Celebrating 20 years since hanging his shingle: “Garcia Architecture+Design,” George Garcia shakes his head. “I still can’t believe I did it,” he said of leaving a civil engineering firm where he had worked for 14 years to head out on his own in 1998.
“With two small children and against all advice to the contrary, I went for it. My creative self was wanting to come out.” George’s prolific creative streak showed itself early on. A Christmas gift of Legos when he was a youngster captured his imagination. He recalls opening the box: “I saw all the pieces and immediately went to work ‘problem-solving’ them into building shapes. Of course, at that time I didn’t realize I was doing anything but having fun,” he said. “I would spend hours playing with those Legos and my folks would have to drag me to the dinner table.”
Another outlet for George’s artistic enthusiasm was music. “My mom insisted all of her kids would have music instruction. I chose to take piano lessons, which I loved and over the years has been a source of pleasure—and occasionally income—throughout my school years and even now.” The middle of five children born to Rudy and Marie, George was born and raised in Sacramento and attended Jesuit High School, a prep school focused on an academic curriculum, “but not a lot of creative opportunity,” George noted. “I had an unfulfilled creative need and had hoped to attend Juilliard or North Texas State to study music,” he said.
“Absolutely not,” his mother declared. He went on, “I was counseled to pursue a more conventional career, and I took her advice, attending community colleges for four years until I ran into a high school buddy who was studying architecture and construction management at Cal Poly SLO. He recommended I look at the architecture program there.”
Moving to San Luis Obispo in the mid-1980s, George said the initial goal was to complete his architectural degree and then return home to Sacramento. He’d already met his future wife, April, at community college—she was studying art and design and had relocated to southern California to attend Long Beach State as an art major. The engaged couple embarked on a three-year long-distance relationship during which time George and April, lamenting the monthly $200 phone bills (this was pre-cell phone days) decided to write letters instead. “Long letters, two-sided,” he pointed out. “We still have them!”
A major epiphany occurred a few days after George’s arrival in SLO. “I accidentally found myself in Paradise,” he stated, “when I woke up one morning and opened my window blinds and just stared out at the big blue sky, a blue that I had never seen before. It stopped me in my tracks,” he said, meaning that his original “myopic plan to leave after Cal Poly” was derailed. For good.
At the same time that April graduated from CSULB, George was in the third year of his five-year program—what he calls the ‘make or break year’ meaning that’s typically the highest year of attrition for architecture students due to the overwhelming stress and work level. He and April were newly married so being in the campus studio “all day and all night” wasn’t exactly ideal for the couple. “But,” he said, “Our long distance relationship experience helped us weather that.” George, who had earned his AA in Environmental Design from Cosumnes River College, completed the program with a B.S. in Architecture.
While at Cal Poly, George also played in the University Jazz Band as a piano player that in turn led him to meet lifelong friends and future bandmates Ken Hustad and Darryl Voss. In a twist of fate, another fellow musician approached George to work for his engineering firm as a draftsman. “I put my creative ego on the shelf,” George laughed, looking back. “I thought I’d do it for a year or two, but ended up staying with the firm EDA for 14 years!” Moreover, the experience gave him a “free education” in that George says he learned what goes on below the ground whereas architecture mostly deals with building from the ground up. “I also worked with regional government agencies, learned about entitlements and working with local commissions and councils as well,” he said.
Eventually he was asked to work on small architecture projects the company had taken on and that triggered the desire to work exclusively on architecture and design on his own. “With their blessing, I went off and started my business on our dining room table. It’s kind of nostalgic to look back on those early days two decades ago.”
Since that time, George has become one of the area’s most well known and sought after architects. It’s hard to go anywhere in SLO without seeing or experiencing one of his company’s award-winning projects— 150 and counting. A visit to his company’s website provides an amazing video tour of commercial and residential projects that thousands of people drive by or go into daily, perhaps not knowing their stories. And every project has its story.
For example, Railroad Square. So, the dining room table set up didn’t last long; George quickly became busy and hired a couple of associates. They moved into Railroad Square and just four years later, in 2002, George says, “We were doing great!”
Sadly, in November of that year, an early-morning four-alarm fire ravaged the building. “We were on the first floor which didn’t burn,” George said. “But water damage to our drawings and computer equipment appeared to destroy everything.” Not being allowed into the building for three days was excruciating because not only did they fear “all was lost” but clients were calling wanting to know about the status of their projects.
