Architect Manous plants his designs on Lebanon

Michael ManousFounder: Michael L. Manous Design in 1993Favorite architect: Frank Lloyd WrightFavorite structure: St. Peter’s Basilica in RomeOffice: 110 Lakewood Road, LebanonContact: 444-6207, 

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

Slowly but surely, the distinctive fingerprints of Michael Manous are appearing across Lebanon and other Tennessee towns.

The Knoxville native and architect with a bent toward New Urbanism has had his designs on Wilson County since he made Lebanon his home base 16 years ago.

He and his associates have designed or re-created more than 70 projects in the county during the past two decades. Besides two dozen homes, Manous Design worked on The Jimmy Floyd Family Center, Roxy Cinema, Sherlock’s Book Emporium, High Street Quarter, Lebanon City Hall (formerly the main building at Castle Heights), Maple Hill church of Christ, the Henry W. Preston Fire Station, the Lebanon/Wilson CountyChamber of Commerce, the Mitchell House and Cedar Creek Yacht Club.

“When I was in school, everybody’s dream was to go to Chicago or Atlanta and work on big high rises,” said Manous last week from his office about five miles outside of Lebanon and a football field length off of South Cairo Bend Road. “I learned that’s really not where it’s at.

“Where it’s at in my profession or what gives me the greatest satisfaction is being able to live and work in a community like Lebanon where I can see through the years the additive process of what we’re trying to do as a team: The team being my designers and our clients and the city administration. I’m beginning to see all these pieces start to mesh together and to me that’s really satisfying, driving down the road and seeing project after project we’ve done, and all of them weave together a better place in my view.”

At 46, his tanned visage offers proof of his hours spent cycling and on the water. He wears a yellow Livestrong wristband on his left arm, an homage to one of his sports heroes, Lance Armstrong, and a wooden necklace keeps memories fresh of a boating trip in the Virgin Islands. A fan of the Discovery and History Channels, he also enjoys watching football on TV.

The license plate on the back of his truck reads: RKEYTEK.

And it as an architect that Manous is just hitting his stride. He confesses that the final quarter of 2008 and first half of this year were notoriously slow, but today things are happening.

Three projects call for optimism

“Recently we have had a tremendous surge and upswing in business. We have three projects coming before the planning commission this month here locally,” he said. “Those represent maybe $15 million in total investments in Lebanon. I’m very optimistic that we are on the uphill side of things. We see an entire group of clients that are stepping up and seeing the tremendous value to be had in the construction market right now.”

The trio of projects includes:

1. Permobil, a Swedish company that manufactures mobility devices for handicapped or disabled people.

“The total investment is going to be between $10 and $12 million onsite, hopefully adjacent to Wilson Central High School down on 840 and highly visible,” the architect said. “This will be a very sustainable design. We have made a commitment for a 60-kilowatt solar rate and will have a roof which takes sunlight and turns it directly into electricity. We understand that will be one of the largest private installations going into Tennessee next spring.”

2. A multi-tenant building on West Main across from the Big Lots shopping center.

“We’re designing this for Dr. Teresa Larkin and accountant Royce Belcher. This will be kind of an old-town style building with the idea of getting close to the street and being very pedestrian friendly. It will have some interesting architectural character that relates to the area,” Manous said.

3. A new building for West Haven Baptist Church on Highway 70 near the railroad bridge east of Highway 109.

“We’ve help develop the land master plan from scratch,” said Manous, who has partnered on projects with about a half dozen churches in the county.

A graduate of the University of Tennessee School of Architecture, Manous knew that he wanted to be an architect by his early teen years. “Maybe my career path was preordained,” he said. “My parents always equipped me with Lincoln Logs, Legos and building blocks. That was always my favorite activity as a child, building with those blocks.”

Hitting the right spot

Manous and his wife Rhonda found Lebanon their new home of choice after driving in every county and city surrounding Nashville.

“We located this neighborhood up here, just a gravel road with no other houses. The land was affordable and we could get a lot for our money. It was a natural,” he said. “My wife and I were both working in Nashville, and this was a bedroom community to us. We were commuters.

“Then when I opened my own firm, I had two choices. I could either jump in the rat race in Nashville and be one among thousands or I could come out here in this community. I remember I opened up the phone book in 1993 and saw there were no listings for architects. Well, this is a no-brainer. It was by far the best decision I could have ever made.”

Manous met his wife, also a Knoxville native and University of Tennessee grad, while on spring break one year in Panama City, Fla. The couple have been married for 24 years and have two sons, Deek and Destin.

The pair landed in Nashville in the mid-1980s as Manous worked for a large national architectural engineering firm that claimed Bridgestone Firestone as a client. He handled all of Bridgestone’s manufacturing work from 1989 to 1992, including facilities in LaVergne and as the lead designer on the Warren County Truck Bus Facility in McMinnville. The latter, a 700-acre site with 1.2 million square feet of production area, cost $150 million to build in 1991.

Since cutting his own path, Manous has designed projects in such Tennessee cities as Mt. Juliet, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Franklin, Gordonsville, Carthage, McMinnville and Jackson, and he also has carved his name into structures located in Washington, California, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Indiana.

