By Alex Ewalt

From left, Mary and Rex Pless, and Ed and Bonnie Gazzola, cut a cake noting the 50th anniversary of Bennett & Pless.

Bennett & Pless has come a long way since it operated from a small basement office on Fourth Street in Atlanta.

The structural engineering firm, now headquartered just off I-85 near Chamblee, celebrates its 50th anniversary in the building construction industry this year.

Bennett & Pless projects in Dunwoody include the Crowne Pointe office towers, Dunwoody Village and the Philips Building. Buckhead landmarks include the Monarch Office Buildings and Atlanta Financial Center, and Midtown features the Colony Square building on 14th Street. The firm also worked on the sprawling Towers at Wildwood Plaza, just across the river from Sandy Springs in Cobb County.

Founded by Moe Bennett in 1964 as E.M. Bennett Inc., the firm started out in a rented basement on Fourth Street in Midtown, where it would stay for 10 years before outgrowing the space.

Rex Pless joined as partner in 1966, and the two Georgia Tech graduates launched their structural engineering firm back in a time when, as Pless said, engineers “still did all calculations with a slide rule.” A smaller office in Chattanooga followed in 1969 and is now in its 45th year of operation.

The Atlanta branch reached its peak size during the 1980s economic boom, taking on big projects from the Southeast to the Caribbean.

“We were doing a lot of large office buildings and a lot of large hotels,” Pless said. “We were 45 people then and we were doing a tremendous amount of work.”

But like the construction industry itself, Bennett & Pless has experienced its share of hardship. The firm has survived two recessions since the ‘80s boom times.

Bennett & Pless was forced to reduce its staff from 45 to 20 following the 1990 slowdown. Nearly two decades later, Bennett retired amidst the turmoil of the 2008 recession, leaving Pless as the sole owner. He cut about a third of his staff, leaving 16 employees.

“I had [considered] possibly selling the business in 2008, when the recession started,” Pless said. “That recession was tough on us. We actually, for a little while, went on a 32-hour week, but that didn’t last very long. Then [business] picked back up. We’re very busy now.”

A new chapter began a year ago when Pless partnered with Ed Gazzola, who was announced as CEO and co-owner of the firm in April 2013. Gazzola, a Toronto native, first came to Atlanta 15 years ago as founder and president of engineering firm Morrison Hershfield Corporation, and has served more than 20 years as an engineering executive.

“A lot of firms got cut in half in the recession, but a lot of them just didn’t make it,” Gazzola said. “I think it’s a real testament to the reputation of the firm [that it survived], but I also think the diversification of the types of work that we do has helped.”

Bennett & Pless has grown its involvement in the wireless, billboard and industrial sectors in recent years, but it continues to consult on a wide range of building projects.

“We do every type of building you can imagine, from a single-family residence to a 40-story office tower and everything in between,” said Pless, who estimates that the firm has active projects in about 20 U.S. states and in several countries overseas.

The firm often consults on complex renovations of historical sites. They are currently in talks to help renovate the Donaldson-Bannister farmhouse at the corner of Chamblee-Dunwoody Road and Vermack Road, a property that was built in the 1870s.

The staff has held firm at 16 since the 2008 cuts, but Gazzola said he intends to start growing soon, possibly to double the amount within three years. “I would like to see us expand geographically, to get some other offices besides Atlanta and Chattanooga as we go forward,” Gazzola said.

“That’s in the future, but I think if we want to be a top-10 firm in the country, it will require us to do that.”