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BILL Wilson, who presided over the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department in the years (1960s) when it was transforming the natural and recreational quality of life in the city, was in town last week to visit with some old friends.
A lot of memories were shared, but one that stuck in my mind involved a story about a dream Elsie Sweeney had for her hometown.
Elsie, a renowned philanthropist and member of the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller clans, is responsible for a lot of things that make Columbus special. She’s probably best known for her palatial home on Harrison Lake — Castalia — but there are an untold number of projects and organizations we still have among us today that owe their existence to her kindness.
Elsie didn’t wait for people to come to her with ideas. She had quite a few of her own.
One involved a riverboat in the middle of East Fork White River.
At the time Elsie was thinking about her riverboat, Bill Wilson was deeply involved in the effort to create Mill Race Park out of a forlorn and poverty-stricken area of town called Death Valley.
Elsie called on him one day and asked that he take a trip down to New Albany to look at a riverboat that had been used as a floating theater on the Ohio River. She indicated that she would be willing to pay to have it shipped to Columbus where it could be floated on the local waterway and used for stage and musical performances.
“I remember Stu Huffman (then a news editor at The Evening Republican) and I drove down there, and all we needed was one look,” Bill said. “That boat was so big that it couldn’t have even fit if we tried to get it into the river here.”
Not only that, but there would have been some pretty tricky logistics getting it from New Albany to Columbus.
We all laughed at Bill’s story, but sometime later it came back to me and I began to consider what might have happened had Elsie’s idea been made into reality. What if there were today a huge riverboat anchored somewhere between the Second and Third street bridges.
That image triggered other thoughts in my mind of what seemed like good ideas that had been floated in the past but just never got done.
One came quickly to mind because it had been mentioned a few days earlier by former Columbus Community Development Director Sherry Stark.
Sherry even had visual evidence of the idea that had been put forth by Paul Kennon, a metropolitan area planner from Texas in his vision for Columbus’ Streetscape project of the 1990s.
Kennon had put many of his ideas into a prospectus that was called “Some Community Ideas ...” One of those ideas concerned Fifth Street, which because of all its architectural and institutional treasures was considered central to the overall plan.
He saw the area on Fifth Street leading into Mill Race Park as an ideal place for some kind of entry portal.
Kennon didn’t think in terms of any normal kind of portal. He envisioned a trellised gateway (pictured elsewhere on this page) that would be entered after passing a battery of flags on either side.
Obviously his plan wasn’t adopted. Instead a series of curved lightpoles now hangs over Fifth Street in that area.
I’m not sure that the trellised gateway wouldn’t have looked more impressive.
I had to go back quite a few more years for another idea that never came to be — the first First Christian Church.
Obviously, there is a First Christian Church. But it’s not the one the congregation of the church originally thought they were going to get.
The building that was designed by world famous architect Eliel Saarinen and turned out to be one of the city’s most iconic architectural images was quite literally an afterthought.
What the congregation originally had in mind in the late 1930s was a more traditional religious structure that was designed by Edmund Beaman Gilchrist. The Philadelphia architect, according to Rhonda Bolner of the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, actually was best known for the design of residences for wealthy clients. So far as local researchers have been able to determine, the Columbus building likely was his first church.
He got so far into his project that his office was able to construct a model of the planned building. The model is now at the Columbus Area Visitors Center.
However, before construction could begin, Gilchrist had some sort of nervous breakdown and had to be removed from the project.
That meant the congregation had to start over again, but they weren’t lacking for willing architects.
“There are several letters in the church files from architects all over the country who wanted the commission,” Rhonda said. “Eventually, they settled on Saarinen.”
Which poses the inevitable question: How would Columbus be different today had Edmund Beaman Gilchrist not had that nervous breakdown?
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.
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