Looking back at the storied history of Columbus' most iconic skyscraper

Editor's note: With the LeVeque Tower enjoying a renaissance in recent years amid Downtown's ongoing building boom, Columbus Monthly is republishing this May 2005 feature from former editor Eric Lyttle about the beloved building.

On paper, it was probably the smart thing to do. The number of tenants in the LeVeque Tower was shrinking, as were the city's lease rates. The only thing that wasn't shrinking was Kathy LeVeque's payments on the building's mortgage. The lenders were concerned about the building's performance, and had decided to play hardball. They wanted their money, or the building.

LeVeque still owed more than $15 million on her loan, and her advisers were telling her the building wasn't worth nearly that.

But not all business decisions are made on paper. Some are made with heart. The tower had been in the LeVeque name for 60 years. Kathy had been thrust into the role of businesswoman when her husband was killed in 1975, and she'd found she had a knack for it. Just a few short years ago, she was one of the most celebrated among the city's movers and shakers. But now she had little choice.

In February 2004, Miami- based Lennar Partners Inc. took possession of the building from LeVeque. Now, it was little more than a line item in the portfolio of an out-of-state company with deep pockets. After a quick scrub and polish, Lennar put the property on the market again 10 months later. In February, David Friedman and a group of investors from the suburban Detroit-based Friedman Real Estate Group Inc., which had managed the LeVeque for Lennar, purchased the building for $8.5 million—about what it cost to build 77 years ago—in a deal that was scheduled to close April 19.

The loss of the tower by the LeVeque family struck a personal chord in longtime Columbus residents. This wasn't just another Downtown office building changing hands among dealmakers. The LeVeque name, and that signature building, were part of the city's fabric. Before the building boom of the 1980s, the LeVeque was the Downtown skyline. For 50 years, it's what residents in Grandview or Bexley or Grove City saw when they looked toward the city.

Coupled with the recent disappearance of another of the city's venerable business names, Lazarus, it just felt as if parts of Columbus' identity were slipping away. “That building characterizes Columbus," says architect Bob Loversidge of Schooley Caldwell Associates. “Not only is it the building that people remember and identify, but it's associated with a real person, a real family. People knew Mr. LeVeque. They've seen or met Mrs. LeVeque, and she's a very popular businesswoman Downtown. Nobody really identifies the Bank One building or the Nationwide building with a person. The LeVeque has a unique appeal.”

There have been many peaks and valleys in the histories of both the LeVeque family and the building that bears their name. And if Kathy LeVeque has her way, we shouldn't count her out just yet. “I've always been lucky," she says. "Things have always turned out. We'll get it back. You just have to have faith and confidence."

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Katherine LeVeque has an endearing, demure Southern belle demeanor and an ever present optimistic sparkle. She is active: At 78 years of age, she still swims almost every day—"I think I could swim across the ocean if there were no sharks”—and still enjoys taking on her son, Colin, in tennis, despite the fact that she had knee-replacement surgery in November. “I feel great. Everyone should get one," she says of her new titanium knee. “Except it makes all the bells and whistles go off at the airport."

LeVeque is down to half-days at work now, but she arrives, virtually every morning, bright and early at 6:30 a.m. She still enjoys being a businesswoman, and by most accounts, she's good at it. “They're not having any tag parties for her yet," says longtime family friend Gene D'Angelo, the former president of WBNS TV and radio.

Losing the LeVeque Tower was a blow, financially and personally. “It's a difficult time," she says. But the problems may be more reflective of the Downtown market than LeVeque's business sense. Lease rates for office space have been tumbling for years, and though the LeVeque is the most recognizable address in the city, it's also one of the oldest.

To keep pace with a building boom in the 1980s that saw no fewer than eight new skyscrapers added to the Columbus skyline, LeVeque sank $19 million into renovating the tower, showing it off with floodlights installed at the 34th floor, allowing it to glow in the night as it had in the 1920s. And through the late 1990s, it was one of Downtown's best-performing buildings, maintaining an occupancy rate around 90 percent. But there were warning signs.

“Rob Click [one of LeVeque's financial advisers] would tell me, ‘Kathy, the budget looks good now, but if one of those big groups moves out, we're in trouble,' ” says LeVeque. “But I wouldn't listen."

