We are living through a time where the way we work is changing to meet the needs of the moment. It’s hard to look beyond this instant because it often feels like there will be no business to tend to tomorrow if we can’t survive today. Yet, for many businesses, the surest way to a short brand life is to be nearsighted. In being so fixated on solving only for the latest crisis, we are ill-prepared for other changes around the corner. In contrast, companies that take the long view tend to be far more enduring. As leaders like Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, have demonstrated, when you have a clear sense of what you are trying to achieve over a lifetime, you can make faster, better decisions no matter what the current situation. The best short-term strategy is often a long-term one: to build in the present with respect for the past and regard for the future.
While there is no shortage of business stories about brands making short-term, knee-jerk changes to survive, here we will shine a spotlight on a different kind of entrepreneur building with a greater sense of permanence in mind. Jeff Greene is the founder of EverGreene Architectural Arts, entrusted with restoring everything from the Empire State Building and Library of Congress to churches, theaters, train stations, and state capitol buildings. His 42-year-old start-up has survived economic downturns, recessions and pandemics, and remains the largest specialty firm in its field. Beyond simply preserving structures exactly as they were, Greene puts the emphasis on renewal. “[Buildings] are woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, and we want to revitalize people’s perceptions of their surroundings,” says Greene. “A building is not a frozen moment in time. It has to evolve.”
Greene spoke with us from his Brooklyn studio about the lessons he’s learned on personal resilience, craft and quality, and prioritizing timelessness from the start by asking forward-looking questions like: “Will somebody still value this work 200 years from now? Will it still be fresh? Will it still have something meaningful people can take from it?”
EverGreene Architectural Arts has restored some of the most culturally significant buildings in the United States, but before you founded the company you started out as a painter. Can you share a little about your entrepreneurial journey from painting to architecture and preservation?
In college, I studied and trained in public art–murals, specifically. After college, I moved to New York City. My first job was in an art supply store, making $90 a week. Before long, I got a job painting billboards in Times Square.
The other union painters were old timers–career sign painters who had once made their living painting “going out of business” signs during the Great Depression. When I started the job, I could paint a 20-foot head on a billboard in two or three days. But the union guys came to me and said, “No, no, no, kid. You don’t understand. Around here, it takes two painters a week to paint a head.” They said I was making them look bad! So what did I do? I started using the Renaissance techniques I’d learned in college to paint these giant billboards, just so I could make the job last a week. Otherwise, it would go too fast.
That was my union job, during the week. On the weekends we were allowed to get our own work. I had a rigging license, and I found that I could go out on a Friday night after work, hang a scaffold on a brownstone, work all day Saturday and Sunday restoring and painting the façade, and then take the scaffolding down Monday night.
I got good, and I was making more on the weekends than I was during the week with my union job. So, when the painters union went on strike in the late ’70s, I decided not to walk the picket line and collect unemployment. I was a young man with a family. Not working was anathema to me. Instead, I made little flyers that said, “We can fix your façade,” and I walked Manhattan, sticking them under people’s doors. 5th Avenue, Park Avenue, Madison Avenue–from 60th Street up past 90th Street or so.
Most of the work was repairing brownstone façades, but we did all kinds of things, including public art installments–like murals in Rockefeller Center. From there, the business grew. Before long, we were restoring museums, theaters, government buildings, churches, and so much more.
We live in a world where a lot of structures aren’t built to last–be they strip malls or subdivisions full of prefabricated homes. How has working on centuries-old buildings that are expected to last for centuries more shaped your perspective?
My philosophy has always been that if you do good work, you will attract people who are interested in quality. The economics flow from there. That notion has served me well throughout my career.
Ultimately, with each project, it’s about creating quality that people can recognize. Some hear “quality” and think “luxury,” but that’s not what I mean. Quality is a question of craft. A peasant meal in Italy can be the best meal you’ve ever eaten. In every culture everywhere, everyone recognizes quality, whether it’s formalist or vernacular. Quality is universally recognizable. No matter what it is stylistically, if you take something that’s really well made, people will recognize the quality in it. They’ll say, “That’s beautiful. Somebody really cared about that. Someone really crafted that well.”
The quality you bring to bear in this moment will determine what happens in the future. If you’re just doing things mechanically, the results won’t stand up over time. What you do every day is cumulative. And quality endures.
How would you describe the role architecture plays in culture–particularly when we are talking about architecture intended to endure and span many cultural eras?
Architecture creates a shared sense of place and memory and belonging–and that can span generations of culture when it continues to enrich people’s lives.
I can give you a case in point. There’s an oil company in El Dorado, Arkansas. It’s a company town, and they thought about moving the entire corporation to a big city where people would rather be. Then somebody thought, “Why don’t we make this town more interesting for people to live in so we can attract people here?” So they started to renovate the town. Not tearing down the buildings and throwing up new ones, but restoring what was there to honor the town’s historical identity and help it live on. Work like this doesn’t just preserve a building. It can preserve an entire community and a way of life.
