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Packard-Designed School Building Stands Out in Olde Towne East

 Joffre Essley Packard-Designed School Building Stands Out in Olde Towne East
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One of the most influential architects of the post-Civil War era was Henry Hobson Richardson. Columbus lacks any buildings by Richardson, but does have a few that were inspired by his designs. The Fair Avenue School is one such building.

Located at 1395 Fair Avenue, just south of Broad Street, it now houses the A+ Arts Academy.

The school was designed in 1890 by Columbus-based architect Frank L. Packard. The total cost was $32,692.

The style designed by H.H.Richardson came to be known as Richardsonian Romanesque. Romanesque was a style of architecture that developed after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It applied the Roman arch to church construction and until the development of the Gothic arch Romanesque was the dominant style of ecclesiastical architecture in Western Europe.

Richardson revived this old style and adapted it to modern use. His wasn’t the first revival of this style, but his interpretation of this style became very popular. He died in 1886, before the Fair Avenue School was constructed. There are a great many Richardsonian Romanesque buildings across the country and most were constructed after his death. It is a testament to his influence, and, tragically, to his dying fairly young.

The dominant architectural element of the Fair Avenue School is the tower. Including a tower in a school seems strange to modern eyes. It is a frill. No functional need requires a tower. Yet here it is. Nor was this school alone in having a tower. A great many did. I suspect the primary purpose was pride. A community that was going places and wanted to show the world put money in its public buildings in a way that could be seen. Nothing stands out quite like a tower.

Richardson was fond of towers and they are included in a good many of his public buildings. He commonly placed round buttresses at the corners of square towers topping them with their own rounded roofs, which is what we see here.

Photo of Sever Hall, courtesy Kenneth C. Zirkel, Creative Commons License, Flickr.

At the top of the tower is what is known as a Loire dormer, named for the region in France where these dormers were popular. The dormer is fronted by a stone or brick facade. Richardson employed this same device on many of his buildings. The Fair Avenue dormers differ only in that they are simplified, lacking elaborate carvings generally associated with this type of window.

Flanking the tower we have two half-round turrets. Richardson used similar paired half-round towers on Sever Hall at Harvard, and individually on numerous other buildings. Here Packard uses them to good effect to frame the tower and the entrance arch.

The entrance arch is formed of wide, thin granite blocks, and lacks a keystone. It rests on a base of granite blocks wider than the arch. The effect is heavy, but strong. There is no uncertainty with this arch. This arch will hold.

Richardson used this type of arch almost as a motif or a signature. Placed on the ground floor, beneath the tall tower, it anchors the tower. Richardsonian buildings always seemed well-anchored. They were balanced, but bottom-heavy.

The beautiful carvings that tie the arch to its base is typical of Romanesque buildings, as is the pattern used on the capitals atop the short columns. The short columns themselves are stout enough to bear a lot of weight, but with the width of the arch, most of the weight is carried by massive blocks behind the columns. This same technique of fronting a load bearing pillar with a mostly decorative column was used by Richardson in his Brattle Street Church in Boston, and echoes its earlier use in Romanesque churches.

Heavy arches were part of what made his buildings anchored, but he also used rough-cut stone on the foundation walls. These give the impression of being stouter and stronger than smooth-faced stone. This was by no means Richardson’s innovation. It goes back many ages.

Where the building was itself faced in a rough-surfaced stone, as was often the case with Richardson’s buildings, the lower floor was usually formed from much larger stones to create the same effect.

The Fair Avenue School has this same type of rough-cut stone foundation. It projects out just a few inches from the walls above it to amplify the visual weight of the foundation.

Where Packard strikes off on his own is with the treatment of the wings. The face of each wing is divided vertically with a slight bump-out that carries on up to a wide dormer. Here is where all the windows are concentrated. The vertical is further emphasized with oriel turrets that guard the projection.

Richardson’s designs always emphasized the horizontal. Even where there were strong vertical elements such as towers and turrets and tall-thin windows, there were equally powerful horizontal elements that created strong lines. You see just a little of this in Fair Avenue with the horizontal line at the top of the foundation stone and with the dentil molding at the eaves, but the windows are all massed vertically. Missing are the long bands of windows that Richardson relies on to stretch out our vision horizontally.

This is not to deride the school. What Frank Yost created is a beautiful building. As a rule architecture is derivative, but architects bring themselves into what they are creating. They may take someone else’s ideas, but they incorporate it into their own creative aesthetic.