In 2003, it happened. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the building's largest tenant, moved east on Broad, into the Rhodes Tower. The state agency had leased eight floors inside the LeVeque for 15 years, representing about 19 percent of the building's leasable space, and was paying nearly $1 million annually in rent.

It was a blow Kathy LeVeque simply couldn't absorb, especially during an economic recession. “It was a bad time," says LeVeque. “We just couldn't pay the whole mortgage unless I sold some more farmland, and my kids didn't want me to do that. I just didn't have that much corn and soybeans left.” LeVeque owns a farm on Africa Road near Westerville. She sold a sizable chunk of it in the late 1980s for the development of the Lakes Golf and Country Club.

"We went to them [Lennar, the deed holder] and offered them a lesser amount," says LeVeque. “We made what I thought was a very good offer. We offered several times, in fact. But they wouldn't take it. My advisers advised me to just turn the tower back in and invest in other things."

Of her five children, only Colin lives locally, and he's been an integral part of the family business in recent years. He urged her to let the tower go. “I love the building, and I have an emotional attachment to it," he says. “As a kid, I used to get lost in those three basements down there. But I also know that in today's market, that building can be a money pit. Anybody who ever bought a beautiful old house and tried to fix it up knows what I'm talking about."

“He doesn't share my enthusiasm" for the building, says Kathy. “He would like for his mother to not spend so much money on beautiful old buildings. He says I'm getting a little old to be gambling."

But LeVeque knows she's still in possession of a powerful bargaining chip—the 10-story, 1,156-space LeVeque parking garage that connects to the LeVeque Tower via a second-story pedestrian bridge. “The parking has always been the ace in the hole," she says.

Without any other on-site parking, the new owners of the LeVeque Tower are somewhat dependent upon the garage. And when the tower went on the open market last winter, every potential buyer made a beeline to LeVeque's door. “We talked to each and every bidder about partnering with them," says Colin. “It doesn't mean we will. But it's important to Mother, and therefore, it's important to me. I hope we get to play a role in whatever happens to the building."

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The Leveque Tower—called the American Insurance Union (AIU) 1 Citadel when it was built—was the brainchild of John J. Lentz, a prominent, local turn-of-the-century attorney and two-term congressman. Lentz formed the AIU in 1894 as a small fraternal insurance organization. By the mid 1920s, it had more than 150,000 members and was one of the country's largest providers of life insurance. Its growth necessitated a larger home. No one could have anticipated what Lentz had in mind.

In 1924, the AIU submitted a proposal to the city's planning commission unlike any that body had ever seen before. The plans described a 425-foot skyscraper at the corner of Broad and Front streets, with an additional lease to the B.F. Keith Company for an attached 8,500-seat theater. (Later, during construction, 130 and 1/2 feet was added to the plan with the express purpose of making it six inches taller than the Washington Monument). A pedestrian walkway would attach the Citadel to the 12-story Deshler Hotel next door. The Deshler agreed to lease floors 2 through 17, where 600 hotel rooms were constructed, more than doubling the Deshler's size and making it one of the largest hotels in the Midwest.

The city buzzed with the news, and the interest continued for the next three years, as thousands of spectators from around the state made their way to Downtown to watch this amazing structure take shape.

The building was anchored on 44 massive steel caissons—10-foot-square hollow beams that were sunk more than100 feet into the ground and then filled with cement. Workers known as sandhogs were imported from New York City, where they'd recently completed work on the Holland Tunnel. The crew's job was to dig the cavernous holes, perilous work inside dark, cramped shafts, pressurized to prevent water from rushing in. The work necessitated a specially designed decompression chamber at the top of each caisson to prevent workers from getting the bends. For their efforts, sandhogs were paid about $70 a week. On Jan. 26, 1926, four workers died in one of the holes, victims of “black damp"—a mining term for an environment void of oxygen.

As the job of the sandhogs ended, the so-called "snakes" took over to erect the 1,500 tons of steel used to frame the building. Snakes were the steel workers who, without the aid of any safety equipment, constructed the building's skeleton, climbing by hand from beam to beam. “A sense of balance and an exceptional amount of monkeylike agility were the most essential equipment of each snake," said an account in the AIU Citadel's dedication program. “Utterly contemptuous of the violent death that lurked below, these men would climb about, swinging themselves from one floor to the next or balancing on a single girder with nothing between them and the street, hundreds of feet below, but the girder and quite a lot of space." One 18-year-old worker was killed when he lost his footing and fell 15 floors.

