Meet 5 architects of SLO County's most well-known buildings

They create spaces to work, sleep, learn and play. They design structures that can be awe-inspiring, thought-provoking or simply utilitarian. Whether residential or commercial, the contributions of local architects to the urban and rural landscape of San Luis Obispo County have helped to give the community its eclectic character and sense of place.

For years, these professionals, many with ties to Cal Poly (ranked No. 1 last year for its bachelor of architecture program by an industry group), have worked, often unnoticed, to bring their ideas to life in this county and nationwide.

The Tribune recently interviewed five of these architects to understand more about the passion that drives their creativity.


Name: Mark Rawson

Age: 55

Firm: Architect, Copeland Properties, San Luis Obispo

Employees: Declined to disclose

Background: A 1987 Cal Poly graduate, he worked for a local company for six months before starting APS Architects with two other Cal Poly grads. Rawson joined Copeland Properties in 2003.

Notable projects: Downtown Centre, Court Street, 1026 Chorro St. (home of Moondoggies, SloCo Pasty Company) and the Chinatown project

Mark Rawson’s engineer father enjoyed building things, and it didn’t take long before he realized he liked it, too.

“When I was a little kid, I was around construction,” Rawson said. “He (Rawson’s father) was always adding on and building on to our house and the cabin in the mountains we built.”

In the eighth grade, Rawson decided he wanted to be an architect. In the 1980s, he arrived in San Luis Obispo to attend Cal Poly, and a study abroad experience in Denmark in his fourth year had a significant impact. Rawson lived with a family in Denmark, and the father was an architect. The architecture he was exposed to there, in particular the pedestrian-only streets in Copenhagen, heavily influenced his designs.

“I thought that was just a great thing,” he said. “That was the inspiration behind some of the walking, pedestrian street-oriented projects we’ve done downtown.”

Rawson began working with the Copelands around the 1990s and has worked as their chief architect for the past decade, winning two high-level design awards from International Council of Shopping Centers for Downtown Centre and Court Street in downtown San Luis Obispo.

“There’s a lifestyle to our downtown that involves more than just shopping, eating and watching movies,” he said. “There’s a whole social interaction that occurs with all of the downtown. Being around people is what we do as human beings.”


Name: Stacey White

Age: 40

Firm: Mode Associates, San Luis Obispo

Employees: Three and looking for a fourth

Background: A 1999 Cal Poly graduate with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and master’s degree in business administration. Hired by RRM Design Group in 1998 as an intern and became principal. Now runs her own firm.

Notable projects: Cal Poly Center for Science and Mathematics, but has worked on almost every building at Cal Poly and the majority of campuses in CSU system. She’s working on the only two LEED platinum projects in the area.

Stacey White discovered architecture during a sixth-grade career fair in Corvallis, Ore.

“There was an architect named Cy Stadsvold there who talked to me about what the profession was all about, and I was hooked,” she recalled.

Later, as a Cal Poly student in the 1990s, faculty members further stoked her interest, including Paul Neel, Allan Cooper, Margot McDonald, Michael Lucas and George Hasslein, who inspired her when “my love for architecture had waned a bit,” she said.

“In his (Hasslein’s) classes, we would go on these very low-budget field trips where we would visit Cal Poly Architecture alums in their various towns, sleep on the floor of their homes and visit their offices and/or projects,” she said. “They would talk about what they’ve done with their degree. Some were very nontraditional and had taken their lives in a completely different direction; others a more expected pathway, but each brought a fresh perspective.”

After graduation, White worked at RRM Design Group, where she became principal and manager of the San Luis Obispo headquarters’ architectural practice and the firm’s multi-office education studio. Local architect Vic Montgomery was a big influence at that time.

In 2009, White opened Mode Associates. Her firm focuses on a range of projects and often collaborates with other firms when necessary. Examples include higher education andK-12 projects, civic and corporate buildings, and redevelopment.

“Local architects and contractors have and are helping to shape the place we all live and work in all the time,” said White, whose structural engineer husband, Nathan White, is a partner at Taylor & Syfan Consulting Engineers. “They are impacting policy, designing buildings, and shaping our environment continually. From the downtown to Cal Poly, from our beaches to our wineries, many of the most beloved places were designed by local professionals. I consider myself lucky to be one of them.”


Name: Steven Puglisi

Age: 65

Firm: Steven Puglisi Architecture

Employees: Four

Background: Attended Cal Poly in the 1970s before leaving to support his family and start work as an architectural draftsman. Joined RRM Design Group, becoming a partner in 1978. Worked on several development projects before opening his firm in 1991.

Notable projects: Marshall’s Jewelers, Villa Rosa, Café Roma in San Luis Obispo, Rose’s Landing in Morro Bay and Villa Toscana and Ayers Hotel in Paso Robles

Steve Puglisi was a carpenter building tract housing in Orange County in the early 1970s when he decided he wanted to become an architectural draftsman.

