When Don Kemp ’78 was a child, his grandfather always greeted him with the same question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” To which Don faithfully replied, “An architect!”
As a high school student, Don’s grandfather worked in the mail room of a general contracting firm in Baltimore and eventually rose through the ranks to become owner of the company. He’d worked very closely with architects throughout his career and thought it a respectable and lucrative line of work. He wanted that success for his grandson, but besides their lighthearted salutation, he never pushed Don to pursue the profession.
When it came time for Don to declare a college major, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. He only knew he wanted to play baseball, but if he was going to play in college, he’d need to decide on a degree. He thought to himself, “I’ve been saying I want to be an architect all these years, I might as well try it out.”
He earned his B.S. in architectural design from The Catholic University of America and spent the first decade of his career in residential design. Though not quite as profitable as his grandfather had assumed, building custom homes was Don’s ideal job. He loved bringing clients’ visions to life. One design in particular stands out in Don’s mind.
“I did a house that was extremely contemporary. Most people would turn their heads and wonder what was going on. It was even a point of contention between my wife and me because I kept talking about how I loved the fact that I did this house, and she never said how much she really hated it because she didn’t want to offend me, but she held it against me silently. She’d ask for my opinion on things then choose the other option,” he laughs.
Don's wife finally admitted that she thought his taste was not in line with hers. “I explained to her that I wouldn’t necessarily live in that house either. But for me, the successful part of it was that I listened to the client. He gave me the concept of what he wanted and what I gave him back was what he fell in love with.”
Years later, Don was out on a delivery with his Cub Scout son and the route just so happened to bring them to the same street as that controversial modern masterpiece. He knocked on the front door and an unfamiliar face answered. “This is going to sound strange, but I designed your house,” Don divulged by way of introduction. They chatted for a few minutes about the house’s unique features.
By this time, Don had already made the switch to commercial architecture. He’s worked on a wide variety of projects from office buildings and retail properties to schools and hotels. “I’ve done a little bit of everything on all types of construction,” he says. “Some designers become experts in a certain type of building. For me, it’s created the versatility to do all these different building types, working in various environments. I’ve been able to shift and move to stay on top of things as the marketplace changes.”
One of Don’s more recent projects was the new Center for Performing Arts and Student Life at Mount de Sales Academy. It took about five years from sketches and schematics to its completion in 2022. Aesthetically designed to match the rest of the red-roofed campus, the 24,000-square-foot building includes a two-level auditorium, a mezzanine, instructional spaces, and an art gallery.
For the past five years, Don has led the healthcare studio at JMT Architecture and is now transitioning into an upper-management role, focusing more on federal work. Don’s connection to his current company came about when he served as chair of the Plant Committee on Mount Saint Joseph’s Board of Directors. During the planning for the Smith Center, Don worked closely with Al Rubeling and his firm, Rubeling & Associates, Inc. While Al’s building proposal wasn’t chosen, the pair maintained a relationship, and when Rubeling & Associates, Inc. merged with Johnson, Mirmiran, Thompson to become JMT Architecture, Al reached out to Don about joining the team.
In December 2021, Mount Saint Joseph called on Don’s expertise again to help develop a new campus master plan with sustainability in mind. JMT conducted surveys, interviews, and spatial evaluations to produce a list of top priorities for the school’s impending renovation.
Don was glad to play a part in these important steps toward The Mount’s future; he’s a Gael through and through. In fact, Al jokes that the Mount Saint Joseph Tower is Don's signature design element. Several of his projects over the years have included a structure suspiciously similar to the iconic Irvington landmark.