Ohio State's Revolving Front Door

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Rendering of the 15th and High project

Once again, the university has big plans to transform its original campus gateway at 15th and North High. Jeff Darbee explains the complicated history of this critical connecting point between the city and the university.

Planning is underway at Ohio State for a major remake of the university's entrance at 15th Avenue and North High Street. The plan is big, imaginative, ambitious and will change the face of what today is an uninviting front door to an institution as important as OSU. As described in materials released publicly in June, the project's scope will result in utility upgrades; a redirecting of the west end of 15th Avenue at High; an open square on the east side of High surrounded by new multi-story buildings; and the reopening of 14th and 16th avenues to High Street. There will be a new campus entry plaza west of High that will line up with the Long Walk, the brick pathway that starts at the Thompson Library and runs east along the Oval's axis almost to High. There also will be a new, signature public space east of High Street, soon to be known as University Square. Keith Myers, OSU's associate vice president for planning and real estate, describes the plan as "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide connectivity between the university and the community."

But wait, you say. If this is such an important entrance to the campus, then why did the university allow the 1989 construction of the Wexner Center for the Arts to block it by creating a new plaza, landscaping, ramps and steps that cut off views of the Oval and the Thompson Library? Opinions about this vary-some people think the existing arrangement is OK, and others don't. But ask the Wexner Center's architects, and the reason becomes clear. When Peter Eisenman and local architect Dick Trott were designing the building, they had specific direction from OSU. "I can promise you," Eisenman says in an interview, "that the university did not want 15th and High to be an [automobile] entry." It wanted the Wexner Center and its landscaped site to eliminate the possibility of car access while still encouraging pedestrian use.

Some historical perspective could be helpful, because the campus entrance at 15th and High, along with the iconic Oval, had a fairly complicated evolution over the years. When OSU opened in 1873 as the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College (Ohio State University after 1878), its primary building was University Hall. To reach the building, you had to follow a single road that meandered from High Street a couple of blocks south of 15th to the upland site of University Hall. It was somewhat like the way the Crawleys approached Downton Abbey, and in fact, one history describes U Hall as sitting like an English manor house.

By 1890, the design had changed to keep up with the university's growth. Two roads (one to the north of 15th, the other to the south) provided entry points before merging into a single street leading to University Hall, which was replaced 40 years ago by a seven-eighths-size replica on the same site. With the construction of even more buildings, campus planners began to envision a large, central, open space. A 1900 master plan called for removal of the twin access roads and their replacement with a single entry aligned with 15th Avenue. That new campus gateway intersected with a curved road (part of College Road today) that connected the existing roads on the north and south sides-a change that would begin to give real form to what today we know as the Oval.

Historic maps show that the west extension of 15th Avenue onto the campus was in place by 1910, but the curving road at the Oval's east end had not yet been built. Construction in 1912 of what became Thompson Library likely spurred construction of that road. The library gave what was then called the "quadrangle" a real anchor, and the curved road at the east end helped to define it as a distinct and unique public space. A 1982 history of the Oval says that it took more than a decade before that term was commonly used, and another decade before it was capitalized. From then on, though, the Oval has always been the heart of OSU (though some might argue that Ohio Stadium actually plays that role).

So, what became of 15th Avenue? First of all, its portion east of High Street has never aligned with its western spur onto the campus. Why? It's all about the grid. In Columbus, both High and Broad streets were laid out on 12.25-degree tilts. They crossed at the usual 90-degree angle but had the effect of skewing the whole Downtown area off the grid. Why? No one knows. Even Columbus historian Ed Lentz, who really knows the city's history, can't explain the tilt. There are some theories, he says: It was done to match the orientation of existing street patterns in Franklinton on the west side of the river, or it was an error in calculating magnetic declination, the variance of a compass reading from true north. Maybe it was to equalize lot sizes along the northwest-tilting Scioto River. Lentz says "there's no documentary evidence" for why this happened.