At the time, he was living in Huntington Beach with his wife and four children and attending Orange Coast College. Teachers there, however, thought he should give architecture school a try.

“My teachers insisted that I come to Cal Poly,” said Puglisi, who moved to San Luis Obispo in 1973.

Two years later, when his wife, who had been working as a waitress, needed back surgery, he left the university to support his family. That was only the beginning for Puglisi, who soon became known for producing high-quality renderings for interior designers and local architects. He and his then-business partner, Richard Yaco “had quite a business going” from 1973-75, Puglisi recalled.

Shortly after Rob Rossi asked him to design Chapel of the Roses mortuary in Atascadero, Puglisi was hired by RRM to be one of its designers. In addition to Rossi, Puglisi met architects Vic Montgomery and Bob Richmond, and became friends with Bob Kitamura, who also worked at RRM at the time. As well, he cemented a bond with Keith Gurnee, John King’s former project manager.

“We all grew up together,” he said of the team of architect/builder/developers.

Puglisi became a partner at RRM in 1978, leaving 10 years later to work for a homebuilder in California and Nevada. Work dried up during the early 1990s recession, and it wasn’t until he teamed up with builder/developers Stan Bell and Tim Price to develop the Villa Rosa housing project off Broad Street that the projects began rolling again. But Puglisi says his career has never been busier than it is right now. While he could have easily chosen to move to a larger community to do his work, he’s content in the place he calls home.

“You get to be creative and work with creative people, produce a product out there in the public for everyone to look at, and that to me is a measure of success,” he said. “If you collect fees, make payroll and have some left over at the end of the day, to me that’s icing on the cake.”


Name: George Garcia

Age: 51

Firm: Garcia Architecture + Design

Employees: Seven

Background: Earned AA degree in environmental design from Cosumnes River College in Sacramento in 1984. Graduated from Cal Poly in 1989 and found his first job at a local civil engineering firm. Now owns firm on Monterey Street.

Notable projects: Railroad Square, Mix @ Monterey and Rosetta (SLO) and Nanometer Technologies in Paso Robles

Before he studied architecture, another creative pursuit competed for George Garcia’s time: music. In junior high and high school, Garcia played piano in jazz bands, and thought he wanted to become a professional musician.

“I wanted to apply to The Juilliard School and the Berklee College of Music back east, and my mom said I needed to pick something more practical, which is a comment other architects laugh at,” he said.

But Garcia couldn’t resist his childhood fascination for building things, especially out of Legos. At the time, he didn’t realize that it was “a passion that would turn into a career path for me.”

At 18, he began taking art classes at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. While in school there, he got his first “gofer” job at Dreyfuss & Blackford Architectural Group. He also bumped into a high school friend who was transferring to Cal Poly.

“I was about 20 when I got serious about architecture,” he recalled. “I was working a part-time job, and I finagled my way into getting a gofer position at an architecture firm. By that point, I knew architecture was a field I wanted to get into and pursued it wholeheartedly.”

In his third year of architecture school at Cal Poly, he married, and he and his wife, a kindergarten teacher, decided to make San Luis Obispo their permanent home.

Garcia found work as a draftsman at a local civil engineering firm — Engineering Development Associates — and stayed there a decade. That job taught him how to get projects approved. In 1998, he ventured out on his own and “never looked back.” For Garcia, architecture, like good jazz, is improvisational, and it takes a group of talented people to pull it all together.

“We as a collective group — architects, builders and planners — are stewards of what has been built in the past, but we’re ushering in a new generation of buildings that collectively make up San Luis Obispo.”


Name: Leonard Grant

Age: 48

Firm: RRM Design Group

Employees: About 85 architects

Background: A 1991 Cal Poly graduate with more than 20 years of experience in commercial and residential projects. First job at RRM, but worked at other firms before starting his own in 1997. Returned to RRM in 2011.

Notable projects: Moylan Terrace, Cal Poly faculty housing, new MindBody campus and SESLOC headquarters, San Luis Obispo

Lenny Grant drew constantly as a child. “I don’t know why, but when I would find a piece of paper, I would draw whatever was around,” Grant, who grew up in San Luis Obispo, said.

Grant’s father, a police officer, advised against architecture, though, fearing he would struggle financially. He started as an accounting major at Cuesta College, but he couldn’t shake the architecture bug, eventually enrolling at Cal Poly in 1986. As a student, Grant was drawn to architecture with a social benefit.

“Growing up in SLO, I just saw how expensive and difficult it was to produce housing, and I knew early on that housing was something that really needed to be addressed,” he said.

Grant focused on affordable housing for his fifth-year lab project, and the late George Moylan, then San Luis Obispo’s housing authority director, was his adviser.

“I got to design the Moylan Terrace project,” he said. “I got to do what I had intended to do.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune