Thompson Penney ’72, M ’74 keeps two letters he received as a high school student framed on the wall of the studio in his Charleston home.
One is a job offer from architect Frank Lucas, his future partner. The other is a rejection letter from Clemson’s architecture program, explaining that he had failed an architectural aptitude test.
“I was just heartbroken,” he said. He had dreamed of becoming an architect since the sixth grade, and Clemson was the only school to which he had applied.
Undeterred, he told Lucas of his plan to meet with Dean Harlan McClure. “Frank wrote a letter, put it in an envelope and sealed it, so I didn’t know what it said.” With the letter and a portfolio of drawings in hand, Thom Penney met with the dean, who opened the letter, picked up the phone, and asked the dean of admissions to admit him to the program.
Thom Penney went on to win the highest design award as a student every year. Clemson discontinued the architectural aptitude test.
Gretchen McKellar Penney’s ’83 father, Peter McKellar, was an architect and Clemson alumnus, but her passion was for the stage. “I wanted to be an actor, but I developed nodes on my vocal cords,” she said. “I thought, I might as well go to architecture school like my father!”
After graduating, she co-led McKellar and Associates Architects with her father until 1999, when her focus shifted to parenting, mentoring and philanthropy.
Thom Penney climbed the ranks to partner and CEO at Lucas’ firm, which became
He continues to serve as chairman emeritus. “I believed in hiring good people and almost getting out of their way,” he said. “The most important things you can pass on are the core values of the firm.”
When the Penneys married in 1998, LS3P had one office in Charleston. The firm now has 12 offices across four states.
“We approached his leadership as a team,” Gretchen Penney noted.
In 2003, Thom Penney was elected president of the American Institute of Architects on a platform that emphasized evidence-based design. His speeches, which he and Gretchen worked on together, described the concept as “Design Matters! Poetry + Proof.”
Complications from a chronic autoimmune disease led Thom Penney to step down as CEO of LS3P in 2020. The illness also changed their mindset. “We thought, ‘Where could we make a gift that would be meaningful while we’re alive?’” Gretchen Penney said. Their continued passion for “Poetry + Proof” led them to donate $1 million to the School of Architecture to establish an endowed professorship in evidence-based design.
“This felt like the right thing to do for us, for Clemson and for the students,” said Thom Penney.