to community development as well."
Small Town Sustainability centers around three foundational supports of sustainability, economy, environment, and equity. The authors go on to discuss how small towns can thrive as the direct result of characteristics small towns have that globalization does not provide, uniqueness, a sense of place, social interaction and authenticity. In architecture sense of space refers to designing spatial features to incorporate features (sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale and smell) that appeal to all senses rather than focusing only on the visual sense. Creating a sense of space allows the designer to calculatedly create an atmosphere and bring a space to life, giving occupants deeper, more meaningful experiences within the place. Small Town Sensibility's authors theorize that attachment to a place, a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose, are integral to community development. The concept of creating space is as esteemed in community development as it is in architectural design, and Lee has an interest in both.
This drive to cultivate sense of space extends past architectural design and into the community he loves. It is the inspirational force behind his popular blog Small Town Cool, which features businesses, recreational areas, people and events throughout the region.
"I created Small Town Cool not only to highlight the work I do through Brian Lee Carpentry but to showcase the unique elements that make small towns like Hillsboro a great place to live. I had the idea to start Small Town Cool after reading the book. My hope is that the blog inspires other people to do the things that they dream of. I think it is easy to get bogged down into a negative mentality when you live in a small town and the goal of Small Town Cool is to remind people that we can live and create based on our own aspirations, rather than according to the area we live and the opportunities, or lack thereof, that our environments provide for us. Small Town Cool is about encouraging people and bringing everyone together to create our own unique opportunities."
Lee attributes much of the creative freedom that shines through in his work, to living in a small, close-knit community. Stating that in Nashville he would likely not have been granted the opportunities, both professionally and personally, that he has had in Hillsboro.
"In order to be creative you need to practice it like a hand practices the violin. I know first-hand how rough learning the violin sounds, my mom taught it," Lee said with a laugh. "Thomas Edison failed thousands of times to achieve the great things that he created. I think we all need to learn from that and jump. I took a leap when I moved my family to Hillsboro to take on a project that was bigger than anything I had done before. I have failed, I have learned, I have grown in my craft and I have not regretted taking that leap into uncertainty."
Those interested in viewing Lee's work can follow Brian Lee Carpentry on Facebook or follow his blog at www.mysmalltowncool.com. Prospective clients may contact Lee via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.