Columbus Mayor James J. Thomas took the first official ride up the building's elevator, to the 37th floor, in January 1927. Obviously elated, Thomas said that “never in the wildest flight of his fancy” would he have imagined being lifted more than 300 feet from the ground upon which he'd played as a boy. Thomas's father had owned a grocery store on the very site, above which the family had resided.

A lavish weeklong dedication ceremony took place the following September to celebrate the building's completion, topped off with a massive flag at the building's peak. “The restless flag, visible from a great distance, was the crowning touch to the structure which Columbus has watched grow in three years from a yawning hole in the ground to an imperishable monument which is a veritable axis of Ohio,"The Dispatch reported.

Within four years, however, the "imperishable monument" was only an embarrassing $7 million reminder of the perils of excess. The Depression had forced the American Insurance Union into bankruptcy, and the grand AIU building—which suddenly was dubbed the IOU building—into receivership. The shell of the once-proud AIU eventually was purchased for little more than $350,000 by Farm Bureau Mutual, which eventually would become Nationwide Insurance.

It would take 11 years to sort through the legal quagmire that ensued, as AIU policyholders scratched for any assets available to reap the benefits due them. Controversy ensued when the company's lone asset—the Citadel—finally was put up for sale in 1944. When sealed bids were opened on Oct. 10, real estate developer John W. Galbreath was the highest bidder with an offer of $358,490 for controlling interest in the building. But when, 11 days later, a substantially larger bid of $530,660 was submitted by Leslie L. LeVeque and Cleveland businessman John C. Lincoln, the sale was stalled. The receivers, led by Ohio Insurance Commissioner and former Attorney General J. Roth Crabbe, decided it would be in the best interests of the AIU beneficiaries to accept the larger bid.

Galbreath appealed the sale to the federal courts, which ordered that a new, winner-take-all auction be held. The bidding was lively, as the Galbreath team raised the LeVeque-Lincoln team 16 times before conceding at the $755,000 mark.

A year later, Leslie LeVeque was dead. The Columbus-area developer who owned the Olentangy Village apartment complex and a number of warehouses for Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (the A&P grocery chain) died, along with his wife Elsa and their pilot, when their private plane crashed into the side of Parker Mountain near their Blue Hill Bay, Maine, summer home. They were survived by son, Fred, 21, who was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and daughters Betty and Patty.

The former Kathy Segars first met Fred in New York City in 1948, while she was attending the Barbizon School of Modeling and he was attending Princeton. They began dating and a few weeks later, she invited him home, to Hartsville, South Carolina, to attend a ball in nearby Augusta and to meet her family. “My mother and father both approved of him," she says. “But I knew he was in when Fred met my grandmother. She'd been alive during the Civil War—had gathered up her belongings and hid in the swamp when the Union Army came through. She used to say horrible things about the Yankees. But when she met Fred, she said, 'Oh, the Yankees were all right. They gave me a little dog when they came through.' I couldn't believe it."

Fred and Kathy were married six months later. They headed west for a time, prospecting for uranium at the Four Corners, where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet. “We found some, not much," says Kathy. They returned to Ohio and settled on a farm near Westerville. Kathy tended to the house and the gardening and kept busy raising three sons and two daughters, while Fred picked up where his father left off, attending to the family business—the LeVeque-Lincoln Tower and a handful of remaining warehouses. (Over the years, Central Ohio residents typically reversed the order and commonly referred to the building as the Lincoln-LeVeque.)

Fred also inherited his father's entrepreneurial spirit. Purchasing the lot at Gay and Front streets, he started Pigeonhole Parking, a novel idea for a parking garage whereby drivers would drop their cars off on the ground floor and a mechanical lift would carry the car, and an attendant, up into the garage.

Gene D'Angelo first met LeVeque at the garage and the two became close friends. “I used to park there," he says. “I'd stand there and talk to Fred while he ran this elevator. It must have been the late '50s or early '60s. It was a sight...an ugly sight, but a sight."

Eventually LeVeque ditched the lift, installed paved ramps and renamed his company Tower Parking. Soon there were Tower Parking lots all over the Downtown area. “The parking was the cash cow," says Kathy. "It always bailed us out."