But up at the OSU campus, things were laid out differently east and west of High, meaning that 15th Avenue and others didn't meet High Street at the usual 90-degree angle. To make things even more confusing, University Hall and a lot of other campus buildings were built at 90 degrees to High Street, placing them off the campus grid by that odd 12.25 degrees. Look at Google Earth, and you'll see that the Oval and the buildings around it tilt a little south of east-west. It's always been that way and presumably always will.

Both the Oval in its current form and the west extension of 15th Avenue onto the OSU campus were in place by around 1912 or so. Other construction continued apace as the university grew, and by the 1930s pretty much all the buildings that would ring the Oval were in place. East of College Road and south of the 15th Avenue extension was Sullivant Hall, shown on a 1937 map as the "Archaeological Museum" and home of what became the Ohio Historical Society (which moved to its state fairgrounds site in 1970). On the north were the Armory and the Music Building, with tennis courts and an athletic building behind them. By 1959, the 15th Avenue extension was called University Plaza; the Armory was gone (it burned in 1958), and Mershon Auditorium sat on the site of the Music Building. A parking structure had replaced the tennis courts and athletic building. In addition, the four entrance pillars on the west side of High Street were in place. They were gifts from the classes of 1931, 1939, 1940 and 1941; the curved wingwalls and benches were from the classes of 1878 to 1895.

University Plaza was six lanes wide-two for parking and four for inbound and outbound traffic; a photo from that period shows lots of car traffic, with pedestrians pushed off to widely separated sidewalks on the north and south. This version of the 15th Avenue entrance to Ohio State would remain largely the same until construction of the Wexner Center, with one important exception: By about 1980, all of the roadway along the north side of the Oval and the western half of the southern end had been made into pedestrian paths, no cars allowed.

Weigel Hall, home to the School of Music, joined Mershon Auditorium in 1979, so when the site for the Wexner Center was selected, it had some major constraints. College Road was to remain, as were Weigel and Mershon; and, as Peter Eisenman notes, the entrance from High Street was to be made pedestrian-only but had to be aligned with the Long Walk and the library. Building the Wexner Center in front of Mershon would not do, because it would block that building's main facade and probably intrude upon the pathway leading to the Long Walk. The former Armory site, west of Mershon and south of Weigel, as well as the space between the two, was where the Wexner would go. Eisenman's plan riffed on the Columbus grid and the need for a change of grade from High Street to the entrance. The finished building, with its 3-D white metal grid invoking scaffolding, has been widely talked and written about, commented on, criticized a little and given awards. One element that has received a lot of comment is the playful reference to and invoking of the form, mass, materials and design of the vanished Armory.

In dealing with the space to the south and east of the building, Eisenman and landscape architect Laurie Olin of Philadelphia accomplished several things: another sloping walk, located along the alignment of 15th Avenue east of High Street, that moves pedestrians from High to the Wexner's entrance; a sloping walkway, with an adjacent sloping lawn, to enable access to the Wexner from College Road (there's also a "back" entrance from near Weigel Hall) and with a series of tilted stairsteps in concrete along the west side; a tree-shaded level plaza on the alignment of the former 15th Avenue extension/University Plaza (though one local architect has noted that the trees block the view of the Long Walk, the Oval and the library); retention of the historic High Street entrance pillars and wingwalls; and, as the university required, no chance of cars using this as an entrance.

So, yes, building the Wexner Center did alter and disrupt the 15th Avenue entrance to the OSU campus. But we have to recall that, over time, there have been other once-in-a-generation changes here, from no entrance at all, to a less-than-spectacular roadway, to a more formal cars-and-people entrance to the current configuration. All served the purpose for which they were built. Now it's time for another change, for a plan that will, as in the past, replace most of what's there now. It will reopen the clear view of the Thompson Library and the Oval. It will result in a major upgrade of the somewhat dotty neighborhood immediately to the east. And it will create a formal but still pedestrian-only campus gateway while providing access to the university's arts district. Once completed, will all of this then, years from now, be swept away in another generational change? Depends on how well it does the job for which it's built. Stay tuned.

Jeff Darbee writes the "City Quotient" column for Columbus Monthly.