A money-losing flower exhibition that saved the Franklin Park Conservatory, and the fate of German Village's Engine House No. 5

I have heard of an event in the 1990s called AmeriFlora. What was that?
AmeriFlora was a world horticultural exhibition that celebrated Columbus the explorer (and his namesake city) on the 500th anniversary of his New World voyage. After a review of sites along the riverfront, Franklin Park, which in the mid-19th century was the state fairgrounds, became the event’s location. Something this large had a lot of moving parts, so not everything went smoothly (some still feel that it was a great idea that could have had better execution and promotion). And it took a lot of serious fundraising from municipal, county, state, federal and private sources.

Creating AmeriFlora involved myriad designers, contractors and workers—including some creative types formerly with Disney—and it had to adhere to strict building codes. But it all came together on opening day—April 3, 1992. It closed on Oct. 12, the date Columbus landed in the Bahamas (which he thought was India). Attendance fell short of projections but several million people did come to enjoy some 45 or 50 countries’ displays, six sit-down restaurants, 35 other food vendors and a major floral competition.

There was controversy over closing the park to local residents for three years, and overall it lost money, but AmeriFlora also benefited the area through improvements to nearby Wolfe Park and its bridge and permanent landscape improvements in Franklin Park. Most importantly, it saved the structurally ailing 19th-century Franklin Park Conservatory, which today is the AmeriFlora gift that keeps on giving.

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Was there once a fire station that was used as a restaurant somewhere in Columbus?
This was Engine House No. 5 at 121 Thurman Ave. in the southwest corner of German Village. It was built in 1892 as one of the city’s many fire stations and was replaced by a new one in the late 1960s.

Then along came Chuck Muer, a Michigander known for putting innovative restaurants into renovated historic buildings. Two of his best-known were the Gandy Dancer in the old Michigan Central Railroad station in Ann Arbor and the Grand Concourse in another incredibly elegant station in Pittsburgh. He was among early entrepreneurs who saw the promise in places such as these (does anyone remember the Waterworks, now long gone from 225 N. Front St.?).

Muer turned Engine House No. 5 into a quirky venue well known for its seafood and really well known for waiters who slid down a brass fire pole holding trays with cakes and candles for customers celebrating birthdays. The basement housed The Spot, a casual bar and gathering place; its logo was a Dalmatian (The Spot—get it?). It was known for its strawberry shortcake and offered great happy hour snacks such as fried smelts and big bowls of guacamole.

The restaurant thrived for two decades and even continued after Muer, his wife and another couple disappeared in a 1993 winter storm while sailing from the Bahamas to Florida in a 40-foot boat. After the restaurant closed Engine House No. 5 was vacant for a while but was renovated in 2004 as office space.

Sources: Ohio History Central; Columbus Underground; Steve Degnen, design consultant; Carl Jennings, site development director; retrokimmer.com; South Florida Sun-Sentinel website

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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.