History: OSU's secret speakeasy?

Eric Lyttle
Columbus Monthly
A view of the mysterious doorway

Construction of the new Ohio State University 15th-and-High campus entrance project may have uncovered something unexpected: a century-old gateway to a long-forgotten drinking hole.

Certainly, bars and High Street have been parasitic partners for decades. But new evidence uncovered with the demolition of the iconic Long's Bookstore at the intersection of 15th Avenue and High Street might serve as further evidence that alcohol was in demand here even when it was illegal.

An underground, arched, stone doorway was revealed when Long's was knocked down in October. The mysterious doorway, which was walled shut sometime in the past, appears to lead west, underneath High Street toward Sullivant Hall on the OSU campus.

Keith Myers, the associate vice president of planning and real estate for Ohio State, is helping lead the ambitious plan for the site, which will include $30 million in proposed infrastructure improvements for a 150-room hotel, parking garage, office building with street-level retail, dining and a pedestrian-friendly plaza at the intersection that for decades was home to Long's.

Myers says he'd heard speculation that there was a Prohibition-era speakeasy in the basement of Long's before the building's demolition began. “I never believed it,” Myers says. “I called it urban legend. I figured it was one more story in the storied University District.”

But Myers was as shocked as anyone when the walled-off stone archway appeared underground during the site's excavation. He says there's no telling what's on the other side, and no one is going to find out just yet. “There will be no Geraldo-style reveal,” Myers says, adding that construction crews won't push through the door to see what's on the other side until next year. “We don't have time now,” Myers says. “We backfilled it. We need that site for laydown space [for construction materials and equipment needed to develop the 15th-and-High project].”

“It's probably more fun to speculate than to know anyway,” says Myers. “I'm pretty suspicious that what we're going to find is a whole lot of dirt. But who knows? The doorway is there, no doubt about it, and its construction is old.” He says there's no evidence of a similar exit/entrance in the basement of Sullivant Hall, which was built in 1913 and housed the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society museum during the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933.

Basil Long Jr., a distant relative of the Long's Bookstore family, says it's been years since he's been in the building, but doubts the tale of a speakeasy connected to the university through an underground tunnel. “I'm not at all sure it was a tunnel,” he says. “I think it led to a storeroom that housed old military manuals.” Long says he's never heard of a speakeasy in the basement of the bookstore, which opened at the site in 1909. “It certainly wouldn't surprise me,” he says, “but I have no reason to believe it.”

Author Doreen Uhas Sauer told Columbus Monthly for a 2014 story that there were at least nine speakeasies along High Street within the two-tenths of a mile between Hudson and Arcadia. “The beer flowed freely in North Columbus,” she said.