“With no off-site computer backup system, all I could think about was ‘If that server is gone, all our intellectual property is toast’,” George recalled. “When the SLOFD finally let us in we could see our server sitting in water, completely fried. I called my IT buddy, gave him my soggy computer server, and said, ‘My business is in your hands.’ Guess what? He saved it!” George, who had just finished building his family home, said the firm relocated to his empty garage and worked for two months in the freezing cold on folding tables hastily purchased at Staples. During this difficult time, George said there was an amazing outpouring of support from the architectural community. “My peers were calling offering office space, computers, equipment … they were so concerned and helpful. I thought ‘this is why I live here,’ it was incredible.”
George went on to design the Railroad Square remodel that now includes restaurants, residential units and new businesses. He then turned his attention to a proposed redevelopment of the former Union 76 gas station on Monterey Street that had been remediated and was being put up for sale. The buyer wanted to keep it as a service station and also add a car wash use; during the approval process the neighborhood successfully appealed the approved car wash use to the City Council, arguing that the new use didn’t reflect the quality of residential life of the neighborhood, and so the buyer prepared to pull out of the property purchase. George, having a bigger vision for the property, approached the buyer and asked to take over the escrow and proceeded to design a multi use project of ground floor retail with commercial and residential on the upper floors above. This time the neighbors were fully on board. “Not only is the architecture suited to the property and mix of uses, but we have created community here,” George said of the fully occupied and bustling corner property in the area he calls the MOJO (Monterey and Johnson) District where his offices are now located. “I’m here a lot,” he proclaimed happily, “So this is my ‘hood!”
Currently, George is working on The Monterey Hotel (adjacent to the former 1865/Pappy McGregor’s restaurant that will also be remodeled) with a projected opening date this December. Garden Street Terraces, a mixed-use project underway for several years is slated for a Spring 2019 opening. He’s also the architect and designer for the new Homeless Shelter that recently opened at 40 Prado Road in San Luis Obispo. Garcia Architecture + Design bills itself as a “multidisciplinary firm consisting of architects, engineers, artists, craftsmen, sculptors, painters, musicians and design instructors.” George emphasizes that every project is viewed as a practical work of art with a goal of producing projects of the highest standards.
“Our projects will live far beyond us,” he said. “We tend to focus on commercial projects like restaurants, office buildings, hotels and service stations because of their public impact and accessibility to the community. Hundreds of people pass through and see these types of buildings every day,” he said, echoing his firm’s philosophy that “architecture provides a tangible envelope for the life which goes on in and around it; design should evoke an elevated sense of being.” For George personally, he says that his work is more about a “bigger picture, my community responsibilities and obligations, and not just about money. How am I part of my community?”
Currently, he sits on the Architectural Advisory Council at Cal Poly, working to improve diversity in the College of Architecture & Environmental Design (CAED). He also hosts annual student groups from around the world through a Cal Poly Architecture department program where high school students visit and live on campus during the summer for a full immersion experience in what the CAED program has to offer, including visits to Garcia’s offices. And in addition to lecturing at Cal Poly, he’s spoken to classes at his former community college about his experience from sitting where they are in the classroom to the opportunities that await them. “I tell them, I was in your seat—literally—years ago but I just followed my passion. Oh, and you have to work your tail off,” he laughed.
George shared that a major impetus in his desire to start his own business and pursue projects that allowed him to express his creativity and bring long-lasting physical beauty to the community is summed up, “Life is short and you just don’t know what’s around the corner.” George said that he feels he was given a second chance after two heart surgeries where each had less-than-optimal odds for survival, let alone recovery. “I have a lot to be grateful for and through my work I can give back to the community that’s supported me.”
Today, he’s proud of his daughter Alex, a UC Irvine graduate with a degree in Art History now a manager at The Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Downtown Los Angeles, and son Riley, studying Kinesiology and Business at Cal State San Marcos. April continues to teach part-time as well as work with the firm on interior design projects. At home, Harper the Welsh terrier, “is a complete menace,” laughs George, dealing with ‘The kids wanted a dog and now it’s ours’ syndrome.
Asked about whatever happened to his favorite childhood toy (and unwitting inspiration for a career), George chuckles, “I still have all my Legos in the attic. Waiting.”
And in what’s left of his spare time, George manages to find creative ways to give back through his music: a tradition started many years ago to raise money for community organizations continues. This year’s Christmas Jazz Benefit Concert is slated for Sunday December 16th at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church at 981 Marsh St. in downtown SLO.
Featuring George on piano, Ken Hustad on bass, Scott Liddi on saxophones, and Darrell Voss on drums along with very special guest Inga Swearingen on vocals, the program showcases George’s Jazz Quartet on inventive jazz arrangements of traditional Christmas carols and seasonal tunes. This year’s event will benefit Lifewater International, a local Christian non-profit organization whose mission is to provide clean water and sanitation solutions to vulnerable children and families living in remote, rural and underserved areas of our world. A great concert for an even greater cause. Purchase tickets here