Columbus has done good job preserving buildings

LAST week’s story about the restoration of Irwin Gardens should serve as a reminder that Columbus is not all about contemporary architecture.

The gardens, which have opened to the public on a limited basis for several decades, date to the 1910s, when architect Henry A. Phillips laid out a plan for an outdoor space modeled on those from ancient Pompeii.

They were maintained for much of their history by the Irwin, Sweeney and Miller families. That responsibility was passed on in 2009 to the current owners, Chris and Jessica Stevens, who commissioned the current restoration.

Preservation of Columbus’ brick and mortar history is something of a counter-balance to the more modern architecture that has created the city’s tourism industry.

The funny thing is that many of the examples of contemporary architecture in Columbus now actually qualify for historic status. To date, seven local buildings — First Baptist, First Christian and North Christian churches; the old Irwin Union Bank and Trust Co.; McDowell School; the Miller House; and the old Republic building — have been designated as National Historic Landmarks.

Fairly or unfairly, many attitudes in the community have been shaped by the perception that the wrecking ball has been the method of choice in the development of Columbus’ built environment.

Ironically, in the case of most of the city’s landmark buildings, designers didn’t have to build on the rubble of other structures. First Baptist and North Christian churches, McDowell School and the Miller House were built mostly on vacant spaces. The Republic was shaped over an old car lot, and the land for First Christian had previously been a downtown park.

The only landmark building that required significant removal of existing structures was the former Irwin Union Bank at Fifth and Washington streets (now Cummins Inc.’s Irwin Conference Center).

To be honest, I’ve never encountered anyone who raised much concern about the fate of the structures the bank building replaced in 1951. One on the northwest corner of Fifth and Washington was the nondescript Griffin building. It was the structure behind it on Fifth Street that not only drew no sympathy but elicited sighs of relief that it would no longer be a public hazard.

Even the owner, John Sohn, was glad to see the Columbus Milling Co. leveled. I still recall a 2001 interview in which John said of the sale and later demolition, “It meant that I finally could get some sleep.” He recalled that as a young business owner who had inherited the property, he would dread the sound of a fire department siren, speculating that the mill was on fire. “I knew that if it did catch on fire, there was a good possibility it would take most of the downtown with it.”

That sense of relief at a building’s demolition was not universal as to other urban removals. Easily the most contested of those projects was the demolition of several 19th-century buildings encompassing Third, Fourth, Washington and Brown streets to make way for the original Commons.

Opponents of the plan pictured the project as an assault on the city’s history and argued instead that the existing structures deserved to be restored to their original grandeur. There were obviously other factors that fed the opposition, but even today some still regret that many of the buildings couldn’t have been saved.

The problem was that no one seemed willing to make the needed financial investment in restoration. Just to clean up the decay that had developed over the years would have required millions. By 1970, the buildings on the site had deteriorated to the point that many were uninhabitable. Some of those that were habitable weren’t exactly good examples of civic pride at work, particularly those that served as downtown watering holes.

Even I.M. Pei’s Bartholomew County Library was viewed by some as an insult to the past, especially since it required the removal of the original but much smaller Carnegie Library. There was a certain quaintness associated with the original building, particularly in its design, which resembled an opened book.

While the past has been sacrificed to make way for the contemporary, Columbus can boast of a pretty impressive record in preservation of its built environment.

The Bartholomew County Courthouse (which dates to 1874) has been scrupulously preserved. So has Charles Sparrell’s original City Hall at Fifth and Franklin streets. In fact, a number of downtown buildings designed by Sparrell around the turn of the 20th century still stand, and several are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the old Garfield School, which is now the expanded version of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. administration building.

Thanks to Xenia Miller, the Franklin Square buildings on Franklin Street were not only rescued from urban decay but restored to pristine condition. So is the expanded Visitors Center, which was once a down-on-its-heels residence.

Perhaps the city’s efforts to look to the future have required that some of its past be sacrificed. On the other hand, it’s obvious that some of that past has been preserved for the future.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.