On Saturday, Jan. 25, 1975, Fred LeVeque was invited to accompany Dispatch publisher Edgar Wolfe and prominent Columbus attorney Carlton Dargusch to Washington, D.C., where the three would be guests of U.S. Sen. Robert Taft at a social function. Just five miles from Washington's National Airport, the Wolfe Enterprises twin-engine struck a broadcast tower on the American University campus and plunged to the ground, killing everyone aboard.

"He was a neat guy," says D'Angelo of LeVeque. “He was a very big backer of the Boy Scouts. He'd come around with those raffle tickets and look you in the eye and start to pick at the ends of his mustache. You'd be like, 'Oh damn.' He was the kind of guy who was very hard to turn down. He had these great eyes and these big, furry eyebrows. He looked like he could lick your face, but he could put a bite on you."

Kathy admits she knew very little about her husband's business when he died. “I used to think the ‘Lincoln' in 'Lincoln LeVeque' referred to Abraham," she says.

For years Fred had been trying to buy out the 50 West Broad Street trust, comprising the Lincoln and LeVeque family interests in the tower. Each time, however, he met resistance. In 1977,Katherine made the same inquiries and found the parties to be more receptive. On June 1, she became the sole owner of Columbus's most famous skyscraper.

Her focus was quickly redirected next door, to the Palace Theatre, thanks to Phil Sheridan, the former manager of WNCI radio. Sheridan had been an active community voice in attempts to save the Ohio Theatre when demolition was threatened in 1969. And when the Palace found its way to the wrecking ball's cross hairs in the late 1970s, he began writing letters to Kathy LeVeque to save the 50-year-old theater. “I didn't even know Fred had bought it," she says.

Sheridan was persistent and convincing. LeVeque agreed to meet him one morning for a walk through the Palace. “We're crunching over plaster and walking through standing water and talking," says Sheridan. “And as we walked out, she stopped and looked at me very sincerely and said, 'I never realized how beautiful this was.’ "

LeVeque jumped in with both feet, investing $3 million in a Palace restoration project that climaxed with a spectacular reopening in February 1980. In 1989 she would donate the Palace to the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts at the urging of her friend, Gene D'Angelo, then chairman of CAPA.

The old Deshler Hotel was gone, razed in 1969, and Leveque purchased the lot at Broad and High and partnered with Prospect Company—a subsidiary of Travelers Insurance—to build a $62 million, 26-story office building called One Columbus adjacent to the 10-story: parking garage she'd built at the corner of Front and Gay streets. (She later swapped her interest in One Columbus for Travelers' interest in the parking garage.)

With a Downtown building boom in full force, she began a major overhaul of the LeVeque Tower, which involved a $17 million refinance of the 1977 loan she'd used to buy the building. In a decade, she'd gone from housewife to talk of the town. She was on the board of directors for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and a trustee at Children's Hospital, COSI and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. She was the 1985 Christopher Columbus Award recipient, given annually to the person who has contributed most to the community—the first woman to earn the distinction—and was grand marshal of the 1986 Columbus Independence Day Parade.

"She was a lot like Fred in that when she wanted something done, she'd go do it," says D'Angelo. “She restored that tower, which was like family to Fred. And that Palace was a toilet before she took it over. I hope Columbus doesn't forget her for that. This town should be grateful to her. Everything she did, she did for the right reason."

Her benevolence, however, may have been her downfall. By the time of the LeVeque Tower's 75th birthday in 2002, Kathy LeVeque was staring anxiously at her bottom line in a stagnant economy. She was left with only one choice—perhaps the toughest choice of her life... to turn over the deed to the building.

"I think Fred would understand," she says. “You have to do what you can do, and be realistic. The wheels just turned the wrong way. But it will come back around. It always does. You have to stay optimistic."

"I really want that building back, though," she says. “I don't know... I just seem to fall in love, since I'm not married anymore, with old buildings. And that's a beautiful one."

Colin says he's already in discussions with David Friedman about some type of partnership in the building. “Friedman knows what he's doing," says developer Frank Kass of Continental Real Estate Companies, and a LeVeque family friend. "No matter what he decides to do with the building, I think he'd be smart to find a way to keep the LeVeques in it. They own the parking. Their name's synonymous with it. It would be good for Friedman. It would be good for the LeVeques. It would be good for Columbus. I hope they make it work. We all want to see it work."

This story originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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