Designing Dreams

By Dave Ghose
From the August 2012 issue of Columbus CEO

Curt Moody sighs as he walks through the parking garage of the Ohio Union, one of his most recent achievements on the Ohio State University campus. Like so many of his buildings—and his career, for that matter—the $118 million student center is a monument to patience, perseverance and grace under pressure. “This was a lot of years of our lives,” he says during a June visit to the 338,000-square-foot complex.

Moody spent nearly a decade chasing the project, his 25th for his alma mater. He kept at it through false starts (he won, lost and then won the job again) and clashing visions (the original design architect disowned it). Two years ago, the new student union opened, a feat that may never have happened if Moody was a more typical, hard-driving architect. “Curt does not have an ego that gets in the way of satisfying the client,” says fellow architect Mark Bodien, who has worked with Moody for nearly 30 years.

In this case, what the client wanted was a warm, traditional, collegiate gathering place with lots of school pride. Moody pulls an “Ohio” door handle to enter the three-story atrium, the light-filled heart of the building. Inside, the Buckeye theme continues: a scarlet-and-gray color scheme, buckeye leaves in carpet and upholstery, block O’s in the floor, columns and light fixtures. “Everywhere you go, there is something that symbolizes the tradition of Ohio State,” Moody says.

Moody is pleased with the result. True, the building isn’t sleek, contemporary or provocative. Its unexciting look even inspired a somewhat tongue-in-cheek protest from OSU architecture students. But the criticism was a bit like knocking a Katy Perry album for not including a piano concerto. Moody delivered what student leaders wanted, not what he would have preferred.

His approach—“responsive architecture,” he calls it—works for him. Today, his firm, Moody•Nolan, billed as the largest African-American-owned architectural firm in the United States, includes 170 employees, eight offices around the country and a wide-ranging portfolio of private and public-sector projects that generates about $30 million in fees per year. The firm competes in the big leagues, beating out famed architect Michael Graves two years ago to win a contract to build a business school for West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

There are plenty of awards, too. Moody won the Whitney M. Young Jr. award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and his designs have won nearly 150 accolades—23 from the AIA and 26 from the National Organization of Minority Architects. In addition, Moody•Nolan was recognized with AIA Ohio Gold Medals two years in a row, an honor no other firm has achieved. Moody himself won the AIA Gold Medal in 2007, and the firm received the AIA Gold Medal Firm of the Year Award in 2006.

Moody interrupts his tour of the Ohio Union when he spots Gene Harris, the superintendent of Columbus City Schools, on the other side of the atrium. They hug, and Harris compliments him on the building—but with a caveat.

“You know, we built a little student center down at OU,” says Harris, who earned her doctorate from Ohio University and now serves on its board of trustees.

Moody smiles. He’s very familiar with Baker University Center in Athens. “You know, we did that student center at OU,” he says.

Harris’s eyes widen. “Get out of here!” she says with a laugh.

Moody, 61, knows that surprised reaction well. He’s been getting it all his life. In seventh grade, he decided he wanted to be an architect—an audacious career choice for an African-American even today—and refused to give up on his dream. He ignored a junior high school counselor who tried to steer him to a profession more “suitable” for his race. He graduated with an architecture degree from Ohio State in four years while also playing varsity basketball. He broke through the “minority-firm” ceiling to achieve a level of success that perhaps no one other than himself thought possible.

“I often think about Curt and wonder how he did it,” says Wil Haygood, a Washington Post staff writer and author who grew up with Moody in the Weinland Park neighborhood of Columbus.

The usual attributes came into play: a little luck, a lot of hard work, a client—Ohio State—that gave him a big break. But above all, Moody’s success can be boiled down to one thing: faith. With quiet determination—and a steadfast belief in himself—Moody beat the odds, one building at a time.

 

The Church

In 1982, Moody struck out on his own after nine years working for three other firms. Moody and Associates was the realization of a lifelong dream. “I started my firm because there weren’t any minority-owned firms,” he says.

All his life, Moody faced doubters: “You’re not smart enough to be an architect.” “Rich white people won’t hire a black guy like you.” “Why not be a draftsman instead?” Now, he was about to find out if the skeptics were right—and even he was a little nervous. He took on a second job teaching architecture graphics at Columbus State Community College (then called the Columbus Technical Institute) and obtained a license to sell real estate. “I was hedging at the time,” he says.

Moody’s first opportunity came in the form of an ambitious pastor named Gerald Smith. The leader of a small congregation that met in a former grocery store on the northeast side, Smith wanted to build his own church. With just 150 members, however, the congregation could muster up only a tight, $150,000 construction budget. “Most people they were talking to didn’t believe they could build a church for that amount of money,” Moody recalls, standing in the parking lot of the New Life Apostolic Church on Mock Road that he designed. “I believed they could.”

