History of Our Towne
Olde Towne East is a former bedroom community of the 19th and 20th century. It was one of the very first suburban areas in Columbus, Ohio which was made possible by the installation of the city’s first horse drawn streetcars starting in 1863.
Olde Towne East, as it is called today, was annexed into the city of Columbus in 1870. It had previously been an area of family operated farms and countryside stretching along the National Road, Main Street from Washington D.C. In 1882, trolley tracks were laid on Oak Street to Kelton Ave where the streetcar barn still stands, providing convenient transportation to former location of the Ohio State Fairgrounds, (now Franklin Park Conservatory), and to downtown Columbus. By 1886, large sections of the area had been subdivided into residential lots. These new homes were built for many affluent politicians, businessmen, industrialists, architects, and land speculators who would shape the future of the city of Columbus. There were also no defacto religious restrictions against Jewish and Catholic families that were common in some other developing neighborhoods. Some of the best known residents included: James Thurber (Cartoonist and Humorist), H.S. Hallwood (inventor of paving blocks), the Hoster family (beer brewers), John Jay Barber (Artist), Joseph Yost (Architect, designer of the Governor’s Mansion and Broad Street Presbyterian Church among many other buildings in the area, William Fisher (Writer and Humorist), the Lazarus family (retailers, founders of the Lazarus Department Store progenitor of Macy’s), Alice Schille (painter), and the Governors of the State of Ohio from 1920 to 1957. In 1896, E.T. Paul opened his blacksmith’s shop at 115 Parsons Ave, next to his buggy shop. Today, E.T. Paul and Sons Co. is the oldest independent tire dealership in the U.S. Olde Towne East was once known as the “Silk Stocking District” in reference to the expensive clothing of its wealthy residents. The city’s most intelligent/shrewd, creative/artful, wealthy/decadent, powerful/demure, and honorable/notorious citizens all resided in this neighborhood.
The proliferation of the automobile and the rise of an economic middle class marked the beginning of an evolution of Olde Towne. Columbus saw the creation of another ring of suburbs starting in the 1920s. To the immediate east of Olde Towne is the City of Bexley, which quickly began to absorb Olde Towne’s affluent residents. It was a classic conflict of “old money” versus “new money”. After World War II the transformation was unstoppable. Gone were the wealthy urban residents of Olde Towne East who had either died or moved into more distant suburbs. The once grand and opulent mansions were either gutted of their expensive amenities (such as copper plumbing and porcelain sinks and bathtubs) or partitioned and converted into apartments and nursing homes. The Broad Street Boulevard, a long strip of landscaped median that extended through the neighborhood from the state capitol to Franklin Park, was removed to make room for more car traffic lanes and the zoning was changed for commercial offices. The Interstate Highway System introduced in the late 1950’s was also a cause of the decline. Interstate 71 physically divided the neighborhood from its city center and created an inner city “island”. The so-called “white flight” had begun with the introduction of the freeway system, more suburbs, and desegregation. By the 1970s, the neighborhood became a predominately African-American community. They had not been included in the prosperity of the 1950s and earlier. Olde Towne East still provided easy access to jobs and necessities by foot or public transportation, and the many large old homes and apartments were much more affordable compared to the new suburbs. A lack of home ownership has been suggested as a factor for the economic decline that followed.
Revitalization is now underway. These structures are being restored to the grand homes they once were. Originally costing perhaps $6000 to construct during the 19th and early 20th centuries, if an Olde Towne East home was constructed today the cost would be astronomical, and practically impossible to build due to the now rare fine craftsmanship of the era and expensive materials used. Estimates often reach into the hundred million dollar range.
ARCHITECTURE AND HISTORIC PRESERVATION
Olde Towne East saw many of Columbus’s finest homes built within the area and much of that architectural legacy still exists today. There are more than a thousand uniquely styled homes in the Olde Towne East area, some built as early as 1830, representing over 50 unique architectural styles. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Olde Towne East represented some of the most popular American building styles spanning 100 years, which included: Federal, Italianate, Victorian, Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, Tudor. Colonial Revival. American Foursquare and American Craftsman. All of these classic styles have been well presented in the area by local architects and craftsmen. Characteristics of the homes of Olde Towne East often include art glass windows, hand carved woodwork, parquetry, stone details, ornate tile work, natural slate and tile roofs, artful wrought iron fencing, and elaborate brick and stone exteriors all created with the abundant resources that were available in the local area 100 years ago.
Bricks, tiles, glass, and iron were all produced in southeastern and northeastern Ohio and made available through the extensive canal systems and later railroads of the day. The dense native forests provided the white oak, walnut, maple, and gum woods commonly used throughout these homes. Features of the home’s designs often include: formal parlors, libraries, multiple dining rooms some seating up to 30 guests, ballrooms, large attics, expansive porches, elegantly tiled bathrooms, gas fireplaces, and wine cellars. In addition, carriage houses for the larger than most contemporary homes are commonplace and most homes often include quarters for houseservants.
