He’s been drawing Charlotte’s future, one building at a time

When Risden McElroy started drawing buildings for architects in 1980, the fastest way to send a rendering from Charlotte to Raleigh was by bus.

Now architects can order up slick computerized renderings from providers anywhere in the world almost instantly. But McElroy is still doing hand drawings of buildings that don’t yet exist, filling in the outlines of Charlotte’s future as he translates sterile architectural plans into realistic pictures.

“This is the only thing I was ever much good at,” McElroy said in his studio at Trade and Mint streets, where renderings cover the walls and thousands more are stuffed in the drawers. “I guess you have to have a weird personality to do what I do.”

His particular skill occupies a zone somewhere between the specific and the imaginative. McElroy’s drawings aren’t the precise prototypes of an architect, the clinical plans of an engineer or the ramblings of a doodler. His drawings show the possibilities – so developers and architects can sell clients on the projects.

Typically, McElroy starts with a basic site plan or concept for a building, then does a line drawing. He scans it, sends it to the client, and does a more detailed drawing filled in with colored pencil. The renderings include trees, cars, people and all of the other little touches that bring a plan to life.

McElroy, 61, used to do bigger, photo-realistic paintings of proposed buildings, but digital renderings have largely replaced those. The Duke Energy tower was one of his last major hand-painted renderings, though he still occasionally does such projects.

“In this day and age where even I can model a building on the computer, Risden represents an art form that is almost lost,” said Charlotte architect Joe Elliott.

Longtime friend and colleague David Furman, a prominent Charlotte architect and developer, said McElroy’s talent is translating ideas to reality.

“I do an environmental sketch that’s hardly anything, just a germ of an idea, and Risden will interpret that into a drawing that blows people away,” said Furman.

That can be a valuable skill in winning over a client who doesn’t quite get an architect’s vision. Furman, whose office is next to McElroy’s, will sometimes run down the hallway and ask for a quick sketch of a proposed building to show what it would look like from the street.

“Sometimes, I just can’t get a point across to somebody,” said Furman. He’ll tell McElroy: “Pretend you’re on a street right here and give me a 15-minute sketch. I can scan it, send it over, and start the conversation.”

McElroy – whose high school band won South Carolina’s Battle of the Bands in the 1960s – keeps a set of drums in Furman’s art studio, where he likes to rock out. But Furman said McElroy is almost always in his own office.

“He works more than any human I know. If you want to find him, he’s in here,” said Furman. “Saturday he’s here, Sunday he’s here.”

Skyscrapers and a Super-8

McElroy’s love of buildings started early. A Super-8 film he made during a childhood trip to Chicago is entirely consumed by panning up and down the city’s skyscrapers, McElroy said.

“I just like looking at buildings in space, for some reason,” he said. His first ambition was to become an architect, but in college, McElroy realized the math- and numbers-heavy profession wasn’t for him.

He still loved buildings, though. While selling ads for The (Raleigh) News & Observer, he got his first commission: A $35 drawing for one of his mother’s friends of her husband’s childhood home, done from a small photo.

“This is the part of architecture I like, the only part of architecture that’s fun, to me,” he said.

A Columbia native, McElroy moved to Charlotte after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill and working in newspaper ad sales. In the decades since, McElroy has become well-known in the Charlotte development community and worked internationally on buildings from Russia to Nigeria.

But when he started, with no reputation and a small portfolio, McElroy had to trudge from architect to architect trying to break into the field.

“I had to hit on them over and over and just beg for work until I got some,” said McElroy. “I would get a name somehow and bug them.”

With two kids and a wife to support, he said he hustled hard.

“I’m the hunter, running after the pelts and trying to put arrows in them,” said McElroy. “I’ve got to get out there for us to survive.”

For a man who has drawn thousands of buildings, McElroy said he doesn’t have many architectural preferences. The prestigious towers can be fun, but they can also be annoying to draw – architects think they’ve “hung the moon.” Sometimes, people who want a small project drawn ask McElroy if he’ll do a rendering for them even though they worry the projects will seem too minor.

“I will mess with anything,” said McElroy. “I like the ones that pay.”

End of the mania

The real estate market has taught McElroy a harsh lesson: The next downturn is always lurking.

“It’s on the calendar. It’s out there,” said McElroy. And each time, his service is one of the first things developers can cut back on.

“I’m like the cherry on top of the chocolate sundae,” said McElroy. “I’m a little bit of a luxury item. Everything that will happen could happen without someone like me.”

In the mid-2000s, he sensed the growing mania as development surged.

“There was a frenzy out there that couldn’t be satisfied. People just had to have it, they’d do anything to get a rendering,” said McElroy. Orders came in with extra-short turnaround times: “I’ve got a rezoning hearing three days from now, can we get something?”

Then, in December 2007, he felt the wind shift. Orders for his drawings plunged. To get through the recession, the worst he’s experienced, McElroy turned to studio art, trying to sell paintings of landscapes, boats, swamps and other nature scenes. “I honestly was trying to paint things that would have a mass appeal,” he said. “I can do that, but it's not really what I like doing.”

Now, business is back. But technology has also changed things. Many architectural firms do their own in-house renderings, cheaply and quickly, on digital software. Overseas competitors also do digital renderings.

“Digital is sold everywhere today for a dime on the dollar,” said McElroy. “I can’t imagine anyone starting out now doing what I do.”

Most of his work now focuses on Charlotte and the Southeast. The international commissions that used to take him to Dubai and Istanbul to draw “big, wild-looking high-rises” have been replaced by digital renderings.

“The digital took me totally out of that,” McElroy said.

McElroy does digital renderings if a client requests them, with the help of assistants. But most of what he does is still hand-drawn. And though he doesn’t often do fully hand-painted, photo-realistic renderings anymore, he still gets commissions for the “old-school way” from time to time. An architect in Atlanta recently hired him to paint a condo tower, based on digital renderings that looked “too cold.”

“A lot of situations, it’s beautiful,” he said of digital renderings. “But it’s still the digital world. You can tell...I make things look more real.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo