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THE RISE OF CHADSWORTH COLUMNS
A DISCUSSION WITH FOUNDER & PRINCIPAL DESIGNER – JEFFREY L. DAVIS
Featured in Period Homes Online Magazine (view article online.)
By Gordon Bock
As the essence of ancient Western architecture, columns have been supporting buildings for nearly three millennia, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been unchanged over this long history. Rediscovered during the Renaissance, columns were effectively reinvented in materials as well as uses for the Georgian and Neoclassical styles, and they’ve morphed again with their newfound popularity in the last quarter century. One of the companies that helped bring columns to new heights is Wilmington, NC-based Chadsworth Incorporated, run by Jeffrey Davis.
What drew Davis to columns as a business was not only a love of Classical architecture, but also a fresh perspective on the building material industry. Back in 1987, Davis was working in the telecommunications field in Atlanta, where he had moved right after college. “I think I was 26 at the time,” he says, “and though doing well, I was tired of working for other people and just wanted to start my own company.”
All the while, Davis was studying how building products were being marketed. “Products were going through lumberyards, a two-step distribution system, and I thought that anything out of the ordinary and difficult to deal – like columns – was being mishandled due to miscommunication,” he says, noting that while an architect may know about columns, builders and most other people who go to a lumberyard know little about them. “So I thought that if you went directly from the manufacturer to the end user, working directly with the architect from their plans, you could skip over the two-step distributor system and be profitable – and I was correct.”
Davis recalls how Chadsworth was “kind of successful” right from the beginning. The project that gave them a running start was doing showrooms for Hickory Chair and its parent company, Lane Furniture. Disney World was another large client at the time. “We supplied columns for the MGM back studio tours, where they were re-creating New York street scenes that you can still see,” says Davis. It didn’t hurt that Robert Stern and others were designing houses and condominiums in Florida and other parts of the South that were using columns.
Davis notes that there were also new materials coming out. “Wood columns are what I started with – and they’re still my love – but the industry needed a product that was not wood,” he says, noting that when he studied the fiberglass columns available then, they didn’t look very good. “Everybody’s always trying to produce a less expensive product for the market, so in the wood column industry, you have nice, architecturally correct columns, and then you have builder-grade wood columns, which are less expensive because they are made out of thinner lumber and bases, capitals and astragals that are proportionally leaner. And without thinking about it, those manufacturers were just producing fiberglass columns from the lower-grade wood columns.” In response, Davis decided to take Chadsworth’s top-of-the-line Tuscan column and produce it in FRP (fiberglass reinforced polymer). The result became the start of the company’s PolyStone® line of composite columns.
Fiberglass columns are typically made with one of two different processes. Filament-wound columns are similar in technology to the large water slides seen at water parks, where the glass fibers and resin are formed into a cylinder. Other columns may be manufactured much as a boat hul isl, with glass fibers and mats laid up in a mold and saturated with resin. Both methods produce a column that is relatively light in weight and therefore easy to install. By comparison, PolyStone® (a technology widely used generically for casting that combines resin and stone dust) is much heavier. “If you had a two-story PolyStone® column,” says Davis, “it would take a crane to install it, whereas three guys could lift and install an equal size spun-cast or laid-up fiberglass column very easily.”
Davis says it’s important for architects to understand that columns in the fiberglass world are sized in nominal dimensions – that is, the closest common value to the dimensions specified, but not the finished dimensions. “Let’s say an architect specifies a 10-in. by 8-ft. column,” he says. “That column is not going to be 10 ins. at the bottom diameter, tapering to 8 inches at the top. Our PolyStone® column, for example, would be 9 5/8 ins. at the bottom, but somebody else who wants to manufacture a less expensive column will make it 9¼ ins. at the bottom.” This is because the price of fiberglass resin fluctuates with the price of oil, and thus the easiest way to reduce the cost of a column is to cut down on proportions. The other way to economize is in mixture. “Cost is also determined by what you mix with the resin – say marble dust,” says Davis. “The more filler you use, the less resin you need, and the price goes down.”
Pillars of a Business
When asked what column among the diverse Chadsworth offerings leads the pack, Davis says it depends upon how you look at it. “In dollar volume it would be our wood columns,” he says, “but in units it would be our PolyStone® columns.” New construction has always been the majority of the business, but over the last few years, sales for restorations and additions have increased. He adds that because the company operates as a mail-order business, and now as an Internet business, it sells all over the world. “In the past few years we’ve shipped to London, the Virgin Islands, Japan, China, Europe, Switzerland, Austria and France,” he says. “Manufacturing is pretty far flung as well, with facilities in Alabama, Utah and Chicago.”
Who buys Chadsworth’s columns? In a residential project, a lot of times the architect calls first, then Chadsworth might – or might not – deal with the homeowner, and then it will probably deal with the builder. Or it might just deal with the homeowner, who will then deal with the builder. “We have to put on several hats in the process,” says Davis. “It just depends upon the type of project.”
The take-on-all-comers concept is not limited to the consumer side either. “Not only do we manufacture our own products, with our online store and with our mail-order business, but we also now distribute a majority of our competitors’ products,” says Davis, noting that it sounds contradictory but, true to form, it’s an idea that serves manufacturers as well as end users. “It started because we had a lot of people call us looking for replacement products – say a column or base they had bought originally from another company – and we wanted to be able to provide that for them.” In fact, several manufacturers felt that since Chadsworth was already talking to the customer, it might as well take care of the sale for them. Davis says that this arrangement supplies a need because there are other manufacturers in the industry who don’t have the sales force or marketing presence to get the reach they deserve. Conversely, it doesn’t make sense for Chadsworth to manufacture every type of product. “We’re never going to make an aluminum column,” says Davis, “but where somebody might want an aluminum column, we want to be able to say we can sell them one.”
Column as They See Them
On top of its over 2,000 standard offerings, Chadsworth doesn’t balk at taking on custom or unusual work if the budget and timing allow. One recent project involved replicating capitals for a historic building in Virginia; another involved creating 300 linear ft. of Tuscan entablature for a job in Jackson, WY. “Personally, I love that work,” says Davis, “because there’s a lot to it and it’s challenging.”
Even though the company’s strength is Classical architecture, Chadsworth doesn’t turn away contemporary architects or concepts. “I think the most original design was an artist’s paintbrush – not a flat house paintbrush but the round kind, which was adapted to work as a column,” says Davis. Chadsworth also handles requests for academically correct columns, such as an order from the University of Notre Dame, where students are building an exacting scale model of one corner of the Parthenon. They also supply pilasters and octagonal columns – “almost anything you can think of,” says Davis.
Not surprisingly, a non-Classical idea can grow into a standard product, such as columns and supports for bungalows and other Arts and Crafts buildings. “I was looking at a couple of books on bungalows, and admiring all the porches in them, and thought, ‘Why aren’t we producing this kind of column?'” says Davis. To make the line readily affordable, as well as a feature a craftsperson or homeowner could use on the jobsite pretty easily, Chadsworth chose to make the bungalow line in a new material, advanced cellular vinyl. And should your Arts and Crafts or Colonial Revival house need the perfect landscape complement, Chadsworth even makes all the parts to build a pergola. While Davis says that pergolas are not a big market, they’re a natural adjunct to the column market and an ideal fit with the business. “They’re not mass produced,” he says. “It’s something unique that each architect or designer can design for themselves – in fact I had one designed for my home.” What better way to enjoy the beauty of columns than as columns for columns’ sake.
Gordon Bock is a writer, architectural historian, technical consultant and lecturer, as well as co-author of the forthcoming book The Vintage House.