Working by himself, he pulled off the project. He delivered a modest single-story design with a partial basement (a cost-saving move) and collected a $10,000 fee. He’d discovered an important niche.

Moody added staff, leased a South Champion Avenue house on the near east side from former OSU basketball teammate Jim Cleamons—he stored architectural drawings in a bathtub—and made churches a focus of his business. It wasn’t glamorous work, but at least black ministers would give a minority-owned firm like his a shot. “I started pursuing any church that I heard about,” Moody says.

The work also came with an unforeseen perk. While Moody quietly longed to take on more creative “high architecture” jobs, he was building a network of contacts that ultimately would help him find more interesting projects down the road. Many of his minister friends also were community leaders. “So the next thing you know, they are on the board of the Recreation and Parks, and they are saying, ‘Oh yeah. You need an architect. The architect I used is a good architect.’ ”

 

The Terminal

In those days, Moody was known as a “good minority architect.” He formed a partnership with Howard Nolan, a former engineer with the Ohio Department of Transportation, in 1984 and won a slew of contracts with the state’s “set-aside” program, basically a series of smaller projects reserved for minorities. (Nolan retired about nine years ago and died in 2011.)

It was a good start, providing a steady source of revenue. Moody•Nolan moved to bigger digs on East Broad Street and partnered with larger firms on some interesting jobs, designing the exterior façade of the Vern Riffe State Office Tower, for instance.

Yet Moody was falling into a bit of trap. “You get pigeonholed,” he says. He didn’t want to be a good black architect. He wanted to be good. Period. It was the only way, he realized, he’d ever get the big challenging civic projects he craved. The filet mignon went to the top practitioners, while the minorities in the set-aside program were left with the table scraps.

In the late 1980s, racial politics pulled him into the expansion of Port Columbus International Airport. Columbus City Council President Jerry Hammond wanted to make sure minorities got a share of the $12 million addition to the south terminal, unlike when the airport had expanded about a decade earlier. Then, Hammond had criticized architectural firm Brubaker/Brandt, the agency of record on the project, for not having any minorities on its staff.

Moody was well-versed on the previous controversy. His own firm got off the ground, in part, because of it. To appease critics, principals Lee Brubaker and Kent Brandt had recruited Moody to join their firm as, essentially, a token African-American (he didn’t work on the airport project). Moody accepted the offer on the condition that Brubaker/Brandt would provide seed money to help him launch his own business a couple of years later.

Now, he was being recruited to join another team going after a big airport job. And once again, his race was the key factor: A contractor and another architectural firm needed a minority partner for political considerations. But Moody refused to be a token this time. He wanted to design the terminal, he told his partners, even though he’d never done an airport before. This was a high-profile project—the kind of job that could get him and Moody•Nolan noticed. He’d begun to take on similarly sized, more challenging assignments (though nothing quite so visible), and he knew he could do the work.

Moody’s team won the contract to design and build the 106,000-square-foot addition, including shops, offices, six gates for full-size aircraft and a baggage handling system. With the job in hand, Moody met with an architect from the partner firm, an outfit from Nashville with experience in airport work that was supposed to be a consultant on the project. “How are we really going to do this?” the architect asked.

The implication was clear. It was fine to say Moody was the lead designer during the interview for PR purposes. But now they were in the real world, and it was time for someone else to step forward.

“We’re going to do it just like we said,” Moody replied. “I’m going to design.”

His refusal to back down became a “big issue,” Moody recalls. But he stuck to his guns and finished the project on time and under budget.

 

The Arena

His whole life, it seemed, was leading up to this moment. In late 1994, Moody led a delegation to the Ohio State campus to pitch for a $115 million basketball arena project. He’d never been in the running for a bigger job, and he’d never felt more emotional. He worried he’d start crying during the interview.

Moody had begun to wean himself off set-aside jobs and was winning major projects on his own merits. The south terminal addition led to more work at Port Columbus, while Ohio State in the early 1990s awarded Moody a major contract to expand Dreese Laboratories. He also had developed a lucrative specialty in sports and recreation, a practice that grew from the small Columbus rec center jobs he won thanks to his old church contacts. A few months earlier, Moody•Nolan had been awarded a contract to design a 6,000-seat basketball arena for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Now, here he was, a former Ohio State basketball player and architecture graduate, with a chance to design the school’s next athletic landmark. It was a dream job. But despite his recent momentum and personal connection to the project, Moody was still an underdog. He was up against the biggest and the best of the Columbus market, firms twice the size of Moody•Nolan and with lots of stadium work on their résumés. “The biggest fear I had was how to handle it if I didn’t get it,” Moody says.

