By Calvin Pynn, contributor
When Charles Hendricks meets a client who wants to build a house, it’s usually just a casual rap about their life: No drafting, no visualization, not even a plan for what the house will look like by the end.
Rather than wasted time, Hendricks says his clients understand the method to the madness when he comes back with full blueprints of a design.
“That’s the idea of designing a custom house for somebody that will facilitate the lifestyle they want,” Hendricks said.
That’s not the way it goes with most architects (or “starchitects,” as Hendricks’ put it), who specialize in certain types of design. His definition of design, rather, is something that never quite looks the same way twice.
“I’m using the challenges I’ve seen with other projects, the mistakes I’ve seen with other projects, and the successes of other similar projects to create the best possible solution for your goals. That’s really what design, for me, is all about,” Hendricks said.
It’s an approach that Hendricks hopes to take from his work with Gaines Group Architects, which he co-owns, on to City Hall, as he seeks a first term on Harrisonburg City Council. One of three Democrats in the race, alongside incumbent Mayor Deanna Reed and fellow newcomer Laura Dent, Hendicks hopes to win one of the three seats up for election on Nov. 3. Also running are Independent incumbent George Hirschmann and Republican candidate Kathleen Kelley.
Hendricks announced his campaign in January, with a focus on renewable energy, preserving historic buildings, helping the city’s houseless population, and supporting local business. Although it is his first run for public office, his campaign is far from Hendricks’ first civic involvement in the more than 20 years he’s lived in Harrisonburg.
Seeing what they say
Hendricks recalled a difficult experience in elementary school, culminating in a dyslexia diagnosis in fourth grade.
“I struggled through school, standardized testing never made sense to me, memorization never made sense to me, even in Kindergarten the alphabet never made sense,” he said.
However, a seventh-grade communications class, which introduced him to visual art forms such as photography, printmaking, bookmaking, and drafting, helped him find a compatible direction for his education.
“That class clicked, it made sense, and all of those visual kinds of art worked in my mind with dyslexia,” Hendricks said.
It eventually inspired Hendricks to pursue a career in architecture – and led to his understanding of his dyslexia as an opportunity, not a disability.
“So, I have this functional and spatial thing that work together that other people, such as my clients often don’t have, and they don’t understand the drawings the same way that I can see them. When they say it, I can see it, and not everybody has that skill,” Hendricks said.
While that knack for visual design has shaped his approach to his job, Hendricks said his father’s resilience after losing his coal mining job in Bluefield, WVa. helped shape the practical grit of his approach to work. As a result, his family endured houselessness for several months before relocating to Roanoke.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I can see how hard that was on my parents, and the just building back up. My Dad is the hardest working man I’ve ever met in my life,” Hendricks said.
Hendricks said he’s been working since he was 12, starting with a newspaper route, prior to jobs as a Burger King line cook and a lifeguard. During that time, he took as many drafting and architecture-related classes as he could during high school.
He eventually earned an associate’s degree from Virginia Western Community College before transferring to the University of Virginia, where he majored in architecture.
After graduating from UVa.’s architecture program, Hendricks almost became disillusioned with the industry in his job hunt, as he found it difficult to find a compatible firm.
“I went and interviewed with a lot of firms and realized that I don’t like architects, I like architecture,” Hendricks said.
At least, that was, until he clicked with Gaines Group Architects founder Ray Gaines.
“[Ray Gaines] was very practical, he used to be a builder before he became an architect, and I said ‘yeah, that feels right,'” Hendricks recalled.
Twenty-one years later, Hendricks is the principal architect for the Harrisonburg branch of Gaines Group, where he became a partner after earning a Master’s Degree in Architecture from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Since then,any time not spent designing homes and businesses has gone to Hendricks’ other projects including collaborations with other organizations around Harrisonburg. Since moving to town, Hendricks has been active in the Shenandoah Valley Builders Association, the Massanutten Technical Center’s foundation board, and the Harrisonburg City Schools Advisory Council.
He is also a member and previous president of the Rockingham Rotary Club. According to current President Justin Wolcott, Hendricks’ level of involvement, from serving on the club’s board of directors to handling its social media channels, has earned him the casual title of “Mr. Rotary.”
“Not all past presidents are as involved as [Hendricks] is. He definitely spearheads a lot of our service projects and gives us a lot of those ideas,” Wolcott said.
He has also volunteered on the design committee for the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR). Executive Director Andrea Dono said the committee guides HDR’s work by leading downtown design projects and providing free advice for business and building owners in the city. She added that Hendricks has shown a knack for supporting downtown revitalization.
“He has a good understanding of the task at hand and really becomes immersed in what he’s doing, and understands there are so many moving parts that make downtown revitalization successful,” Dono said.
She recalled one instance when Hendricks worked with Mashita owner Mikey Reisenberg who was transitioning from a food truck into a brick-and-mortar restaurant with the help of a city Enhancement Grant. According to Dono, Hendricks spent hours helping Reisenberg work through the logistics at City Hall – something that would ordinarily cost a significant amount with a paid architecture consultant.
“If you’re constantly navigating the bureaucracy of things, it can be daunting at times. And to have someone there to say ‘We’re in your corner and can help you’ can make such a big difference,” Dono said.
Hendricks has also volunteered to perform energy audits for city homes and businesses on behalf of the Harrisonburg Electric Cooperative, said Jeff Heie, who serves on the city’s Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee and is active with the 50 by 25 campaign.
“He goes into people’s homes and basically shows them opportunities to improve energy efficiency there,” Heie explained.
Heie said council has been lacking a true environmental advocate, and is excited about the prospect of Hendricks being elected.
“There’s a lot that needs to happen with our municipal utility in order to start wrapping our heads around clean energy, there are a lot of challenges to overcome. So I think he has a lot of legitimacy when it comes to environmental causes,” Heie said.
The Stories Buildings Tell
When asked to name his favorite building in downtown Harrisonburg, Hendricks admitted his bias in choosing The Chesapeake Western Railway Depot, which now houses his office and has fascinated him since he first saw it.
“I remember walking through there and I looked over at Chesapeake Western Depot building, and even surrounded by stacks of lumber and stone and the roof falling in, it had a prestige to it. The architecture from 1913 of that building was grand,” Hendricks said.
While that building is a legacy of a time when the railroad was more important to the city, Hendricks sees the potential of other downtown structures telling their own stories for future generations. Even now, during a pandemic when storefronts sit emptier than usual, he said the ongoing vibrancy of downtown is its own historic narrative.
“I think the time we’re in now will be a story that people will tell about how Harrisonburg got through,” Hendricks said.
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