Don’t be deceived by Mary Dorsey Brewster’s soft-spoken, serene demeanor. She is a power to be reckoned with. She started her own business, a thriving architectural firm with nine employees now located in the former Jewelry District of Providence, some 20 years ago, when it was still something of a novelty for a woman to take on such a challenge.
Before that, in another endeavor dominated by men, she worked as a carpenter and ran her own carpentry/construction business, building additions and decks.
She already had a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, but found she so loved residential design that she decided to go back to RISD for a second bachelor’s degree, in the five-year architectural program. It’s an arduous process to become a licensed architect, requiring a three-year internship on top of the five-year degree, as well as taking a rigorous written examination.
Her firm, Brewster Thornton Group Architects LLP, is located in a renovated 1905 factory on Chestnut Street in the heart of the old Jewelry District, in a sprawling office with creaky wooden floors, brick walls and tall windows.
There are no private offices or cubicles. The space is wide open, with individual work spaces separated by waist-high cabinets and bookcases, but few walls. Even from the back of the office, where the conference room and library are located, you can sometimes hear what’s going on in the front area of the office.
And that is exactly how Brewster planned it.
When she started the business, she was careful to bring in accomplished partners who could bring their own experiences to the mix for a “studio approach,” she said. “We work as a team.” In an office without cubicles, you can hear what others are working on and sometimes a listener can intervene with helpful information so “we get to take advantage of everybody’s experience,” Brewster said.
She opened her firm in 1989 in her Warwick home, moving the business to Providence about 10 years ago.
She specializes in residential design, although the firm also does renovation work, commercial projects and has carried out assignments for various institutions.
What’s most important is to make sure the firm has a mix of projects – residential, commercial and institutional, large and small – so the business can “roll with the punches” to keep the workload steady as trends come and go because, Brewster said, “this is a very cyclical industry.”
Brewster works intensively with each client to determine what it is they envision for the project and, when designing a home, she wants to make sure she can provide a proposal that reflects the choices and lifestyle of the individual client.
In general, she agreed, her designs mix the traditional with the contemporary, but always with an eye to what the client wants.
A key element of Brewster’s business is ongoing education because so much can change so quickly. She sets aside funds in her operating budget to pay for workshops and classes for her employees, including herself and her two partners. “There’s more complexity to architecture today. You have to be aware of a lot more.”
“A lot of our work is creating beauty where you do see it,” she said, “but there is a lot of function and a lot of science that you need where you don’t see it.” •