What Yost offers instead of Richarsonian horizontal banding is a pleasing symmetrical grouping of vertical structures that stand apart from the school itself. The two window groupings on the wings and the center tower belong together. That is our eye notices that there are similarities with each other. They are all three pointed up, and the windows give the three a common texture. The basic building becomes a blank canvas upon which the vertical structures are displayed. Using gestalt terminology the building becomes the background while these dominant structures become the object. Frank Yost knew what he was doing, and the result is a very pleasing effect, which is why 130 years later it still catches our attention.

The Fair Avenue School is a good representation of Richardsonian Romanesque as interpreted by another architect. It is also a reminder that schools do not have to be solely utilitarian. If part of the purpose of a school is to train young minds in what is beautiful, what is just, and what is good, then beauty should an important consideration when designing schools.

Let us hope that architects and school boards rediscover this idea so that future generations can look at at the schools that we will have created with awe and respect.

A transplant to Ohio, Joffre Essley has taken a strong liking to the architecture of Columbus and the surrounding area. He writes about house styles of the past at his website www.house-design-coffee.com. When not blogging he tweets as @homesower and sneaks a few entries onto his Facebook page.

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  • eschneidoh

    It is gorgeous architecture but I am a bit confused on who designed it. Early in the article you say that it was Frank L. Packard, but then you bring out “Frank Yost” in toward the end a couple of times.. “What Frank Yost created is a beautiful building” and “What Yost offers instead…”..


  • jpizzow

    Beautiful. They don’t build them like they used to.

  • Our residents can be proud that this Franklin Park neighborhood landmark survived!

    Regrettably, other nearby counterparts within Franklin Park were razed including the original locations of East High School, Children’s Hospital and Columbus Academy.

    East High School stood between Oak Street and Franklin Avenue one block south of Fair Avenue School. The site is currently the location of the Theresa Dowd Elementary School (closed).

    Children’s Hospital stood at the southeast corner of Fair Avenue (now Franklin Park South) and Miller Avenues. Park Place Apartments are now located on the site.

    Columbus Academy stood between Fair Avenue and Oak Street between Haviland Avenue (now Nelson Road) and the west bank of Alum Creek. The Cleo Dumarree Recreation Center and Academy Park now occupy this site.

    Contemporary structures that remain in the present day are the nearby Columbus Street Railway System (Franklin Park Trolley Barn) at Oak and Rose Avenue (now Kelton Avenue), the Abbott Terrace apartment building at Morrison and Oak, and the Franklin Park Conservatory.

    Baist’s Property Atlas of 1899 also shows another contemporary building being the location of The Word Church at Wilson and Fair Avenues in nearby Olde Towne East.

  • jpunkster

    “Including a tower in a school seems strange to modern eyes. It is a frill. No functional need requires a tower. Yet here it is. Nor was this school alone in having a tower.”

    As part of a fresh air movement, the towers provided a means of better ventilation for the buildings.

  • eschneidoh – Franklin Packard and Joseph Yost were partners in an architectural firm in Columbus. George Bellows, Sr. (father of the famous Columbus-born American painter) was also with the firm. Many of Columbus’ most architecturally interesting and significant historic structures were designed by these three. You can see some of the buildings they designed here: http://www.ghmchs.org/Packard/index.htm The Senaca Hotel, Orton and Hayes Halls on the OSU Oval and the Atlas Building are four that are most prominent today. They also designed the Circus House for the Sells Brothers Circus owner on the corner of Buttles and Dennison by Goodale Park. I just looked up Fair Avenue School in Jane Ware’s “Building Ohio: A Traveler’s Guide to Ohio’s Urban Architecture” and this wonderful reference book indicates that Fair Avenue School was designed by Franklin Packard BEFORE he and Joseph Yost became partners.

  • John McCollum

    What a beautiful building. Deserves better signage. Zapf Chancery? Ew.

  • Thanks for writing about the background on this building, I always admire it when I drive past. Through some lengthy internet research and a trip to the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Jeff and I were happy to discover that our home is also a Yost and Packard building. The Dispatch had a column called “Real Estate Realm” which would be of interest to anyone studying the late Victorian/ Edwardian/Gilded Age time period in architecture. We were lucky enough to be able to copy a Dispatch article from 1899 with an illustration and details about our home.

  • Achekov

    I wonder how many craftsmen are still around who can carve cornices and pillars like that? I’m betting not many.

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