Given just weeks to live, architect designs one last plan for the city he loves

Chances are Ron Morgan has less than 18 weeks to live. He is happy.

“I’ll tell you why,” Morgan said a few days ago, relaxing in his living room, one of his sculptures on the floor, a print he designed hanging on the opposite wall, an eye patch beside him because the cancer that may kill him is affecting his optic nerves.

“This is sort of a gift,” he said. “You could be hit by a Mack Truck and not have time to do anything. But I get to work on my dream project.”

Morgan, who is 73, has always been a man of grand ideas. His latest project may be the grandest of all: If he does die – and the doctor gave him only a 20 percent chance of surviving – he wants to leave behind the groundwork for a state-of-the-art greenhouse and learning laboratory on Charlotte’s west side and money enough to get it started.

He already has designed the building. On Thursday, he’s auctioning his art at Elder Gallery on South Tryon Street to raise the money.

“So if I’m gone,” Morgan said, “it will live on.”

His dream project

Morgan’s greenhouse would not be a typical greenhouse. It would produce plants through a method known as aquaponics. He has experimented with the technique for several years on a smaller scale.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (growing plants without soil). Water containing nutrients from fish waste is circulated through pipes to fertilize plants. The plants, in turn, filter the water. The clean water is re-circulated into the fish tank. And around again.

The technique requires less space, less energy and less water than conventional farming. And it can yield more food in a shorter time – also fish.

Morgan got interested in aquaponics after he visited Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. An architect by training, he went there hoping to design shelters for some of the 1.5 million people left homeless. He came home convinced that food production was a greater need.

One conversation led to another and eventually to aquaponics. Morgan envisioned building 100 gardens – 67 in the Charlotte area, paired with 33 in Haiti. A few are underway, including two in Haiti as well as gardens at Garinger High, Myers Park High, South Iredell High and Stonewell Jackson Youth Development Center in Concord.

Morgan was planning more when he got the diagnosis three weeks ago.

‘We had a good cry’

He had dealt with cancer before. Colon cancer. Prostate cancer. Lymphoma. He assumed he would get beyond this newest version, cancer in his spinal fluid.

“My doctor comes into the room and he isn’t smiling,” Morgan recalled. “He rolls his chair up and he gets right in my face. I instantly knew how bad it was by his body language. He says I’ve got 21 weeks.”

Morgan wondered how his oncologist came up with that precise number. He said the doctor explained that he had treated more than 60 people with the same cancer. There is still that small chance that chemotherapy will kill the disease. More likely, Morgan said, it will spread to his brain.

He returned home that day with his wife, Jane, whom he’s known since they were 14-year-old kids in Berkeley, Calif., he the outgoing prankster who loves motorcycles and high speed, she the quiet rule follower. They’ve been married 52 years.

“When we got to the kitchen table, we had a good cry,” he said. “Then we talked about dancing together as sweethearts.”

Ahead of his time

Then Morgan got to work. He knew how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He wants the garden to be as high-tech as the surgery room where doctors inserted a port for his chemotherapy drip. The room was “a cathedral to science, the best stuff that money can buy.”

He thought of the aquaponics gardens he built out of dilapidated greenhouses and “a bunch of junk.” He decided he would build “a cathedral to aquaponics.”

“Imagine a network of them,” he said. “It’s going to change the way we think about science.”

Morgan hopes to create a “ really gorgeous science lab” on West Boulevard, not only to grow food, but to teach children about sustainability. He meets weekly with supporters.

If you’re wondering whether Morgan’s vision is a dying man’s folly, maybe so. But consider this: Ron Morgan talked about urbanism and South End development years ago when few people thought it conceivable.

“Ron is always about 10 years ahead,” said architect Terry Shook, a former partner. “A lot of people are devoting time and energy to make this latest great thing happen with Ron, not for Ron. It will influence the lives of other people going forward.”

Like he wanted

When friends learned about his recent prognosis, one suggested a trip, maybe Paris. Morgan believes he’s where he belongs.

“I’m crazy about Charlotte,” he said. “I just want to use my time here and try to get this done.”

Jane Morgan is philosophical about her husband’s latest – and perhaps last – preoccupation. She thinks of him as always full of energy and ideas, even as a youngster. “If this is the end of his life,” she said, “he’s going out just like he always wanted to.”

He wakes up around 2:30 a.m. most days. He hopes to complete at least 30 prints before Thursday’s art sale and says he needs “utter silence” to create. He naps in the morning, then resumes work until late afternoon.

“I’m having a wonderful time doing it. When you get committed and you have a deadline and you work for big stretches, you’re using your subconscious mind.... It’s a wonderful feeling.”

A feeling, he said, of coming alive.

Leland: 704-358-5074

The Design of Ron Morgan’s life

Personal: Born in Berkeley, Calif. Wife, Jane Morgan; three children; five grandchildren.

Professional: Moved to Charlotte in 1974 to teach architecture at UNC Charlotte. Founding member, Dalton Morgan Shook urban design & architecture. Urban developer, including The Foundry on Cedar Street.

Civic: Co-founder of Queen City Congress in 1995, a group of neighborhood leaders striving to make local government more accountable. Mayoral candidate, 2001. Founder, 100gardens.org.

Learn more: 100gardens.org; elderart.com

Want to attend the auction?

Ron Morgan’s art will be auctioned from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Elder Gallery, 1520 South Tryon Street. Proceeds will go to Morgan’s 100 Gardens project and a state-of-the-art greenhouse and learning laboratory on Charlotte’s west side. Morgan has done about 30 pieces of art, with a series of 100 prints of each that are signed and numbered. Donations to the project will also be accepted. There is a $25 admission to cover expenses.