City Quotient: Lightning Might Have Prevented Disaster at St. Mary's

Jeff Darbee

It has been closed for a long time. The building is closed, but St. Mary's (formally St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church) is very much an active parish; masses are held in the parish office's chapel on weekdays and in the adjacent school building on weekends.

The problem began when lightning struck the church spire last August, destroying the parish's electrical system. When engineers went up to inspect for damage, they found the spire was OK but discovered that some wood roof trusses had deteriorated over time and had shifted downward, putting outward pressure on the walls.

And while the lightning proved fortuitous in revealing a potentially disastrous situation, it forced the closing of the building and extensive remedial work.

Phase I is completed—the removal of all interior furnishings and the stabilization of the structure with load-bearing scaffolding. Phase II will introduce a steel roof structure (and a new roof) and steel columns to take the roof's load permanently off of the brick walls. Then there has to be repair and restoration of the plastered interior and its ornamental painted finish. On top of that, the stained-glass windows need to be repaired and re-leaded. The cost of the whole project could reach $4 million. A fundraising campaign is expected soon; if that goes well, this important landmark could be fit, sound and open again in less than a year.

I've heard lots of references to the 1908 plan since I've lived in Central Ohio—a visionary plan for remaking the city that never came to fruition. Why didn't it pan out? And is it true that the Wolfe family killed it? There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip, as they say, and our city's 1908 plan is one that slipped. It would have enlisted Columbus in the “City Beautiful” movement inspired by the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This idea held that America's urban cores could be remade into beautiful places that would inspire better citizenship and stop our cities from becoming slummy.

After Alice Roosevelt Longworth dissed Columbus while dedicating the McKinley statue on Capitol Square (she didn't like the view toward the Scioto River), the Columbus Plan Commission proposed a redo of the city's heart that would place the Statehouse and the adjacent Judiciary Annex (the Senate Building today) at the east end of a great civic center to be lined with large, classically-inspired buildings. This proposed mall extended across new bridges and for two blocks west of the Scioto, where, among other things, a high school was earmarked.

The Dispatch argued against the plan (maybe because it would demolish the Wolfe family shoe factory?), and it went nowhere. But Mother Nature had a different plan. After the 1913 flood wiped out all the Downtown bridges and much of the admittedly grimy riverfront, another commission was created to renovate the riverside civic center we have today—new bridges (since replaced), the federal building, the former police headquarters, City Hall, the Ohio Judicial Center, state office buildings and the old state arsenal (now the Cultural Arts Center). And, on the west bank—echoing the 1908 plan—Central High School, today the home of COSI.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to, and the answer might appear in a future column.

Sources: The Rev. Kevin Lutz, St. Mary's Pastor; Columbus Metropolitan Library, “Report of the Plan Commission for the City of Columbus, Ohio;” “Education is the Safeguard of Liberty,” A Historical Analysis of Central High School.