Born in Chattanooga, architect Vance Travis is proud of his hometown for many reasons but one gratifying reason could be because he created part of it.
Vance had always found himself on the cusp of substantial growth in the areas in which he lived. He paid attention to the advancements going on around the cities.
When his father, Willard Travis, had been transferred with Brock Candy Company, the family moved to Atlanta forcing Vance to uproot and make new friends. While there, Vance took an elective study in industrial drawing. It was then that he found something he could hold onto, no matter how many times his life would be interrupted.
Vance developed a passion for something in which he had raw talent and would learn the skills to take him into a lifelong career.
Living in Atlanta after he had already begun school at Red Bank Elementary in Chattanooga, Vance wanted the familiarity of going back to his old school when his father was confronted with yet another transfer which led the family back to Chattanooga.
Willard and Betty Travis had other plans for Vance. They told him, much to his dismay, that he would attend City High School. There was a heritage there and Willard was old friends with the principal.
He took his son to meet Colonel Creed Bates. “He was arguably the greatest teacher and principal that Chattanooga has ever known,” Vance attests.
“He was a big, tall guy with a bur haircut and was a pillar in the community. After 30 years, he remembered my dad and told stories to me about my dad, but it was still a strange place downtown and I didn’t want to go,” Vance admits.
While in the meeting, the Colonel jumped up from his seat and looked out the window and excused himself. Vance and his father looked out at two boys scuffling while waiting on the bus.
“He took both of them by the collar and literally bopped their heads together!” Vance recalls. “All the way up those stairs, he was fussing at them and told them to wait until he was done with his meeting. I thought right then - I sure don’t want to go to City!”
He had tried to talk his father into allowing him to go back to Red Bank where his friends were, but Vance would have to make new friends once again.
He may not have known it at the time, but each move was building something inside of him.
“Atlanta was a little city at that time, but it was growing. They were busy building the city. Subliminally I witnessed this physical growth happening and that tied together the interest in drawing and, being good at it,” Vance insists. “I had made up my mind early where most kids don’t – they sometimes don’t even know when they get out of college.”
When he graduated from City High School, he attended UTK to get his degree in architecture. There was no other architectural school in the state and UTK had just begun forming one.
Just like his time in Atlanta, Vance had witnessed the UT campus flourishing. Whatever paths Vance had to take, he was impressed by the advancements surrounding him in such a phenomenal way and that became ‘building blocks’ for his own mind.
“It was at the time of this incredible growth spurt with buildings going up everywhere, classrooms, communication buildings, a student center, parking garage – all this great architecture just popping out of the ground,” Vance says excitedly.
“It was a great experience to be going to a school where you were seeing things starting to be created and learning how to do it,” he declares.
Vance is the president of TWH Architects. He has won awards for his work at the Olympic Whitewater Center, The Corner at Riverview, and Habitat for Humanity. He has served on state and national offices of professional associations and has been a member of the Regional Planning Commission.
During a trip to Panama City while fishing on the Gulf of Mexico, Vance made a once in a lifetime catch that was also a pivotal moment in a career move. Expecting to catch a kingfish, it was to Vance’s amazement after he struggled for 20 minutes before it broke water that he learned he had captured a rather large Sailfish.
Recalling that indescribable feeling, Vance used the experience to motivate a career decision. He realized at that time, he no longer wanted to be a kingfish when he could become a sailfish.
In 1984 he had left a 40-person architectural firm as vice president serving as a number-two architect, and decided to become a number-one architect in his own operation.
He ran into his old friend, architect Ralph Cheek. “We formed a partnership and, when he retired, a couple of others and I bought out Ralph. We formed ‘Travis, Whitfield and Hancock’ originally, and then we took in Trey Wheeler and it still worked out fine when John left to keep ‘TWH’. We had created an identity and reputation so the ‘WH’ in Whitfield and Wheeler works with the WH after the T. I have another ‘W’ named Williams who is joining us and that will fit right in,” Vance smiles.
TWH is located at the University Tower Building on East Fourth Street. In taking the risks to develop the six-story building that overlooks the city and having to deal with the lenders, it helps Travis in his approach with his clients to better understand what they themselves are facing as they bring a project to him.
“All architectural and design projects start with a need for something – a house, a school, a hospital, an office building, or retail. The architect is the maestro or the orchestrator of the project; while we have engineers and consultants that work with us,” Vance explains.
“We also design the places. Planning parks, open spaces – every project is surrounded by a site. We’re not only designing the building but the space around it. We come up with the process of design and then put together the team. All the parts come together to make the building work,” Vance says.
