Secret Columbus: Wonders That Are Hidden in Plain Sight

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

They tower above Columbus. They're buried beneath it. They're unseen even though they're right under our noses. Columbus is full of hidden gems. Some are threatened by the ravages of time, but others are thriving spaces where in-the-know culture vultures, foodies and history buffs flock. How many of our 37 city secrets do you know-and how many will you discover for the first time?

A Gateway to Mansions

There are very few canine visitors to the Topiary Park, home of the larger-than-life shrub version George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte." This tidbit is just one of many than can be discovered at the Museum Store Visitor Center there. Built in 1998 to complement the historic mansions surrounding the Old Deaf School Park, the building, which faces Town Street, displays a French flag and is an homage to things both Columbus and Paris. Beneath a ceiling of stout wooden beams are gifts (postcards, wooden puzzles, mugs and more) featuring the famed painting of the Columbus skyline. Hungry for more history? Yolanda Foster, a four-season employee, reveals the shop is the starting point for booking private tours of the park and a few Town Street homes.

Architectural Tribute

Worthington is lauded for its early-19th-century abodes that give the community an old-fashioned-meets-upscale vibe. Head east on South Street, though, and the scenery changes quickly. Richard and Martha Wakefield, Frank Lloyd Wright disciples, met the acclaimed architect in the early 1950s. Inspired by his message of simple, organic and interconnected living, the pair enlisted local architect Theodore Van Fossen and got to work sketching out Rush Creek Village, a neighborhood of consistent, unified homes. The sought-after neighborhood-Rush Creek homes don't often go on the market and are scooped up quickly when they do-is a modern oasis in the middle of an otherwise Colonial-esque community.

Watching the Skies

On July 8, 1929, the first transcontinental air-rail voyage stopped in Columbus. Henry Ford spoke at a dedication ceremony held just after passengers, including Amelia Earhart, took off on the second leg of their cross-country journey. The place where they celebrated still stands today-near North Hamilton Road on the fringe of the modern-day airport-though it's threatened by age and decay. The original Port Columbus control tower, built in 1920, claimed the unenviable No. 1 spot on the Columbus Landmarks Foundation's list of most endangered buildings earlier this year. The tower has been empty for years and is becoming unsafe, says Angie Tabor, a spokeswoman for the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, which owns the control tower.

Where Music was King

Twenty years ago, a big outdoor concert venue came to Columbus, opening the door for arena-level concerts to sweep Ohioans off their feet. Billy Ray Cyrus performed the first concert at the venue-first called Polaris, then Germain Amphitheater-and over the years, artists like Janet Jackson, Jimmy Buffett and Rush followed. But there hasn't been a show there in seven years. These days, tall grass covers the hillside where fans once spread blankets under the stars. If you drive down Gemini Place just east of Interstate 71, you can still see relics of Central Ohio musical history hiding in the weeds. Gemini Parkway, west of East Powell Road, North Side

Final Resting Place

Located along a nondescript stretch of Sullivant Avenue is the Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery, used only during the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865. As Richard Hoffman, board member of the Hilltop Historical Society, describes it, the property first held only a Union army camp. Soon, though, soldiers built a prison to hold captured Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. Then, because those prisoners quickly died, they built the cemetery a few blocks away. More than 2,200 people were buried there. The cemetery was neglected until 1892, when Union solider William H. Knauss held a memorial service for fallen Americans-not Northerners or Southerners, Union or Confederate, but Americans. To this day, every June, there is a memorial service at Camp Chase Cemetery. 2900 Sullivant Ave., South Side

The Belly of the Beast

One of Ohio State's worst-kept secrets is the 42,240 feet of steam and electric tunnels snaking below campus. First constructed in 1906 (largely by Ohio Penitentiary prisoners), these tunnels now transport power to more than 100 campus buildings. There are entry points-quite a few of them, actually-like those below the Recreation and Physical Activity Center and the Mathematics Tower. To be clear, it is illegal (and really dangerous) to enter the tunnels alone. Play it safe, and tag along on one of the Things You Never Got To See tours during spring commencement week.

Shelter from the Storm

Unbeknownst to many Downtown workers and visitors, Capitol Square's underground parking garage is not exclusively for Statehouse use. The garage, built in 1964, is actually connected to the basements of Rhodes Tower, the Riffe Center and the Huntington Center (formerly the Neil House Hotel) by a series of tunnels. The 1,000-spot public garage is open 24/7, as are the tunnels, should you want to avoid rain or snow.

A Legendary Skateboarding Spot

The Blood Bowl and Gates of Hell in Clintonville has less dramatic origins than its name suggests. The storm culvert and drainage tunnel were built under High Street in the 1920s, says George Zanders, spokesman for Columbus Public Utilities. In the early '70s, the tunnel was lengthened and cages were added to protect the tunnel's opening from debris. Along the way, a myth was born, says Wally Carl, owner of Old Skool Skate Shop in Westerville, who skated the Blood Bowl in the '80s. "A kid was dropping in from the top and busted his head open in there and died," Carl says. "It was haunted by the kid who died." This is how "Blood Bowl" was coined. Soon after, the trash racks were installed, providing the nickname "Gates of Hell." Today, curious visitors are warned by a series of "no trespassing" signs.

Mystery Tenant in an Ivory Tower

Until the 1970s, sightseers could ascend to the top of the LeVeque Tower to visit an observation deck, which provided an unobstructed, sky-high view of the city. In 1983, though, the top two floors of the tower were converted into an apartment space. The first person to rent the 2,500-square-foot space paid just $600 a month. Today, a mystery individual lives at the tip-top of our skyline, in a duplex penthouse whose floors are connected by a spiral staircase. The lone tenant-building management says he wishes to remain anonymous-reaches his home from a private elevator in the LeVeque lobby. He'll have some company in 2015, though, when a Marriott hotel opens in the building.

The Zoo You Never Knew

Behind a stand of mature trees along High Street near Wetmore Road in Beechwold is the site of the city's first, short-lived, zoo. The narrow streets that wind through the neighborhood stay true to the original paths created for the zoo grounds. Only a couple of zoo landmarks-a maintenance shed that has been converted into a garage and a stone bridge-remain. Besides seals, monkeys, bears and snakes, the zoo was also home to a dancing hall, carousels and even a roller coaster. In 1905, only 10 years after the Columbus Zoological Co. incorporated, the zoo closed. Manufacturing magnate Joseph Jeffrey bought the land and built his summer home, Beechwalde, giving the neighborhood its name.

Where Art and Law Converge

Strolling through the Ohio Supreme Court building is not unlike strolling through an art museum, especially when Jay Wuebbold, manager of the civic education section, is your guide. The courtroom is decorated with a massive rococo perimeter and ceiling paintings by German artist Rudolf Scheffler. Meeting Room 102 contains 11 playful murals by prominent Cincinnati artist H.H. Wessel depicting 19th- and 20th-century commerce in Ohio. An 11-mural piece of American Realism called "The Progress of Industry" by John F. Homer can be found in Hearing Room 106. Even the elevator doors are adorned with gorgeous bronze works by sculptor Paul Fjelde that, Wuebbold says, are "textbook examples of Art Deco-very industrial, very clean-lined."