I had visited Ohio twice, once in and around Cleveland, and once in Cincinnati. Somehow, I missed the middle part of the state. The third time was the charm, and I spent a very full day exploring the state’s capital, just a 30-minute drive from my accommodations at the splendid Granville Inn in Granville. Situated along the Scioto River, Columbus boasts some wonderful parks, like the string of riverside parks and the Scioto Greenway, and the outstanding and unique Topiary Garden Park—the only park in the world that replicates a painting; here, Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. In between the greenery rise some striking low- and high-rise buildings that give the city some great character. These are my favorites.
#1 Sells Mansion/Circus House
Surrounding pleasant and bosky Goodale Park, once used as a staging area for new recruits for the Union Army during the Civil War, stand some desirable houses in the Victorian Village area of Columbus. The most beautiful, and intriguing, of them all is the Sells Mansion/Circus House. Built in 1895, this 7,414-square-foot home boasts curved Moorish-style windows, a deep covered porch, a porte cochère, several gorgeous brick chimneys, and two round ground-floor rooms. The original occupants were Peter Sells, one of the owners of the Sells Brothers Circus, and his wife, Mary, who furnished their home with exotic and lavish pieces from their world travels. Standing in front of it, I noted that the dramatic roofs with terracotta tiles resembled a steeply pitched circus big top, whether by design or by the power of suggestion via the house’s history, I couldn’t say. Mr. and Mrs. Sells didn’t enjoy their mansion (or the carriage house, occupied by their servants) for very long: They divorced in 1900 and Sells threw out his ex-wife (not so enthusiastic about the circus, animals, and her husband’s frequent travels around the globe, she had an affair with the wealthy owner of a billiards hall and saloon). Sells died in 1904 (and his circus was acquired by its longtime rival, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey). After that, the mansion served as office space, a chapter of United Commercial Travelers, the Fraternal Order of Police, a nursery school, a shelter house for recovering alcoholics, and a daycare center before returning to its original purpose as a single-family residence in 1998 that has been resold a few times since, the last sale in 2020 to a couple who purchased it for $873,400 and then spent two years and a substantial additional amount restoring and updating it, careful to maintain as much of the original as possible, including stained-glass windows and a grand curving stairway. With a mixture of High Victorian Gothic, Mission Revival, and French chateau design, this is the only building I’ve ever seen whose style is referred to as “Circus Gothic,” and its jumbled three-ring past seems to truly validate that.
#2 LeVeque Tower
When it was completed in 1927, the 47-story, 555’ LeVeque Tower was the tallest building in Columbus (and the fifth tallest in the world). Nearly a century later, it still stands tall as the city’s no. 2, surpassed only in 1974. It’s an Art Deco beauty, opened as the American Insurance Union Citadel at a cost of $8.7 million. As the building was so tall and had nothing around it but open air, it was the ideal location for zeppelin mooring and a radio broadcasting station. The tower employs a terracotta façade and ornate ornamentation. Inside, marble from Belgium and Italy added to the building’s luxury. The lobby featured a marble floor with a bronze plaque containing the building’s horoscope and the positions of the planets at the time the cornerstone was laid. Its construction numbers impressed me: 10,000 tons of steel, 100 miles of electrical wire, 137,000’ of heating pipe for thousands of radiators, 14,000 electrical outlets, and 1,756 windows. About 650 men at a time worked on the building, including “sandhogs” who sank 44 caissons 114’ into the bedrock for the foundation through 80’ of water. These were the same types of workers employed in the construction of tunnels and bridge towers, a potentially fatal job for those suffering from decompression sickness, so the building had an on-site hospital with a decompression chamber. After American Insurance Union went bankrupt during the Great Depression, the building became snidely known as “IOU Tower” until it was purchased by new owners who employed their surnames as the tower’s new moniker in 1945, the Lincoln-LeVeque Tower, which survived until 1977, when “Lincoln” was dropped. After a series of resales, the latest owners initiated a massive renovation project, turning the tower into a mixed-use property, with a combination of a boutique hotel, event space, office space, residential apartments and condominiums, two penthouse units, and a restaurant. For a better look at the top, I headed to the river a couple of blocks away. Here, the building’s delights come into full view (especially with a pair of binoculars): shields and medallions, giant figures, and eagles with wing spans of 22’. If you happen to be here at night during a holiday or special event, you’ll be treated to a light show, when the building is illuminated by a lighting system that allows for 256 million color combinations.
