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History Lesson: A tale of two trolley barns

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: A tale of two trolley barns
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Many of the readers of Columbus Underground are incredibly interested in bringing alternative forms of public transportation to Columbus – specifically street cars and light rail. To get a sense of how the trolleys were connected into the very fabric of our daily lives a hundred plus years ago, it may be of interest to note that in 1904, our city was so well served by them that the Columbus Board of Trade wrote the following about them in their pamphlet titled Columbus Ohio:

Emerging from the (Union) Station through the grand archway, passengers find themselves facing High Street on which a streetcar passes every half-minute bearing its patrons to such such parts of the city as their business or pleasure may suggest; while uniformed officials stand everywhere ready to give direction or make courteous answer to all interrogations.

The pamphlet goes on to write that “the city of Columbus becomes a railroad center where its establishment is as beautiful to the eye as it is convenient for the conduct of the enormous traffic that daily makes draft upon its resources.

A streetcar in front of the Statehouse, circa 1863. Photo courtesy CML.

A decade later, Columbus’ close to 200,000 residents were served by 133 miles of “tramway” track within the city’s 21 square miles. In 1917, Columbus lawyer William Pomerene delivered a paper to the Kit Kat Club of Columbus (yes, it still exists!) on Street Railway in Columbus. In part, his paper stated “The Columbus Street railway last year carried over 66 million pay passengers.” While many of those were likely repeat riders, it underscores the importance of the trolleys during the early part of this century.

What lies ahead for the future? Photos courtesy CML.

But with the rise of the automobile, the railway titans began to consider ways of how to divest themselves of their holdings. These talks actually began in 1935 but with the country gearing up for war and nursing a struggling economy, those plans were put on hold until September 5 of 1948 when the last streetcar pulled into the Kelton Avenue Car Barn.

The Kelton Ave Car Barn today. Photo by Doug Motz.

That car barn, and a few other structures scattered around the core city, are the last reminders of the fabled streetcar age of Columbus. One of those barns – the former east side Kelton Avenue Barn at 1600 Oak Street in the Franklin Park neighborhood – has been in the news a great deal recently and I wondered how it got to be in the center of a courtroom battle when its south side “sister-barn” at 555 City Park in German Village has had a very different existence.

The South Side Car Barn at 555 City Park. Postcard and photo courtesy Doug Motz.

Constructed in 1883, the Rose Avenue Car Barn (Rose Avenue is known today as Kelton Avenue) was the eastern terminus of what would become the Columbus Consolidated Railway Company. At this time, horses powered the line so it was fitting that the structure be called a barn. It was used for the repairs and painting of the cars, along with other maintenance issues. There were also barns on the North, West and South ends. The Kelton barn became part of a complex that would eventually house another large car barn as well as offices and other smaller outbuildings.

The The Oak Street Barn, left. A Car Shop on the Mt Vernon Line. Photos courtesy CML.

This barn was originally the property of the Oak Street Railway Company, which was incorporated in 1873. At one point Columbus had as many as 29 separate Railway Companies including the Friend Street Railroad Co., the North High Street Railroad Co. and even the North and South High Street Railway and Chariot Company. These 29 were eventually brought together through mergers and consolidations until by 1893, it was a part of the Columbus Street Railway Company.

The Columbus Railway Power and Light Company. At Your Sevice. Photo courtesy OHS.

It was in the early 1890s that the street railways were converted from horse power to electric power. As such, the company again changed names to reflect part of the other related electrical industries they were branching into – the Columbus Railway Power & Light Company.

By 1937, the property had transferred to Columbus & Southern Electric Company (which would become a part of AEP on May 9, 1980) until 1956 when it became a part of the portfolio of the Columbus Transit Company. CSE took control again in 1980 and turned it over to St. Anthony Hospital in 1981 (OSU East Hospital today). The Kelton barn property bounced around between several other owners until 2003 when it became the property of its current owner Minnie McGee.

The 14,000+ square foot property landed in court in 2006 and again most recently in 2013. During the interim, the Columbus Compact Corporation has invited residents and interested parties near the barn to weigh in on what types of uses they would like to see the in the barn. As recently as 2010, the Columbus Compact hosted a forum attended by dozens of leaders of the Near East side who expressed interests as varied as turning the barn into a museum and botanical gardens, a day care, a café center and even artists lofts.

The Franklin County Auditor values the Oak Street property today at $189,000.00 and according to Carol Merry, Chair of Columbus Landmarks Foundation Advocacy Committee, “the Columbus Landmarks Foundation is supportive of the trolley barn being successfully preserved and restored. It is a unique building with great potential.”

The South end barn was constructed about a decade later than its Oak Street counterpart and has had an altogether different history.

German Village Society Historic Preservation Officer Jody Graichen wrote in Remembering German Village of the history of the south side barn at 555 City Park. According to Graichen, “the 7,500 square foot building at 555 City Park Avenue was built sometime between 1891 & 1901. 555 City Park Avenue contained one large building that covered the whole lot from City Park to Pearl and served as the Columbus Street Railway Company’s car barns.”

The final trolley, shown in 1948. Photo courtesy CML.

It served in the capacity as a “barn” or car shed until the late 1940s. In 1950, 555 City Park housed a Walker’s Car Wash. By 1966 she cites an article from the Spectator that describes the south side barn as “an arcade of shops on three levels which is currently the talk of the town.” Early storefronts there included Squire Limited a clothing store and Juergens Konditorei which is still in business in German Village. That complex was named the Old World Bazaar.

Today, the building houses law offices and the Franklin County Auditor values the building and land at over $500,000.00.

So two of the most prominent relics of the streetcar age have had decidedly different “lives.”

On January 11, 2013, in the most recent court case, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the honorable Franklin County Environmental Court Judge Harland Hale wrote that he wondered if the Oak Street property was “on a registry denoting them as historic.”

In a June 26, 2011, Columbus Dispatch article, Mary Beth Hirsch, who leads the education and support-services of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office is quoted as saying:

The trolley barns do definitely contribute to the significance of the historic district. It would be great if a new use can be found for these buildings.

Many in Columbus and Franklin County would certainly consider the Kelton Avenue barns as worthy of restoration as its German Village “sibling.”

That train of thought makes this author wonder if anyone has given any consideration into the idea of making the pair into a matched set once again by turning the Kelton Avenue buildings into law offices?

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