South Wind Motel is Given New Life, Prepares to Reopen by July

Local developer Michael Kelley of The Kelley Cos. shares new details about the renovation of the South Wind Motel, a midcentury Brewery District landmark.

Erin Edwards
Columbus Monthly
The new South Wind Motel sign in the Brewery District

Open since 1959, the South Wind Motel had fallen on hard times in recent decades, like other old-school motels around the city. But last year, new owners purchased the property, determined to give the 22-room landmark a refresh while honoring its midcentury roots. In this Q&A interview, Michael Kelley, one of the sibling developers behind The Kelley Cos., shares details about the motel project with Columbus Monthly via email. The South Wind Motel is expected to reopen by July.

Can you give us some background on the South Wind Motel project? What makes this specific motel special and when did you decide to purchase it?

The South Wind Motel was built in 1959, an era when the classic American motel was in its heyday as a quintessentially American offering. Strategically placed directly off of highway exits, motels like the South Wind offered respite for the adventurer, road tripper, journalist on assignment, musician, etc. I think that today there is some nostalgia for the experience motels offered, as well as heightened demand for lodging options that have character, as opposed to a cookie-cutter corporate hotel room.  

The South Wind Motel was designed by prominent architect Hal Schofield, who drew inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style of architecture. That style was characterized by dramatic horizontal lines and broad eave overhangs meant to evoke the expansive Midwestern landscape and reflected an all-encompassing philosophy that Wright termed “Organic Architecture.” Today, this motel is among the few remaining commercial buildings in Columbus of this style. 

We’ve always loved the South Wind for its design, its history through the ups and downs, and its location in the heart of the Brewery District and German Village. When we were presented with the opportunity to buy it in late 2020, we were very excited to get it in contract. We closed in February 2021.

Can you give us some insight into the motel’s recent history before you purchased it? What kind of shape was it in?

The South Wind Motel went through several decades where it had a pretty rough clientele, particularly in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Neighbors recall drugs being trafficked openly on the second-floor walkway back then. I’m told by the previous owner (a wonderful family who lived on site and worked hard to maintain good operations there) that before they owned it, the motel charged by the hour, and cars would be lined up and down High Street with folks waiting their turn.

One thing you’ve changed is the exterior sign that sits along South High Street. Can you tell us about it?

The sign drew inspiration from iconic midcentury neon signs in Columbus, including Planks Café, the Peanut Shoppe and the former Rife’s Market sign. Neon signs were a big part of what gave individuality and personality to motels of the past, so we wanted to get it right. The blinking neon lights of motel signs told drivers everything they needed to know: “Vacancy. Low rates. Color TV’s.” Our new sign has plenty of personality, and it tells people what they need to know, too: “Book online.”

What are some of the other design details that you’ve incorporated into the project?   

We really put a lot of thought and effort into the design details inside the rooms. We wanted each room to have a unique and boutique feel, with high quality and thoughtful finishes. We worked with a local furniture maker to have custom-made real walnut furniture in each unit, including a built-in desk, headboard, side tables and a closet wall. We tried to incorporate details to honor the midcentury roots, while also bringing in some contemporary touches. 

On the exterior portion of the building facing High Street, we replaced the painted plywood with real cedar wood, to restore the original material and look. We’ve cleaned up all the brick and stonework. All the windows are brand new, but we retained the historic aluminum window frames and just added screens to them, so guests are able to open their windows and get nice fresh air.

A room at the newly renovated South Wind Motel in Columbus

Are there any special amenities that the motel will offer when it opens?  

One thing that we really tried to lean into on this project was being as eco-friendly as possible in terms of the operations and building itself. We installed a solar array on the roof that will generate more than 50 percent of our electricity. We’ve installed rain barrels for irrigating the landscaping. We have two dual-port charging stations for electric vehicles. Soon we’ll be announcing a partnership with a local soap and skincare supplier that focuses on sustainability, ethical sourcing and reducing plastic waste.

This being a motel, how has this project been different than some of your other development projects around town, namely Emmett’s Café and the Open Air building? 

A motel is definitely different from our other projects, but all of these projects are challenging in their own way. We’re confident in our ability to execute, and even though this motel project presented us with a steep learning curve, it was important to us that it be independently owned and operated. Part of what makes us so excited about the South High Street corridor is all the locally owned and operated businesses here, which give visitors a really unique and authentic experience. There’s a feeling down here that is just different from other parts of town or other cities where you have a lot of larger or national chains. Think about all the really cool small businesses on or near South High Street:  Plank’s Bier Garden, Valter’s, Antiques on High, Law Bird, Emmett’s, Holy Moses Barber and Groom, Goodfellows, Tremont Lounge, Chapman’s Eat Market, Daily Growler, High Beck, Smoked on High, Local Cantina, Club Diversity, Gresso’s, Harvest Pizza, Chocolate Café, Go Yoga, Butchershop Fitness. That’s an incredible line up, and I'm probably forgetting a few. We're just excited to be part of that community and hopefully can be as cool as other businesses in the neighborhood already are.

It has been a busy few years for The Kelley Companies, between wooing the likes of Antiques on High and Law Bird to South High, launching Emmett’s, Open Air and now South Wind. Can you give us a hint about what’s next?

It has been a busy year! We’re also under construction on a few apartment projects in Bronzeville, including a historic renovation of the Ohio Baptist General Convention headquarters mansion on Parkwood Avenue, which will ultimately be 36 apartment units. We’re also working on a renovation of the historic South End Hotel building on Parsons Avenue, which will bring 24 modern apartment units to that side of town for a really good price point. Both of those projects should be opening in the fall of this year. 

Any chance you are a fan of the hit TV sitcom “Schitt's Creek” in which a family purchases a rundown motel and comedy ensues?

Yes, I’m a fan! If this project fails, there may be a lot of Kelleys living in the South Wind Motel.

Inside the renovated South Wind Motel in Columbus