We have projects all over the country–South Dakota, Wyoming, Mississippi, South Carolina. Every place has something that’s unique about it, but most people take it for granted. They don’t realize what’s special about their own culture. Why did this town evolve here? What is its history? What makes it unique and interesting? The uniqueness of place is disappearing because people don’t value and recognize it.
In the modern context, preservation is a countermovement. It’s about celebrating the uniqueness of each place. When we bring back those theaters, churches, government buildings, and train stations, we’re not just preserving physical buildings. We’re preserving memories, meaning, and a shared sense of culture and identity–and by preserving the uniqueness of these places, we’re creating space for new memories and meaning to take shape.
How would you describe the legacy that you and your colleagues are building at EverGreene Architectural Arts? What are your long-term ambitions, and how does the brand serve them today?
Well, the buildings we preserve act as monuments and markers in time, so we’d like to think that we’re doing right by them–that we’re making the right decisions and interpreting them correctly and that our work will endure. For example, here in Manhattan, we restored the United Nations. It was something like a ten-billion-dollar project that went on for about ten years. In the process, we restored very specific things, like a fragmented part of the Berlin Wall in the sculpture garden. In that case, it’s a museum object–it represents something on its own–but people are able to see it differently in the context of the UN sculpture garden. So much of our work is freighted with layers of meaning, and we try to honor all of them.
We’d also like to believe that we’re making a positive impact on the communities we work in–that we don’t just make garbage that is no longer useful–and that people will continue to value our work and see it as worth keeping long into the future. Buildings and public art are woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, and we want to revitalize people’s perceptions of their surroundings. I think that’s a part of our legacy too.
Take Playhouse Square, in Cleveland, for instance. We’ve worked on several theaters there–the Allen Theater, the Ohio Theater, the Connor Palace. That work has helped transform Cleveland from this rust-belt place where nobody wanted to go–that people made jokes about– into a kind of cultural mecca.
Another part of our legacy is trying to get young people interested in the same ideas that we’re interested in. If they bring the same kind of intelligence and energy to preservation work, our legacy will perpetuate.
In New York, at the turn of the century, there were 10,000 stonemasons. There are not even 1,000 of them left anymore, but the buildings are still here. Now, we draw people to our studio from all over the world–Albania, Japan, India, Colombia, everywhere. We’re one of the biggest art studios in the United States. But there are fewer and fewer people in the manual trades these days. Who’s going to preserve those buildings? Where’s that craft knowledge going to come from?
What advice would you share with others pursuing their own legacies in the making–not just in architecture, but also in any field?
Do your best work and have lofty goals. What does that mean? Set your standards high. Pursue grand ambitions. I think it was Salvador Dali who said, “Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.”
What’s the standard? Start by looking at what has endured. The stuff that we value–why do we keep it around? Because of its quality. Because of its substance. Because it retains its value over time. So what has endured in your field–and what will endure?
In my case, I grew up looking at art books. My brother is a painter–a very good painter–and I used to spend all day looking at art books, studying paintings, and going to museums. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Poussin, Courbet–all different styles and epochs. Even ancient cave paintings and petroglyphs. Why have people throughout history made art? Why does great art, no matter how old, still catch our imagination or make our hearts beat faster? Because those artists understood something about the human condition–something that still has the power to inspire awe and create this sublime sense that there’s something much larger in this life than our own everyday experience. As creators, it’s up to us to catalog those insights from the past, bring them to bear in our work today, and use them to inform our endeavors moving forward.
As a result, I don’t think about whether my work is good enough for today–or for this year. For me, doing my best work and having lofty goals means aiming to create things that are timeless. I ask myself, “Will somebody still value this work 200 years from now? Will it still be fresh? Will it still have something meaningful people can take from it?”
So I look to the past to influence how I behave in the moment so that my work might endure in the future. It’s all about bringing all of your experiences–all your knowledge of the past, everything that history has taught you–and applying it here and now. In this way, we are capable of bridging the gap between everything we’ve known up to now and the extraordinary–that which we cannot yet see or comprehend.
How you do that–how you imbue things with meaning and make things with real quality and substance–that’s the ultimate question. That’s the never-ending quest.
Typically, when we write about brand builders in business journals, especially during the global pandemic, we do not tend to talk about literal builders like Greene. And yet, there is something highly relevant to be learned from those who are creating physical structures that must last longer than a quarter or fiscal year. In many instances, the buildings that EverGreene Architectural Arts has helped revitalize have grown, not diminished, in significance. Imagine if you could say the same thing about your brand and business? Even if your goal is near-term survival or success, be inspired by the fact that many short-term success stories are the result of leaders thinking first about the long-term.
Mark Miller is the chief strategy officer at Team One, an integrated media, digital, and communications agency, and co-author of Legacy in the Making (McGraw-Hill Education).