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Hard Hat Tour: Municipal Light Plant

Brent Warren Brent Warren Hard Hat Tour: Municipal Light PlantPhoto by Brent Warren.
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Work continues on the renovation of three unique and historic buildings at the western end of Nationwide Boulevard. Brad Dehays of Connect Realty, the developer behind the project, recently gave Columbus Underground a hart hat tour of the buildings.

Known as the Municipal Light Plant, the site was once home to a coal-burning power plant. DeHays explained how the buildings functioned when the power plant was active: coal would arrive via rail car, be lifted by a large elevator and then dumped into a 300-ton hopper. A boiler would burn the coal to generate heat, turning water into steam, which would then move a series of huge turbines.

Removing those turbines — along with all of the pipes, equipment, and other related machinery — has taken the better part of a year.

“There were seven-story coal burners in here, and they were almost like little buildings themselves,” said DeHays. “We’ve taken about 2,000 tons of steel out of here…I asked our structural engineer if we were going to have to shore up the building at all, and he said, ‘No, that building’s going to sigh when you remove all this equipment.'”

“And since we’re at the tail end of this massive demolition,” added DeHays, “it’s just now getting really cool. Before, you couldn’t really tell the story with pictures…it was just all equipment everywhere.”

The largest of the three buildings, built in the late 1940’s, will eventually hold four floors of offices over two levels of parking, with an open atrium that will showcase a huge crane mounted from the ceiling.

Visual reminders of the building’s past will be everywhere. The third floor office space will have as one of its walls the giant coal hopper, while workers on the fourth floor will be able to look down into it. The fourth floor space will also have access to a rooftop patio with views of Downtown. Steel beams and rivets will be visible throughout, as will certain pieces of salvaged equipment that are now being restored and cleaned up.

Garth’s Auction House will occupy the original 19th century building, which sits on the western end of the site, a stone’s throw away from the Olentangy River. Apart from being used to hold auctions, DeHays thinks that the space would be perfect for events.

“This is really what we wanted with this project,” he said, “to do something brag-worthy for the city… it’s a very easy trip from the Convention Center, and with the bridge coming in across the river to the trail, and the park, this could be something really cool.”

Directly behind the Garth’s building is a multi-story brick structure that currently has no interior walls. In the center of that large open space, though, is the base of a tall smokestack that extends high above the building — probably the most visible element of the whole complex. Plans for that building call for parking on the ground floor with office above.

“The office tenant in this space will have 8,000 square feet of clear-span,” said DeHays, “with ceilings that are 22 feet high, not to mention these arch-top windows and the old track system for the coal carts.”

That rear building and the 1940s-era building might have been demolished if another developer had been selected by the city to develop the site. When the city put out a request for proposals for the buildings in 2014, a feasibility study recommended that only the original 19th-century building be saved.

Dehays said that his team saw the potential of all three buildings from the very beginning.

“It’s tough since there was all this equipment in these buildings, so it can be really difficult to put an analysis on the integrity, but the thing is, some of these brick walls are seven courses thick, and the foundation is in great shape,” he added, “so we’re pretty happy with what we’ve got here.”

Even with the equipment now largely removed, the scale of the buildings is still hard to capture in pictures. That’s why DeHays said he is looking forward to an upcoming Columbus Landmarks event in which people will be able to experience it in person; “we’ve done so much work on the demo side, but you can’t see that from the outside…so I’m really excited for people to walk through the buildings.”

DeHays said that the goal is for Garth’s to move into its space some time next spring. The large, 1940s-era building will take more time — probably another two years to put in all of the new floors, walls, stairs and elevators that will be required for it to function as an office building.

All photos by Brent Warren.

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