Olde Towne East
Olde Towne East is a neighborhood located in the historical Near East Side of Columbus, Ohio. It is one of Columbus' oldest neighborhoods. Nestled between Downtown, Bexley, Old Oaks Historic District and Driving Park. The area 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 whom shaped Columbus.
Olde Towne East was a bedroom community during the 19th century and 20th century. 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 now, was annexed into the city of Columbus by 1870. It had previously been an area of family operated farms and countryside stretching along the National Road (Broad 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 the former location of the Ohio State Fairgrounds, (now Franklin Park Conservatory and Gardens), 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 de facto 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, see figures 21 & 22), 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 notable 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, 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 1950s was also a cause of the decline (see figure 23). 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. The neighborhood became by the 1970s a predominately African-American community. 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. The area’s buildings and the original residents still mostly owned homes however, the 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 $6,000 to construct during the 19th and early 20th century. In April 2000 the highest sales price was $350,000. 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.
Architecture and historical preservation
Olde Towne East saw many of Columbus’ 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 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 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 house servants.
Historical preservation in Olde Towne East is an important aspect of the community today. Many present day suburban neighborhoods such as Dublin 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’ 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 Tour of Homes was intended to introduce area homeowners and to exchange ideas and expertise. In 1985, the Holiday 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
The land use in Olde Towne East has changed many times in its existence, from its beginning when it was an affluent neighborhood to its decline and now again to its rebirth. The tactics then employed as outlined in the documentary film Flag Wars to 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 gay renovators in the process. The social issues in question brings about wondering how change should truly occur. Shot over four years, "Flag Wars" is a poignant 90-minute account of economic competition between two historically oppressed groups, seen through the politics and pain of gentrification. The setting could be any city with a once stable working and middle class black community, now aging and economically depressed, in danger of losing control of their neighborhoods as wealthier home buyers gentrify block by block. In this case, the neighborhood is in Columbus, Ohio and the home buyers are largely white and gay.
The resulting conflicts are a case study of differences in perception. Where realtors and buyers see run-down homes, black residents see evidence of institutional racism that steered resources away from this community. What newer residents see as a beneficial effort to renovate and restore value, veteran residents see as an assault on their heritage and a threat to their ability to hold on to their homes.
The events in "Flag Wars" unfold against a backdrop of racism, homophobia, and tensions between privilege and poverty. Mix in government zoning boards, the court system, lending institutions, and civic leaders, and you've got a film that hits people "where they live." "Flag Wars" explores the complexity of gentrification, and the contradictions between intention and result, belief and action. It goes beyond merely assigning blame or labeling people as "good guys" or "bad guys" to examine the relationship between housing, heritage, and public policy.
Although the neighborhood resides an ample amount of history, the longstanding nearly century old African American history of the neighborhood is often overlooked and scorned. Moreover, there is a pronounced lack of private business and stores in the community. This is contributed by the stagnation of development with high price homes and slow housing market. Olde Towne East was once a suburb of Columbus and now is 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 from the various architectural styles to the various people and social classes. To the north end of the community lies a congregation of housing projects along the Mount Vernon and Champion avenue corridors.
Choice and change
At the beginning of this century, people chose to live in Olde Towne East for social status. Today, the residents choose to live there for the unique styling of the houses and their appreciation for 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, Capital University Law School, and Columbus College of Art and Design, all within a 15 minute walk. The entire downtown of Columbus is easily accessible by bicycle or public bus. City, county, state and federal government agencies, including the Capitol Buildings of the State of Ohio, several regional and national banks, insurance companies, and major corporate headquarters are all accessible without the use of 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.
- James, Bob. Bryden Road Historic District. Columbus: Silver Moon Graphics, 1992
- Office of Strategic Research, Interview by author, 17 April 2000, The Ohio Department
- OTENA (Olde Towne East Neighborhood Association). Olde Towne East
Foundations of the Past Revitalized for the Future. Columbus: OTENA, 1990
- OTENA. Olde Towne Walking Tour. 21 May 2000
- Sterling, Lea Ann. Historic Homes of Olde Towne; Columbus, Ohio. Columbus:
Victory Postcards, Inc., 1999