The architectural awe of Columbus quickly became evident to a first-time visitor about seven years ago.

Indiana University Center for Art + Design Columbus was seeking a founding director, and candidate T. Kelly Wilson couldn’t believe his eyes. Traveling the streets of Columbus, he came upon one example after another of Modern architecture by famous architects.

Turning onto Fifth Street produced the jaw-dropping moment for Wilson. It’s there he saw Henry Moore’s “Large Arch,” the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library by I.M. Pei and Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, all within close proximity.

“I absolutely lost it,” Wilson said.

Story continues below gallery

Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

At that moment, Wilson said he knew he wanted the job.

Wilson hopes the first students in IU’s new Master of Architecture program in Columbus experience the wonder and excitement he did when they begin their classes this fall at IUCA+D, and use the city and its more than 65 Modern works as a classroom when classes begin Aug. 21.

Planning for that day has been a whirlwind experience. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education approved the program one year ago today.

The master’s program, offered through the IU School of Art + Design, is a three-year degree program open to students from different disciplines. The IU Center for Art + Design Columbus will administer the program and conduct the classes.

Students will study abroad late in their second year and also be involved in hands-on community projects and learn to be entrepreneurs and community contributors.

Wilson wants the experience to foster creative thought by the students.

“I’d like to try to build a program that gives the opportunity for students to have a shot at thinking for themselves in the hope that they might be able to invent something original,” Wilson said.

Following creative path

That creativity is what has interested Wilson, 62, in design since he was a boy.

“It connects you to a sensuous body of ideas that you don’t have access to otherwise. A lot of design is about mixing the irrational with the rational,” Wilson said.

He said he drew a lot as a child and taught himself oil painting and water color.

“I had a mother who saw my proclivity and would feed it,” Wilson said.

But he had other interests early on, too.

Somewhere in middle school, he said, he wanted to be a scientist. He grew up in New Jersey on the South Shore, and his family visited Cape Cod a lot. Also fond of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, Wilson wanted to be a marine biologist.

While Wilson enjoyed drawing and painting, he didn’t like his high school teachers in those classes, he said. However, he enjoyed a science class taught by an exchange teacher, further convincing him that his career choice was correct.

His dream came to a screeching halt during his freshman year at Auburn University, located in eastern Alabama, nowhere near an ocean.

Auburn appealed to him, Wilson said, because:

  • Some family friends attended.
  • It was away from home.
  • He could run cross-country and track.
  • He could get in despite mediocre high school grades.

Wilson said he applied to a school at Auburn that looked like it offered marine biology. It turned out to be the School of Agriculture; Auburn had fishery programs, he said.

When Wilson met his adviser before the semester started, he received a list of classes he was supposed to take, such as chemistry, organic chemistry and calculus — all subjects he hated in high school. Wilson said he asked the adviser about electives he could take. The adviser jabbed his finger at the paper and told him every class he needed was on the list.

“So startled by the rudeness of the guy, I made the first adult decision of my life. I thanked him, walked up, turned around, walked across campus to the other corner to the architecture program and barged into the dean’s office and said, ‘Sign me up,'” Wilson said.

He said it helped that his mother sent him to college with the book “So You Want to Be an Architect,” which he read on the bus on the way to Auburn.

The creative process of architecture — the inventing and designing — hooked him, he said.

During his freshman year, a professor brought in blueprints to a building that illustrated the idea of design. Little did he know they were the blueprints to the J. Irwin Miller House in Columbus — which he would realize many years later during a tour of the home.

It wasn’t his first connection to Columbus.

From time to time, Koetter Kim & Associates, an architecture and urban design business in Boston, would hire Wilson to help with projects. He recalled Fred Koetter showing him a model of the original Commons building in Columbus and commenting on how much he loved the project and the city’s residents.

Wilson said Koetter told him, “These are credible people trying to do credible things.”

It would be a while before Wilson eventually arrived in Columbus. His career path included working for several architectural firms and a half-dozen teaching jobs, including at Yale, Harvard and Columbia.

However, a phone call from a graduate school colleague at Harvard changed his course.

Marleen Newman, now the associate director of IUCA+D Columbus, who Wilson hadn’t spoken to for decades, had come to Indiana University to teach in the interior design area.

During her phone call, Newman encouraged Wilson to visit the city and interview for the directorship of the then-newly created IUCA+D Columbus.

“She said, ‘This is going to be a first for the university. There will be a design program; there might even be architecture that comes out of this,'” Wilson said.

Community involvement

Those who have worked with Wilson say what he has done since arriving in Columbus is impressive, and are encouraged by his efforts to get the Master of Architecture program off the ground.

“I’m excited to see things come to life in the fall,” said John Burnett, president and CEO of the Community Education Coalition.

Burnett was among those who interviewed Wilson when he came to Columbus in 2011.

“When we met Kelly, we immediately sensed this is the right person to make something very special happen here,” Burnett said, citing Wilson’s professional and teaching experience.

Burnett said he has seen Wilson work with children, college students and the community at large — and he is able to make connections with all.

“He has a passion for this community,” Burnett said.

For example, Wilson has brought about 25 art exhibitions to the gallery space at IUCA+D, Burnett said.

“He’s brought people from all over the world into the city because of his vast network,” Burnett said.

Richard McCoy, director of Landmark Columbus, the umbrella agency over Exhibit Columbus, said he started working in Columbus in large part because of Wilson.

When the city’s arts and entertainment district began taking shape, a need for historic preservation was identified. Wilson recommended McCoy — who he first met when McCoy worked for the Indianapolis Museum of Art — for the preservation initiative, which turned into Landmark Columbus,¬†McCoy said.

Wilson has been an integral part of Exhibit Columbus, which celebrates the city’s legacy of architecture and design, the Miller Prize competition and Landmark Columbus, which focuses on preserving the city’s design heritage, McCoy said.

“Kelly was a big proponent of the competition and helped identify who could be designers and architects involved in the exhibition,” McCoy said.

McCoy said he, too, is excited for the master’s program that is coming to Columbus.

Michelle Smith, a junior at Indiana University and a sophomore in its new Comprehensive Design Program, said students are likely to enjoy the Master of Architecture experience because Wilson is one of the best teachers she has ever had.

The 21-year-old Anderson native said she has taken several classes taught by Wilson at IU, and has made class treks to Columbus to see the many examples of Modern architecture.

The wonder aspect of design is part of who Wilson is, and he helps students see things from a new perspective, Smith said.

“You can’t not walk out of class and see the world differently,” she said.

Wilson also sees a big opportunity for Columbus with the new Master of Architecture Program.

“Columbus grew out of agriculture, math and fabrication. Here is a great opportunity to grow another industry of design and artistic creation within this city,” Wilson said.

The Wilson file

Who: T. Kelly Wilson

What: Indiana University Center for Art + Design Columbus director and associate professor since 2011

Age: 62


  • Bachelor of Architecture, Auburn University, 1978
  • Master of Architecture, Harvard University


  • Taught at Auburn University one year after graduation
  • Hired to work on projects occasionally for Boston-based Koetter Kim & Associates
  • The Architects Collective
  • Associate at Boston-based Schwartz/Silver Architects
  • Taught at Rhode Island School of Design
  • Started own practice in Boston, Adams Wilson Architects
  • Taught at Yale University graduate school
  • Taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Taught at Harvard Graduate School of Design
  • Taught at Columbia University

Family: Wife, Jennifer Riley; three cats

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at or (812) 379-5639.