History Lesson: The Site of Columbus Commons
Many of us can remember City Center and the ever-changing Rubik’s Cube of shops that began with upscale retailers like Marshall Field’s, Armani Exchange and Henri Bendel but concluded with the likes of the Dollar Store. Some of us – like me – can remember a time shortly before that when the Centrum Ice-Skating Rink occupied the space and was a fun spot to while away the winter doldrums of 1980’s – era Columbus. But let’s go back in time just a little bit further.
When the initial sale of lots in Columbus began in June of 1812, there were Native American Indian Mounds a little further South of the Columbus Commons at what would become Mound Street. Only a few European-Immigrant styled structures were to be found at the time – an abandoned distillery, and two homesteads. Early Columbus historian Alfred Lee tells us that where we now have the Downtown Park, there was once a great forest filled with wolves and bears and plenty of fruit crops like blackberries, pears and wild grapes.
As the forest settlement grew, the area of the Columbus Commons grew as well and by 1897 there were churches (First Baptist at 3rd and Rich and the First Presbyterian on now extinct Chapel street) a Chinese Laundry that was part of the Deshler Block, a Cigar Box Factory, a Bakers’ Confectionary and a Candy Shop along with residential buildings. Additionally, the Secret Society of The Independent Order of Odd Fellows had their Meeting Hall at 198 South High near Town Street.
Anyone who was visiting a few years later would also remember two of Columbus’ late great Department Stores across from Lazarus; “The Fashion” from 1951 – 1968 and “The Union” from 1968 – 1981.
Allen Gundersheimer opened “The Fashion” at the corner of State and South High in 1911. At the time, his business was completely surrounded by saloons and he recalled in a 1946 interview with the Columbus Citizen that with the riff-raff “sitting outside whittling or chewing tobacco, no self-respecting woman would dream of making her way by all the saloons to enter the store”
In 1913, all of that changed with the great flood. The flood wiped out many of the saloons as well as homes that were nearby. Since “The Fashion” only utilized the first two floors of their four storey building, the top floors were converted to dormitories to house those left stranded and homeless. The basement of the building housed Columbus’ first self-service restaurant – “Coulters” – and the staff there fed the needy families as well.
Adjacent to “The Fashion” was another store, “Morehouse Martens”. Max Morehouse, one of the founders of “Morehouse Martens” convinced Orville and Wilber Wright – yes, THOSE Wright Brothers – to fly a bolt of silk from Dayton to Columbus’ Driving Park on November 7, 1910 as a publicity stunt for “Morehouse Martens”. (Ultimately, Aviator Phil Parmalee ended up piloting the Wright B Flyer) This was not only the first flight into Columbus, it was also the first commercial flight anywhere in the world and drew a great deal of publicity from as far away as London and Paris! When the flight landed safely in Columbus, Max directed his staff to cut up the silk banner and attach pieces of it to postcards, which he then sold to his customers in order to recoup some of his costs. He also used some of the silk to create men’s ties and ladies skirts.
In 1951, “Morehouse Martens” joined forces with the Gundersheimers company under the larger banner of the ‘Allied Stores’ and that combined store became known as “Morehouse Martens – The Fashion” until 1963 returned to being known simply as “The Fashion.”
“The Fashion” stayed put until going out of business in 1968 when the spot was taken over by “The Union”.
During these early retail years, it was common practice for retailers to ‘offer’ a suggested price and then allow customers to ‘dicker’ or ‘barter’ for an agreed upon price. This practice changed significantly with the opening of “The Union”.
“The founder of ‘The Union’ – Sol Levy – pioneered the ‘price tag’ and instructed his sales force to never deviate from it. All legitimate stores finally abandoned the early practice of quoting a price and then discounting it to meet the dickering of customers”, recalled his son Robert in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch in 1969.
“The Union” was also the first department store to expand into the suburbs with the establishment in 1949 of a ‘Union Store’ in the Lane Avenue shopping center. By 1968 “The Union” operated five suburban stores
“The Union” included a ‘Swiss Chalet Gallery’ where art collectors could collect the work of Columbus Artist Emerson Burkhart, a fourth floor “Street of Shops” that included a ‘French Crystal and China Shop’, an ‘International House of Greeting Cards’ and a ‘Patio Restaurant’ decorated in a black and white hounds-tooth check motif.
“Marshall Field’s” bought “The Union” in 1980 from Manhattan Industries for 8-million dollars and changed the name from “The Union” to “Halle’s”. “Halle’s” was swiftly purchased in 1982 by the City of Columbus for what was intended as the then titled ‘Capitol South Project’ that later developed what we fondly remember as “The City Center Mall”.
So in a lot of ways, we have come full circle with the Columbus Commons Project, which as I understand it would like to promote more of an independent retail component for the periphery of the park along High Street. The wheel of development will likely turn again and the cycle will undoubtedly continue.
Thanks to David Meyers and the Staff of the Columbus Metropolitan Library History and Biography Department. Building photos are courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. The Union hat box image from the collection of the Columbus Historical Society.
For more information on upcoming historical events, visit www.ColumbusHistory.org.