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The Most Unusual Building in Columbus

 Joffre Essley The Most Unusual Building in Columbus
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The most unusual building in Columbus, Ohio sits awkwardly beside a raised railroad track, hidden from view by anyone approaching from the West. It wasn’t always so.

The Toledo and Ohio Central Railroad depot as captured in an early, colorized photo - prior to 1911.

Is it Japanese or Art Nouveau?
Built in 1895 as the principal depot for the Toledo and Ohio Central Railroad, the structure was a showcase for the railroad and for the building’s architects. The tracks were at ground level then, and its pagoda tower was a landmark. The inspiration was Japanese, although with an Art Nouveau twist. Yet, as unique as the tower looks today, it was built to complement three existing pagoda towers of the Macklin Hotel, built directly across the tracks.

The Pagoda Hotel That Inspired a Tower
The origin of the Macklin Hotel is not known, only that it predates the depot. The Macklin was more directly referential to its Japanese inspiration. The photographic record is thin, but the towers themselves are straight-walled , lacking the curving taper of the depot tower.

The Macklin Hotel and T&OC depot, looking Southeast.

It is the taper of the tower that suggests a link with Art Nouveau Architecture. The increasing slant of the wall and the cutaway of the edges at the upper corners creates curving lines associated with that style. The timing was right , the tower was constructed as Art Nouveau was entering into its most popular period, but the rest of the structure fails to follow through.

A griffin tops the corner cut. The rough hewn stone accents the cut, while the groove along the intersection highlights the curve.

A Look Inside

View of the two ends of the open waiting room.

The ironwork is utilitarian, and straight lined. The interior is traditional: the Cupids adorning the arch looking more like the 18th century than closing days of the 19th century; the gas lighting fixtures firmly Victorian in their ornamentation.

The interior just does not live up to the promise of the exterior. It is not just that it is traditional, but the ornamentation was not done well.

Consider the plaster cupids, or cherubim, or puttas. Whatever you call them they are neither beautiful nor cute nor interesting.

Ugly is ugly no matter the style: detail from the arch walls.

The Fate of Buildings
It had all too short a life as a landmark. In 1911 the tracks were elevated almost 20 feet, and Broad street was dropped 4 feet, to improve the flow of traffic for the increasingly popular automobile. Passenger access to the tracks was routed through the building to a raised platform behind the depot. The building was dwarfed by the trestle supporting the tracks, and barely half of the tower cleared the level of the tracks.

Consolidation doomed its function as a depot. Passenger operations were transferred to Union Station downtown. The building was repurposed into an office building and for 73 years it served as the local headquarters for the Volunteers of America.

In 1973 it made it onto the National Register of Historic Places, a status that would serve it well. In 2007 local 67 of the International Association of Fire Fighters purchased the building and obtained a government grant for its renovation.

Inside the old waiting room is a photo of the depot from its early days. Little has changed except for the addition of a staircase to the second floor. This second floor access was initiated after a fire in 1910 revealed a safety concern. Offices on the second floor only had one exit. The staircase allowed an alternative means of escape.

The depot now stands dwarfed by the railroad that runs alongside it.

A photo of a photo reveals little change other than the stair and the lighting.

Another fire in 1975 destroyed the roof of the structure. It was rebuilt but the skylight was redesigned to be electrically lit. This allowed the area above the light to be insulated, eliminated the main source of natural light in the atrium/waiting room.

The plaster cupids along the south arch are not original, but they are reproductions using casts made off of the originals. The cupids fell victim to the 1975 fire.

Somewhere along the way the clocks on the tower were eliminated. The fire fighters union is conducting feasibility studies to replace two of the clocks. The clock facing the tracks would be obscured by the tracks, so its replacement is not under consideration.

The old Macklin Hotel eventually found new life as home to a series of restaurants, but it was demolished in 1955. Now it is only a parking lot for a restaurant.

Despite its fall from grace, this depot came out lucky, avoiding the fate of the Macklin. Once passenger service was stopped many stations were demolished. The much larger Union Station in Columbus was designed in the Beaux Arts style by Daniel H. Burnham & Company. Burnham had designed the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and he applied what he had learned to Union Station. Yet it too was a victim of the decline in passenger service.

A View of the tower from under the RR trestle.

A convention center, occupies much of the land where Union Station stood, and an interstate made use of the right of way of the former tracks.

The Designers of The Most Unusual Building

The architects responsible for the much smaller Toledo & Central Ohio station were Joseph Warren Yost and Frank L. Packard. The firm of Yost and Packard was formed in Columbus in 1892, although both architects had been practicing independently previously. The beginning of their partnership corresponds to a period when Yost was building Orton Hall and Packard was building Hayes Hall on the new Ohio State University campus. The construction may have taken place under the new partnership, but the designs would have been created prior to the official joining of the two practices. Both of those buildings are strongly Richardsonian Romanesque, but the firm was diverse in its offerings, with buildings in Beaux Arts, Georgian, Gothic and Renaissance styles.

While the fate of their depot is in some ways sad, it survives, and Yost and Frank can still lay claim to having designed the most unusual building in Columbus.

Historical photos courtesy Columbus Metropolitan Library. Newer photos by the author.

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