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Jack's fort: 13-year-old with Down syndrome designs fort at Wildflower Center's Fortlandia

Jack Wilson pulls out his green sketch book and flips through to show off the geometric designs done in pencil. 

Those were the first versions of the fort the 13-year-old wanted to build.

He wanted two levels with strips of wood, a ladder and a place underneath to "chillax." He wanted it to be done on a big scale, or what he calls "puffed out."

He wanted the fort to be a place where he could sit with his friends, or text with them. It could be the arena for his epic thumb wars, which he often wins. 

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Jack Wilson, 13, sits in the fort he designed for Fortlandia at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

He wanted it to be dark green. "It's my favorite color," he says. Some lime green would be good, too, and there could even be some blue. 

Jack's fort has come to life at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center as part of this year's Fortlandia exhibit.

Each year, the center selects forts designed by local businesses, often architecture firms or home builders, and then the forts are built and displayed at the center for several months before they go on to live in other settings.

Fortlandia, which opened earlier this month, will have five forts at the Wildflower Center, plus two interactive build-your-own fort areas. One of the forts is making its North American debut and is still in transit from Spain. One of the interactive areas is also in process.

Jack Wilson wanted a fort he could chillax in. The chairs underneath are made for that.

Two additional forts are on the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail to the east of Interstate 35. 

This is the fourth year that the Wildflower Center has done Fortlandia, but it's the first time a fort has been designed by someone who is not an adult. 

When Jack's mom Suzanne Wilson saw his sketches, she contacted Bo Crockett last fall. She knew the architect with Reach Architects from church. Jack and Crockett's son are in the same grade and had been friends through church and elementary school. 

Together Crockett and Jack worked out the design during several planning sessions. Crockett brought out paper and pens, and they went to work. 

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Jack Wilson, 13, discusses his fort alongside architect Bo Crockett at Fortlandia. They knew each other from church before they embarked on turning Jack's idea for a fort into a Fortlandia exhibit.

The fort is called "Connect." Suzanne Wilson explains that it's about creating places for building connections.

It's also about the way Jack has been able to connect with the outside world. Jack has Down syndrome, and Suzanne Wilson says "my biggest fear would be that he would be isolated," she says. 

Crockett says working with Jack was a lesson in slowing down, drawing together and seeing the creativity that Jack was expressing that maybe doesn't always get recognized. 

Jack Wilson, 13, middle, architect Bo Crockett, left, and StoryBuilt co-founder Anthony Siela, do a thumb war on Jack's fort "Connect," which is part of Fortlandia at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Jack, though, would rein in Crockett. Crockett would have ideas about slides and tubes for talking to someone from one side of the fort to the other, but Jack brought him back to the idea of a simple fort for chillaxing.

"Jack was pretty adamant about the sketch," Suzanne Wilson says.

"Jack was the harshest critic," Crockett says. 

"Oh, please," Jack says. 

They also went to the Wildflower Center and played on Fortlandia forts from last year's exhibit and scouted out potential sites for the fort. They wanted it to have plenty of shade, which would make visitors want to chillax longer.

Making Fortlandia permanent:Wildflower Center exhibit from 'Fortlandia' now open for exploring on hike-and-bike trail

Harrison Shyu, 3, plays on Jack's fort at Fortlandia at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

They enlisted the help of Anthony Siela, the co-founder and CEO of StoryBuilt home builders, to turn Jack's sketches and Crockett's architectural renderings into an actual fort. Siela has a son the same age as Jack who also has Down syndrome. 

Jack's fort is built using 8-foot-long two-by-fours that form the entire structure from the roof slats, sides and base structure in dark green to the lime green ladders meant for climbing onto the roof and the blue chairs underneath the dark green triangle sides. 

StoryBuilt had four building days in which their families, the Wilsons and Reach Architecture families came together to help build and paint the fort. Siela estimates they had 20 kids working on it. 

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Taylor Schilling and Kira Dell relax in Jack Wilson's fort, which has found fans with kids and adults.

"I did the sandpaper on the top of the fort," Jack says.

When kids approach the fort, they instantly find the spaces underneath with the blue chillaxing chairs, but then they find the ladders and start to climb to the rooftop, which is 4 1/2 feet off the ground. 

"I climbed all the way up here," says 3-year-old Ruby Lotterman from her perch on top of the fort.

"I was a little bit scared," she says later. "Then I was not scared at all." 

Other preschoolers also found their way to the top. Some held their parent's hand. Some parents climbed up there, too. 

Jack Wilson looks at the sketch of his fort while visiting the site at Fortlandia. Bo Crockett wrote the notes on the side, but the drawing is Jack's.

"I love it," Jack says. He points out that it's a good space and that the fort is good for your life and for your heart. "You're welcome," he says. 

"Connect" will have a life after Fortlandia. It's designed to be modular and can be moved and rearranged to fit a new space. Once the exhibit's run is over at the end of January, the fort will move to one of the Westbank Libraries sites. 

Fortlandia at the Wildflower Center

Now through January 30.

9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, open until 8 p.m. Tuesdays. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. 

In the Wildflower Center's Texas Arboretum, 4801 La Cross Ave.

Included with admission. $12 adults, $10 seniors and military, $6 children 5-17

The Wildflower Center has timed entry to control the number of visitors for COVID-19 safety. You can reserve your spot up to seven days in advance at wildflower.org

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