#3 Former Federal Court Building and Post Office
Occupying an entire city block in downtown Columbus, the former Federal Court Building and Post Office positively captivated me. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, this was the first federal district courthouse and post office specifically built, in 1887, for those purposes in the city. It served as a courthouse until 1934, when a variety of federal offices moved in and stayed there for 50 years, a few years after the post office moved out. A law firm subsequently took it over for their offices, retaining the original carved oak postal screen on the first floor and the marble staircases, and converting the courtroom into a giant conference room. A striking example of the Romanesque Revival style with High Victorian Gothic touches from a later expansion, the façade utilized tan rock-faced sandstone with smooth sandstone for the trim. It also features two sets of tripled-arched entrances, balustrades, round-arched windows, projecting stone bands between floors, and a red tile roof, and remains a bygone beauty in the heart of downtown.
#4 St. Patrick Catholic Church
I talked my way into St. Patrick Catholic Church, a fairly impressive accomplishment: Not only does the front look like an impenetrable fortress, with nary a window and two hulking towers with crenellated tops like the battlements of a medieval castle, but the staff member who let me in was also highly reluctant to let me look around—children were gathering for an event, and I was carrying a camera, and everyone’s hyperaware of online child pornography these days. I assured him I had no prurient motivations and simply explained that I was interested in ecclesiastical architecture, that my hometown also had a St. Patrick’s, and that I had no intention of photographing another living being. With that, he changed his attitude and happily led me inside, into a warren of rooms and offices before depositing me in the sanctuary. The second-oldest Catholic church building in Columbus, and the first one to have a bell, was completed in 1853, established and built by poor Irish immigrants. The wide church was reconstructed following a catastrophic fire in 1935 that destroyed the great pipe organ and various other features. One of the survivors were the beautiful stained-glass windows, where St. Patrick gets his due (in addition to the marble statue of him outside, holding a model of the church) in a couple of them, explaining the Trinity with the use of a shamrock in one, baptizing the high king of Ireland in another. Key Biblical events also rendered in the windows include the Last Supper and the Marriage at Cana. Small square murals of various saints occupy panels of the barrel ceiling. Above the reredos behind the altar is a single painting, a sober Crucifixion scene. Following the fire, the church received one of its best installations—new Stations of the Cross, gorgeous sculpted scenes with painted figures following Jesus’ trek from condemnation to resurrection.
#5 St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral
Along one of Columbus’ main east-west arteries, St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral stands proudly among its modern office tower neighbors. I admired this Gothic Revival stalwart, a formidable presence since 1878. The asymmetrical façade of warm ashlar stone slopes down from the left bell tower to the central entrance to the right side with slanted roof and an abundance of pinnacles. Measuring 185’ long and 92’ wide, with three-foot-thick walls, this tremendous church remains incomplete: The left tower never received its planned full height or its three clock faces, and the right is quite shy of its intended height of 200’. Inside, Gothic arches that rest on clusters of columns that, in turn, stand on dressed limestone pedestals, support the clerestory walls. The groined arches of the ceiling are painted plaster to match the appearance of the sandstone walls. Stations of the Cross with golden backgrounds, between fine stained-glass windows, lead to the raised chancel, where you’ll find the cathedra and a marble altar. From here, I made sure to turn around and look back into the choir loft to see the magnificent pipe organ. It took more than two years to construct, and with about 5,000 pipes, it’s one of the largest mechanical-action organs in the United States.
- First Congregational Church (1931)
- Broad Street United Methodist Church (1885)
- Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (1990)
- Elizabeth M. and Richard M. Ross Building, Columbus Museum of Art (1931)
- Ohio Statehouse (1861)
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