When horse play reigned--plus, the transformation of Central High School into COSI

It seems to me there once was horse racing at the Ohio State Fair, with a grandstand for watching the races. What became of that?
Ohio always was a farm state, and agriculture remains our largest industry. Back in the mid-19th century, it was natural that farmers would gather to show off their best fruit, vegetables and livestock. Thus was born the county and state fair.

The state of Ohio held its first Ohio State Fair in Cincinnati in 1850. In Columbus, the first Franklin County Fair was “near Franklinton” in 1851; in 1852 it moved to today’s Franklin Park on East Broad Street. The State Fair was held in several cities and moved to the East Broad location in 1874 (the County Fair went to Hilliard, where it’s still held). In 1886, the State Fair moved permanently to the fairgrounds north of 11th Avenue.

Horse racing seems to have always been a part of these fairs; horse owners wanted to show off their best and perhaps put a little money down just to make things interesting. At the State Fair, despite some arguments over moral issues, racing became a standard attraction by the late 1860s, and it was part of the fair until 1984. By then, fewer than 1,000 people came for the two days of racing, which was expensive to run. So in 1985, the fair’s harness racing was moved to Scioto Downs (now Eldorado Scioto Downs) way down on South High Street, where races held during the State Fair’s annual run still are considered fair events. Back at the fairgrounds, the old grandstand was demolished in 1990, and the Celeste Center is on that site today.

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During a visit to COSI recently, I saw how the new part of the building joined the old Central High School, but some of the school seems to be missing. What exactly happened there? 

You’re right. Moving COSI to the school was an innovative use of an important historic building, but not all of Central was saved. In 1924, it was the first building in the new Civic Center that redeveloped the riverfront after the flood of 1913. Built on the west bank of the Scioto River, the school was later joined by the other Civic Center buildings. Central’s innovative design was by St. Louis architect William B. Ittner. He developed the “open plan” school, typically in the shape of an “E” and with single-loaded corridors that allowed more light and air into the classrooms than in older designs.

Central had some notoriety because of the Emerson Burkhart mural “Music” installed above the auditorium stage. A fussy school principal had the mural whitewashed because it was too risqué (you can see it today at the Greater Columbus Convention Center and judge for yourself). After closing in the early 1980s Central had a cloudy future, though in 1989 it housed the stunning Son of Heaven exhibition of historic Chinese art.

Jump ahead to 1995, when COSI was feeling growing pains and planned a move from the former Franklin County Memorial Hall (today renovated as county offices) on East Broad Street. Central and the land around it were just what COSI needed. The rear portion and the auditorium were removed (that’s when the mural was saved), but the elegant “front door,” the east elevation and its sunken courtyards, was kept intact as part of the new COSI.

Sources: Julie Fulton, Columbus Dispatch librarian; county atlases from 1842, 1856, 1872 and 1883 at Columbus Metropolitan Library; farmflavor.com; Benjamin D. Rickey & Co., “Education is the Safeguard of Liberty: a Historical Analysis of Central High School”

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Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column.