But hometown is still where his heart is. And creating a sense of place is of prime importance in his designs. That meant keeping true to the original style when he reworked the main building at Castle Heights as it became the new Lebanon City Hall.

“I belong to a school of design loosely termed contextualism. It’s one of the cornerstones of New Urbanist thinking,” Manous said. “The basic idea is that buildings and architecture should respond to their surroundings. … I tend to try and look around the site and the community or the area where we are putting a project, and we really try to make our buildings respond to that. The Castle Heights area was unique. We were fortunate to be instrumental in saving the main building and the Mitchell House.

“Naturally Castle Heights, the history of the campus and school and the architecture that was still there is such a powerful symbol of Lebanon and its past. It seemed appropriate to us to try and use that to help create a sense of place, synergy in the center of town, and to loosely base some of our new designs using motifs, colors and some historical detailing that sort of said, ‘Hey, I am in some place special within the city because the architecture of the buildings reflects one another.’ It’s appropriate within that district, but we’ve been careful that it does not leap into other areas of town.”

Client critiques Manous’s style

“To me, you can see Mike’s signature on things he has done around town. You can almost look at a building and say, ‘I bet Mike Manous did that.’ Look at the Academy branch of Pinnacle Bank, the fire station, and you can just see what he has done,” said Bill Bryson, who has lived with his wife Joan in Lebanon since the early 1970s when he was a teacher and coach at Castle Heights Military Academy.

Later, he became a teacher and head football coach at Friendship Christian School, and today serves as a certified financial planner for AXA Advisors in Lebanon.

“To me, Mike does a great job with light and unusual structures. He just gets a lot out of the design. He turned Friendship’s old tin gym into a multi-use facility now used as a performance arts center.”

The Brysons had Manous redesign their home near the Cumberland River, and Bill was familiar with the Mitchell House and the main hall at Castle Heights decades before Manous gave them a facelift and internal makeover.

“When I look at the main building from Castle Heights, the word amazing comes to my mind,” Bryson said. “I was on the campus from 1971 to 1979. The campus had this collegiate atmosphere, and the old main building which housed the bookstore and a lot of the administration offices was really the center of campus activity. From afar the building was a beautiful building, but it had a lot of issues. It needed updating and renovating terribly and was mothballed for several years. Later after Castle Heights was closed; when the city came in and decided and to use Mike, I’m telling you, I don’t know how he was able to update that thing but keep that collegiate integrity like he did. I think it is one of the high water marks of his work around town.”

Projecting for the future

As for New Urbanism philosophies, which loosely translates into creating near-autonomous villages within a city where the residents can walk to meet their needs to such places as grocery stores, doctors’ office, pharmacies and the like, Manous has been ahead of the curve but fears it may still be a decade or more before it is embraced by small but growing towns.

“We’re still trying to get some of these things out of the box,” he said. “It’s just a return to the way our cities used to be designed and built. So it all plays into this notion that we can’t pay $175 for a barrel of oil forever. If we don’t make that leap to this way of thinking in our cities, we’ve got some major problems.

“With New Urbanism we’re trying to push buildings as close to the street as we possibly can, yet create a walkable edge for pedestrians with interests, with windows, shops, places to sit and landscaping and such, while preserving pockets of green space.”     

In the meantime, Manous is optimistic about prospects for growth in Wilson County.

“The 840 corridor is a real asset for the future, a growth corridor and a place to go that has infrastructure, virility and proximity to the airport. That all bodes well for us to grow in the future,” he said. “Our governments need to get back to the idea of we’re all in this together. We’ve got to work very hard to attract good paying jobs. We need to do aggressively whatever it takes to make those things happen.

“We have got so many advantages here with our location near the Cumberland River, the recreational opportunities, the natural beauty that Wilson County has to offer. We’re lucky we had Nashville Eastern Railroad that was the linchpin that allowed us to get the commuter rail. And we have to realize that quality-of-life issues are important to citizens that pay taxes and to employers that are moving to an area.”

As for his career choice, Manous said, “The hardest thing in the world in my opinion for an architect to do is to start with a blank piece of paper. No rules with no constraints, that’s very difficult.”

The first question he asks his clients is what are your needs.

“Most of the time people will come with something already written down or a sketch and say, ‘This is exactly what I want.’ And I always save those sketches and pull them out and show them at the very end. Ultimately, what we build looks nothing like that sketch. But it is always fun to look at those.

“The real core of the design process is understanding needs and developing what those needs are through conversations, through visiting other facilities and other places that may or may not have pieces and parts of the desired design. We have people bring us folders full of torn-out pages of magazines with something circled on it. You take all that information and assimilate it and come out with an architectural solution.” 

The internal reward for the county’s foremost architect is visiting the buildings his firm has designed and watching people use them.

“I love going to the places that we have created and seeing all the people interact with the buildings. I go to the Floyd Center, for instance, and it is very fulfilling to see hundreds of people in there doing different things, exercising, sitting in lounges, chatting, playing basketball, running around the track, swimming. I love to see the human interaction in our spaces,” said the man who has helped Lebanon grow from one century into another.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at