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Plan Revealed for Historic Neil Avenue School

Brent Warren Brent Warren Plan Revealed for Historic Neil Avenue SchoolThe Open Air School, rendering by Schooley Caldwell Architects.
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A local developer has a plan to renovate the former Open Air School in Old North Columbus, one that – to the delight of the neighborhood – does not involve student housing.

Located at 2571 Neil Ave., the ornate brick building has sat empty for years. Most recently used as administrative offices for Columbus City Schools, the building was home to Neil Avenue Elementary from 1956 to 1975. Before that, it held the Open Air School, which was reserved for children at risk of contracting tuberculosis.

The latest plan, from the Kelley Companies, calls for the building to be reimagined as a commercial hub, with a diverse mix of local businesses. Likely tenants include a coffee shop, a fitness center, office users on the second floor, and a restaurant featuring a tucked-in patio overlooking the Tuttle Park woods to the west.

The next step in the process, according to Michael Kelley of the Kelley Companies, is to apply for Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits. His company bought the 1.2-acre property in late 2017, after it was put up for sale by the school district. A rezoning request for the property has been approved by the University Area Commission (UAC) and by the Development Commission.

The “best case” for the start of renovation work would be early 2020, Kelley said, and that would depend on the project being awarded the tax credits in December. Although not ready to announce any specific tenants, he said the mix of uses planned for the building hasn’t changed since the proposal was brought before the zoning committee of the UAC last April.

That was the meeting in which Kelley presented what amounted to a complete change in direction for the project – the previous plan had called for the building to be renovated to hold apartments, and for additional housing to be built on the existing parking lot.

Committee members didn’t like that plan, and requested that a new approach be taken, preferably one that didn’t involve more student housing in an area where there is already a dense concentration of it.

The new plan, with its focus on one-of-kind businesses that would bring something unique to the area, was well-received by the neighborhood group. The fact that the businesses were chosen to complement each other (and to spread out the demand for parking throughout the day), was also appreciated.

“I applaud what you’re doing, you’ve been incredibly responsive to the concerns presented at the (previous) meeting,” committee member Pascuale Grado told the developer. 

An application to put the building on the National Register of Historic Places calls it “an important example of an early 20th century effort in Columbus to provide an educational and healthful setting for the prevention of tuberculosis in the most vulnerable children of the day.”

“The premise of the open-air school was that children’s bodies could be strengthened against the disease by exposing them to abundant fresh air in all seasons,” the application states. A circular play area on the first floor featured wide openings to let the outside air in, and a rooftop space above it was designed for play during good weather.

The building was designed by Howard Dwight Smith, who also counts Ohio Stadium, Columbus City Hall and West High School among his many contributions to the built environment in Columbus.

A historic photo of the building, which was built in 1928. Courtesy of Kelley Companies.
A recent photo. At left is a one-story addition that was built in 1956. Photos by Brent Warren.
The architectural style was described as Italian Renaissance Revival in the application for state historic tax credits.
This part of the building served as a “covered play area,” while the rooftop served as an outdoor “play terrace,” according to the application.
The back of the building looks out on wooded parkland, and the Olentangy River, to the west.
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