'Forgotten Landmarks of Columbus' book recounts what was saved and what was lost

In a new book, authors Doreen Uhas Sauer and Tom Betti document the city's preservation successes and failures while highlighting working-class stories

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
The old Alfred Kelley Mansion, formerly at 282 E. Broad St.

After moving to Columbus from Cleveland in the 1960s, Doreen Uhas Sauer taught in Columbus schools for 40 years, including a stint at the former Indianola Junior High School, which happened to be the first junior high in the country. The 1929 building, designed by Ohio State architect Howard Dwight Smith, gave Uhas Sauer her first opportunity to volunteer with the recently formed Columbus Landmarks Foundation as she helped to write the 1980 National Register of Historic Places nomination for the school.

Thinking back to her days teaching middle school, one local history lesson always stood out to Uhas Sauer: the house that saved Ohio. “That would always be this a-ha moment,” she said. “We'd be talking about the story, and for a seventh-grader to say ‘How can a house save an entire state?’ was just this wonderful moment.”

It’s fitting, then, that Uhas Sauer’s new book that she co-wrote with fellow local historian Tom Betti, Forgotten Landmarks of Columbus, which releases on Monday, Sept. 27, opens with a chapter on the Alfred Kelley Mansion, the house that saved Ohio.

In the late 1830s, Kelley, who was once the youngest member of the Ohio House of Representatives, designed and built a magnificent Greek Revival mansion out of 3,000 sandstone blocks and massive columns on East Broad Street, in what was then a swampy area near Downtown known as Frog Pond. Among the unique elements of Kelley's design, Uhas Sauer and Betti describe the home’s arched tunnels that served as underground drains. The mansion became the frequent site of receptions that hosted national and foreign dignitaries. 

Kelley also became obsessed with opening Ohio's economy via state-owned canals, the authors write, but in the early 1840s, the legislature over-expanded the state’s canal system. Costs were underestimated, and Ohio needed to borrow money, so Kelley went to New York to work out a deal. In the end, he offered his personal real estate, including the mansion, as collateral. “His critics in the legislature once mockingly called Kelley’s house ‘the palace on Broad Street,’” Uhas Sauer and Betti write. “Now they called it ‘the House that Saved Ohio.’”

And yet, despite citizen attempts to save the historic home after years of neglect, the Kelley mansion was dismantled in 1961. The stones were moved from site to site over the years and now sit, forgotten, on the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Hale Farm in northeast Ohio.

“I’ve always thought of it like a fairy tale,” Uhas Sauer said. “The stones are preserved offsite, but you can walk back there if you know where they are, and it's like ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ because the poison ivy is there guarding them. … They will never probably be brought back, even though there have been numerous proposals.”

“The story is just so long ago and far away,” she continued, “and Columbus is, and has been, such a growing town that it's very difficult to keep the culture of history going.” 

The hope, Uhas Sauer said, is that Forgotten Landmarks of Columbus can tell the stories of how things got lost as a way to show how not to approach preservation. But the book also contains relatively unknown stories of buildings that were saved.

The goal, too, is to shed light on historic structures other than grand buildings, Victorian homes and beautiful churches, which are generally viewed as the sites worth saving. “I'm part of the viewpoint that there's a lot that was built by the working-class people of Columbus, in every community, that have significance and meaning,” said Uhas Sauer, mentioning the South Side’s Nagy Shoe Repair Shop building on Parsons Avenue. “It's the stories of the people who really made Columbus.” 

Before writing the book, Uhas Sauer asked residents young and old about local landmarks, and the answers were surprisingly varied and often quite personal. “There are landmarks that we may only remember as they were when we were children, as if they almost were a dream. And then others that are sentimental, like where you got engaged,” she said.

The authors also consciously avoided using the word “secret” in the book’s title. The histories aren’t secret. Rather, they’re neglected, overlooked, forgotten and often discarded. “Rich people write history; poor people just live it,” she said. “The 1920s were such an incredible building boom in Columbus … and preservation was not exactly a word that came tripping off the tongues of everybody then. A lot was lost in those years. There were cartoons in the paper, and you can see the cartoon houses being plowed under. They were considered eyesores and ugly and terrible and the antithesis of progress. And progress was always important.” 

While many of the city’s lost buildings were destroyed a century ago, the stories hold lessons for today. Just this week, news came that a city-owned building on the National Register of Historic Places, the South Dormitory on the Parsons Avenue grounds of Columbus Public Health, is set to be demolished to make way for the modern-day signifier of progress: a parking lot.