Belinda Stewart (MSU BARC, May 1985) knew she wanted to make an impact as an architect in her community. The 1985 School of Architecture graduate was doing just that early in her career as she learned the ins and outs of historic building renovation in North Carolina. However, after five years, she realized she could have those same opportunities in Mississippi.
“I started thinking ‘Why am I investing all my time in this town that’s not mine?’” Stewart recalled. “So I decided to move back to my hometown and see if I could do some of these same things.”
Home for Stewart is Eupora, a town of approximately 2,000 residents 30 miles west of the MSU campus. In 1990, she started running her own firm out of her grandmother’s home. Within a few months, she had enough work to rent office space. Now, her team comprises 16 employees who work on projects across the country.
Stewart maintains her expertise and experience in the renovation of historic buildings. Her firm has worked on 30 courthouses in Mississippi, helping bring buildings that often sit in the center of a community back to life.
At Mississippi State, Stewart led the renovation of the historic YMCA building and designed Old Main Academic Center, a 150,000-square-foot facility that pays homage to the historic Old Main dormitory that burned in 1959. The new building sits at the corner of Barr Avenue and George Perry Street, with a facade reminiscent of the original dormitory. On its busiest class days, 11,000 people use Old Main Academic Center.
“The intent was never to copy Old Main,” Stewart said. “It was to respect it, honor it and speak to its memory.”
The YMCA building, constructed in 1912, was an early building design from N.W. Overstreet, one of Mississippi’s first architects. With original building plans available to her, Stewart said she enjoyed getting to know the ins and outs of the building as the university sought to give it modern amenities.
“We found a mechanical closet way down deep that still had original materials in it,” Stewart said. “That gave us information to build back the details in the basement. The other two floors had so much original material intact that the issue really became working with that and changing it in a minimal way. We made lots of changes in the background, but visually we wanted to keep that character.”
With several School of Architecture graduates on staff, as well as current students working in co-op positions, Stewart said she is impressed with the way the school teaches students to be problem solvers, a skill that suits them in her firm or wherever they go.
“It’s a changing world and a changing field, so you have to always be learning,” Stewart said. “With existing buildings, there is such a diverse range of things you run into. You have to know technologies from 1920 and 2020. You need a lot of depth to do projects like this.”