“Some may be prettier than others but they are all a challenge. I like taking something on paper (or a program) a scope of worth …and it’s just words. All of a sudden it becomes a model. It’s like birthing a child. Men can’t experience that --- unless they are architects,” Vance jokes. “You birth a child when you design a building. The idea becomes a reality.”
The project he enjoyed the most was a smaller project which had an important meaning for Vance - the Olympic Whitewater Center on the Ocoee.
“It started with a pure dream and the state of Tennessee wasn’t really enthusiastic about it because the International Olympic Committee told us if we were going to do the canoe and kayaking venue, then we’re going to pay for it. I got a call from Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who is from here in Chattanooga. We went to church and Jim said to me, ‘I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.’ He said, ‘Vance, you have a chance to become an internationally acclaimed architect.’ And I asked, ‘Well what’s the bad news?’ and he said, ‘I’m not sure you are going to get paid.’”
Though this seemed to be a smaller baby to birth, Vance would have to jump through hoops that tied four other groups together and he would have to please them all.
After obtaining a site, they had to have approval from TVA to release water for it. TVA wanted to do the scoping and to have two alternate sites.
“I got tied in with TVA and we came up with two sites. We looked at the channel, how we get people in - the parking, the building, the service, the venue… and went through a public hearing in Polk County from environmentalists to local landowners. It was not a big project – but a really important one,” Vance says.
“We had a meeting at the governor’s mansion with the state of Tennessee, TVA and the land owner – who was the NFS (National Forest Service). We had to get their blessings and approval. It turns out that the NFS was where the money came from eventually. Tennessee put in some money, the federal government put in some money and TVA put in any kind of services by letting the water be released, and the fourth entity to work with was the IOC – (International Olympic Committee). I had to make four people happy,” Vance proclaims.
During the ‘92 Olympics held in Barcelona, Vance went through a selection process against top architects from all over the United States preparing for the ‘96 Olympics heading toward Atlanta.
“Well, here’s little ol’ Vance Travis from Chattanooga, Tn., thinking, ‘how am I going to outfox these huge firms in Atlanta and other huge cities?’” he recalls.
“I just got on an airplane. I went to France, spent time in Paris and drove over to the Pyrenees in Spain where the canoe and kayaking venue was going on for the ‘92 Summer Olympics. It was a man-made course and the reason they (the committee) liked the Ocoee was that it was a natural river bed,” Vance notes.
“I went to estimate the good and bad about that event, to see how people moved, how buildings worked with the river and how the water flowed, and I talked to people to get an idea of what was going on, but I made sure I shook the hands of every forest person. They were over there because we, the taxpayer, paid for them to get ready for the ‘96 Olympics. I didn’t have a shot if I didn’t get selected,” Vance recognized.
He came back and turned in his proposal with 25 other firms from all over the United States.
“Just by the hair of my chin-y chin-chin to have a little forethought… I was the only architect that took his own time and his own money to go see the ‘92 Olympics. The forest people saw that I really wanted it because they saw me there,” Vance indicates.
The NFS had not seen anyone else who wanted it as much. “It certainly gave me the leg up to complete what I had started, but there still was no guarantee or assurance,” he says.
“I have always loved the outdoors and this was here in our back yard – a high-profile event. I knew it would be a special, unique project and design. Even though I had to make a lot of people happy, I knew it would be there for a long time to come,” Vance says.
The architect can take pride in his developments and projects around the city and outside of Chattanooga, as well. He also works to preserve and restore buildings, though he most enjoys creating.
One project he appreciated was working with former Mayor Bob Corker to preserve the 100-year-old R.H. Hunt building, City Hall – the Chattanooga Municipal Building.
When taking on projects such as City Hall or restoring his old high school - which is now CSAS, Vance looks beyond the design and strives to maintain the integrity of the building. His involvement in the community overshadows any personal gain.
“I enjoyed serving the community. Governor McWherter had appointed me on the State Licensing Board for two terms, and I served nine years – that tapped me into the National Council of Architectural Registration Board. I got involved through the State Licensing Board and then the National Council out of Washington, D.C., and got on that board. It allowed me to reach people all over the U.S. when I was chairman of the Professional Developmental Committee,” Vance affirms.
Married to wife Rebecca for five and a half years, the couple has five children and six grandchildren between them.
The down-to-earth president of TWH has taken great strides in being a big part of advancing our city. He finds challenge in each and every project and does not limit himself to a certain forte.
“Creating a new project is like birthing a baby and every project is a new creation. TWH likes to keep diversity over having a niche,” Vance says, “and to have new ideas for various structures – your people tend to be happy because new babies are being born every day.”