Open Door Tour Saturday goes behind the scenes to rarely seen places

THINGS are looking up for the Bartholomew County Historical Society Open Door Tour.

Literally. As in mostly second stories or higher highlights of various downtown Columbus structures many people perhaps never have seen.

That includes the Zaharakos’ family living quarters above the well-known soda shop, late industrialist and philanthropist J. Irwin Miller’s preserved office, part of the inside of the First Christian Church tower and more.

Such is the overall lowdown of the biannual self-guided event slated from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at 11 locations, with seven of them packed tightly together downtown. The self-guided tour, billed as “Behind the Scenes,” is the nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser to boost its operating expenses. Organizers hope to sell 300 tickets. They sold 200 for the last tour in 2020, but that was an all-outdoor garden tour at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This one all started with the general idea of just looking up,” said Diane Robbins, the historical society’s executive director. “So many people walk down the street and maybe they’re talking on their cell phone and they rarely look up.”

But those who purchase a $25 ticket for the event will see former Cummins Inc. race cars, original engines from the firm’s early days and other items at the never-before-opened-to-the-public Cummins Heritage Center at Plant One on Central Avenue.

“People are really going to especially love that,” Robbins said.

Board president Lisa Alderson agreed.

“This has never before been opened to the general public,” said Alderson, who works for Cummins. “And these items have never before been on display anywhere.”

She said a row of engines alone, from the earliest days to today, stretches half a city block long. The collection includes some of the company’s high-horsepower creations, too.

And, in a departure from the upward theme, get a look at the entryway to tunnels, and hear the legends about them, running under downtown areas such as Viewpoint Books.

“People won’t actually be wandering around in the tunnels, though,” Robbins said, adding that organizers have talked with everyone from historians to engineers about the passageways. “It’s been an interesting challenge to get more information about them.”

Alderson believes people will love those aspects of the tour.

“These aren’t just urban legends,” Alderson said.

This is a walking tour with limitations on accessibility at most locations. Attendees 16 and younger must be accompanied by an adult and must purchase a ticket.

In an extreme case of looking up, other attractions include a brief peek inside the First Christian Church tower. A favorite stop returning from the 2018 tour is late industrialist and philanthropist J. Irwin Miller’s office at 301 Washington St. His desk actually seems as down-to-earth as he always was, but the Alexander Girard surroundings give the space a very stylish touch.

And when it comes to style, there is the site of the former St. Denis Hotel included on the tour. When it opened in 1881, The Evening Republican newspaper called it “the most elegant affair that’s ever occurred in Columbus.”

Other structures include the former Columbus City Hall on Fifth Street, which is now mostly condos, the upstairs family living quarters above Zaharakos, and other attractions.

Robbins mentioned that some people attending past tours, especially one in 2019 that highlighted homes more than a century old, get design and decor ideas from what they see. She figures this excursion might just give people a greater appreciation for Columbus’ past.

“We simply asked ourselves ‘What is it that people normally do not get to see?’” Robbins said.

Columbus resident Bev Baker acknowledged that she has seen many of the elements on this tour enough to call her planned outing “a wonderful trip down memory lane,” including ballroom dancing on the second floor of the former City Hall. But she’s excited about seeing the inside of the church tower for the first time and also the Cummins Heritage Center. She praises Robbins for all her efforts with the historical society.

“She’s been so inventive,” she said, “and such an innovator.”