Moody addressed the selection committee, which included OSU athletic director Andy Geiger, university architect Jill Morelli and several other athletics officials. Standing in front of the packed conference room, Moody spoke from the heart, a trademark. “He’s so sincere,” says Bodien, a Moody•Nolan partner. Moody’s warmth, modesty and likability (traits not exactly common in the big ego world of architecture) attract people to him. “We used to keep track of the corny things he used to say in our early interviews,” Bodien says. “If anyone else would say it, it wouldn’t work. But he had that magnetism. People would respond incredibly to him.”

After finishing his design presentation, Moody thanked the committee. He spoke about his childhood, his humble upbringing, the resistance he faced as he pursued his dream to become an architect. He spoke about the validation he felt now. After being told as a young man that he would never make it in architecture, his alma mater gave him the respect he’d sought his entire life just by giving him a shot. “You cannot imagine the emotion that I feel for this,” Moody said. “I want to thank you so much for allowing me to be in front of you.”

“It really was a tear-jerker,” recalls Eileen Goodman, a Moody•Nolan partner who was at the interview. “People in the room were like, ‘Whoa.’ ”

Selection committees are typically stone-faced and like to keep their thinking under wraps. But the OSU panelists broke protocol after Moody’s speech. They clapped. “That is a rare occurrence,” Goodman says.

A few days later, Moody was told he won the job.

 

The Rowhouse

The two men, sitting on the front steps of a ramshackle Weinland Park home, give the black Mercedes a suspicious look as it drives past. Moody steers the car through his old stomping grounds one day in June. The neighborhood is next to Ohio State and Moody’s campus landmarks: the Schottenstein Center, the Recreation and Physical Activity Center, the new cancer tower under construction at the Wexner Medical Center, to name a few. But with its crime, drugs and poverty, Weinland Park is a world apart. The neighborhood was a more stable place during Moody’s childhood, but he still was one of the few people to go to college, and many folks from the old days have struggled in the ensuing years, including some of his own family.

Moody parks his car in front of a small brick building on North Fifth Street. “This is our house,” he says. Moody, his parents and four siblings squeezed in the two-bedroom rowhouse. Moody, the second oldest, shared a room with his three brothers, while his parents slept on a foldout couch. His older sister, Vera, the only girl, got her own room. “I haven’t been here in so long,” Moody says. He last saw the house when he was in college.

Growing up in Weinland Park, Moody was different than the other kids: more serious, more disciplined. Haygood, whose book The Haygoods of Columbus recounts his childhood in Weinland Park, used to help Moody with his newspaper route. “He insisted the papers be folded just right,” Haygood recalls. “He insisted that they be laid neatly on people’s porches. He had this old soul way about him, even back then.”

He had to be serious, quite frankly. Moody lived in the rowhouse during college, walking to classes. His mother, a cook, died when he was a sophomore at Ohio State, and his father, a factory worker, remarried and moved to New York, says Tina Moody, a childhood friend and the ex-wife of his brother Bill. Curt took on the responsibility of looking after his teenage siblings, while also juggling the demands of difficult architecture classes and playing college basketball. “Of course, I was a kid, and I just thought, ‘Ooh. They’re living in the house. They don’t have any adults,’ ” Tina Moody says with a laugh. “But now, as an adult, I think, ‘How did they eat? What did they do?’ ”

A good athlete, Moody turned down 11 scholarships to attend Ohio State, where he walked on the OSU basketball team. He wanted to study architecture, and none of the other schools had programs. Haygood, a best friend of Bill Moody, felt inspired when he’d walk into the rowhouse and see Curt’s architectural drawings scattered about. Since taking a drafting class at Indianola Junior High School, Moody had wanted to be an architect. “You have to understand what a profound leap of faith that happened to be and the enormity of the self-confidence he had in himself,” Haygood says. Living in blue-collar Weinland Park, he didn’t know any architects, let alone any African-American ones.

Driving through the old neighborhood, Moody acknowledges his dream seemed strange to the people in Weinland Park. “It just didn’t compute,” he says. Even today, the profession can feel out of reach for African-Americans. The American Institute of Architects reports that just 1.2 percent of its membership is black.

Once, Moody asked his mentor, Lewis Smoot of Smoot Construction, how he should give back to the African-American community. Smoot’s advice: Be successful. “He was right about that,” Moody says. “The reason is, if we maintain a high level of success, that example motivates people. People look at it and say, ‘Hmm. He’s no different than I am. I can do that, too.’ ”

Dave Ghose is a freelance writer.

 

Reprinted from the August 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.