El Dorado Honored as Top Small Architectural Firm in Midwest

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El Dorado Principal David Dowell with a model of the new atrium being designed for the Kansas City PBS facility at 125 E. 31st St.

By Kevin Collison

A Crossroads architectural firm named after the fabled city of gold has struck professional mother lode by being honored as the best small firm in the Midwest by The Architect’s Newspaper, a top industry publication.

El Dorado, which survived its early years by taking on Crossroads renovation projects, was selected over firms from a dozen states stretching from Ohio to Nebraska with major cities including Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Detroit.

“It’s an affirmation that we are still on the path we set out on 26 years ago,” said David Dowell, a principal at the firm.

“We just passed through another threshold, and it means a lot to us and our clients.”

El Dorado was founded in 1996 by five architects formerly with BNIM: Dan Maginn, Jamie Darnell, Doug Stockman, Chris Kelsey and Dave Murrell. Dowell joined the group in 1998 after working as an architect in Germany.

A building designed by El Dorado for the Lone Oaks Farm agricultural research campus in Tennessee was featured by The Architect’s Newspaper. ({Photo courtesy El Dorado)

From the beginning, they acted more like a collaborative than a firm, but finally needed to incorporate to do business. Dowell said the guiding principal was a desire to know how things were made.

That meant actually manufacturing and fabricating building materials at their operation at 510 Avenida Cesar E. Chavez.

“There are three legs to our firm,” Dowell said, “hands on making things; treating every project as important from a piece of furniture to redeveloping a whole block in downtown Denver, and our interest in artists and art.”

The creative connection was nurtured in the Crossroads Arts District. The firm’s early work were neighborhood renovation projects including the building at 1900 Main building where Extra Virgin is located and 1901 Main across the street.

The renovation of the historic TWA building in the Crossroads was one of El Dorado’s first big projects.

Dowell said the first few years were low-profile and lean, but the group persevered.

“The beauty of Kansas City is while we thought nobody loved us, it was acceptable and affordable enough to live a good life,” he said. “We were focused on having our fun here in the Crossroads.”

El Dorado’s first big job was the renovation of the historic TWA Headquarters at 1735 Baltimore, the red and white structure with the rocket on top. Another major commission was converting the historic Union Carbide building at 912 Baltimore into condos.

The Crossroads Hotel completed four years ago at 2101 Central is the most publicly accessible example of El Dorado’s work. They teamed with a Chicago firm to combine the old Pabst and Pendergast buildings into a strikingly contemporary, 131-room hotel.

Dowell said El Dorado made its first big national splash in 2019 in downtown Denver where a developer hired them to design Market Station, a mixed-use residential, office and retail project that occupies an entire city block.

Market Station, a mixed-use project in downtown Denver, was a big national step for El Dorado. (Photo courtesy El Dorado)

“Market Station was a vote of confidence in what we do and of our value in a major market,” he said.

Over the years, the firm has evolved. The five founders left for other pursuits and Dowell was joined by Josh Shelton. Several years ago, Shelton moved to Portland to open a second office for El Dorado.

The firm has expanded its portfolio to include redevelopment projects in predominately minority neighborhoods in Portland, the Albina Vision Trust, and in Omaha, the Highlander Accelerator.

It’s also received a major commission in Tennessee to develop the Lone Oaks Farm agricultural research campus near Memphis. Other places El Dorado is working include San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and the Middle East.

A rendering of the new courtyard at Kansas City PBS designed by El Dorado. (Rendering courtesy El Dorado)

On the local front, recent work includes the new Mattie Rhodes Cultural Center and the redevelopment of the building complex housing KCPBS which includes KCPT, Flatland and The Bridge radio station. It’s also designing the new aquarium for the KC Zoo.

The firm also has designed a large apartment project at 4711 Belleview being proposed for the Country Club Plaza area.

The recognition by Architect’s Newspaper is particularly satisfying because the portfolios submitted by firms were judged by a panel of architects from across the nation.

“I was impressed by how the firm has managed to scale up but remain true to their roots—the integration of art, architecture and fabrication,” Coren Sharples of SHoP Architects said in explaining why El Dorado was selected.

“In doing so they’ve transformed a challenge into an asset that defines their brand.”

A view of 4711 Belleview looking south from Belleview Aveneue. (Conceptual endering by El Dorado)

In its application to Architect’s Newspaper, Dowell said the firm has grown by striking a healthy balance between tending local projects of significance in Kansas City and Portland while mixing in national and international projects.

“It’s how we’re able to continue growing, and frankly, maintaining a super-sized level of enthusiasm for the power of good architecture,” he told the publication.

“We still love what we do, and that takes tending to.”

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