Historical preservation in Olde Towne East is an important aspect of the community today. Many present day suburban neighborhoods do not employ the unique construction techniques as used in the former era gone by. In 1989, the Bryden Road Historic District was created within the City of Columbus’s Department of Development. The city’s Historic Resource Commission, according to the recommendations of the Ohio Historic Society, now governs alterations to these structures. Today’s residents are fostering a rebirth, wholly restoring, renovating and preserving the original character of the houses while creating a unique urban community.
The Olde Towne East Neighborhood Association (OTENA) was founded in 1975 as a non-profit organization to promote civic pride and cultural awareness. OTENA now plays an active role in neighborhood zoning and development issues, and strives to help create a community that values its historic structures. Started in 1982 and presented by OTENA, the Olde Towne East Tour of Homes was intended to introduce area homeowners and to exchange ideas and expertise. In 1985, the “Homes for the Holidays” Tour was created to present the contemporary traditions of residents including Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Today, the tours continue to highlight renovations in progress, showcase period restorations, and present modern day necessities in a historic setting. One of the tours biggest objectives is to inform people from other parts of the Columbus area of the historic value of existing structures and to welcome them to experience the community that an urban environment can create. Many of the visitors continue to be from the families who originally lived in the area.
LAND USE CHANGES OVER TIME
The land use in Olde Towne East has changed many times in its existence – from the beginning when it was an affluent neighborhood to its decline and now again to its rebirth. Olde Towne East was once a suburb of Columbus and is now encompassed by Columbus. With more than a thousand homes in the area and numerous architectural styles, the diversity in Olde Towne East is unlike any other – it includes various architectural styles as well as various people and social classes. As stated by one resident:
“I am enriched everyday by the people I meet here and [by] how much diversity exists here. I have lived in a lot of other communities but I have yet to find the diversity that I find here in Olde Towne East.”
Another resident that lived in Olde Towne East through the ups and downs said,
“I was here when this community was the place to be and I was here when this community was a dump. When everyone started to move to newer suburbs like Dublin and Gahanna people called me crazy for wanting to stay and be exposed to all the criminal activities that were beginning to appear in the area. But I knew the character of this community would make a rebirth possible and I am one of the happiest people in the world right now with all the diversity that has come to this community. There is more diversity now than in earlier years which I think makes this area more of an attractive place to live and a place that I love to call home.”
THE STRUGGLE OF CHANGE
Of course this transition did not come in a light and opportunistic way. In truth, the true recognition of the potential value of Olde Towne East homes did not occur until the coming of the Ameriflora ‘92 event. After the season was over the people invited to the event saw the historical value of the neighborhood. The tactics then employed (as outlined in the documentary film Flag Wars) show just how the requisition and purchasing of the homes played out, which included the removal of many poor African Americans and the mentally ill residents and the hostile reception of some homosexual renovators in the process. The social issues in question bring debate about how change should truly occur. Although the neighborhood boasts an ample history, the longstanding African American history of the neighborhood is often overlooked and scorned.
THE FUTURE OF OLDE TOWNE
At the beginning of this century, people chose to live in Olde Towne East for social status. Today, the residents choose to live here for the unique styling of the houses and their appreciation of the diverse community. The varied cultural and racial backgrounds and economic levels that are present create a unique environment not found in any other Columbus neighborhood. Olde Towne East is a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood in a grid layout. The Columbus Metropolitan Library, The Columbus Museum of Art, Franklin University, Capitol University Law School, and Columbus College of Art and Design are all within a 15 minute walk. The entire downtown of Columbus is easily accessible by bicycle or public transportation. City, county, state and federal government agencies (including the Capitol Building of the State of Ohio), several regional and national banks, insurance companies, and major corporate headquarters are all accessible without need for an automobile. There is convenient access to all other areas of the city by the freeway and bus systems that converge downtown. Beginning as the home of the city’s elite and currently home to a diverse urban community, Olde Towne East has seen many changes. Its new residents strive to again represent that diverse population of citizens that make Olde Towne East a great place to live, work, and play.
Olde Towne East is located in the historical Near East Side of Columbus, Ohio. It is one of Columbus’ oldest neighborhoods. Nestled between Downtown, Bexley, and Driving Park, Olde Towne East has over 1,000 homes, some as old as the 1830s, and more than 50 architectural styles including Italianate, Queen Anne and Victorian.
These homes were built by many of the famous individuals of Columbus including industrialists, lawyers, judges, teachers, architects, mayors, governors, and legislators, many of which shaped Columbus.
Today, people of all colors, backgrounds, lifestyles, and incomes make up Olde Towne East. The neighborhood is much sought after for its housing stock and convenience to everything Columbus has to offer.