City Quotient: Why Does the Ohio History Center Look So… Modern?

Jeff Darbee
Sources:; “Architecture: Columbus” (1976)

The Ohio History Center is big and impressive, but it looks more contemporary than historical. What can you tell me about its design?

The Ohio Historical Society, today the Ohio History Connection, dates back to 1885. It's a private nonprofit institution, but it has certain mandated state functions—operation of the system of state memorials, for example, and serving as the official state archive.

It moved into its first permanent home, Sullivant Hall on the Ohio State University campus, in 1914. The state museum and library were there, while sometime later the archives ended up at the Old Governor's Mansion on East Broad Street, today the home of The Columbus Foundation. Then in 1965, Ohio voters approved a $290 million bond issue for both a new OHS headquarters and improvements to many of the state's historical sites.

The late W. Byron Ireland was the architect of the new building, off I-71 near the state fairgrounds, and the daring design he proposed was in the not-always-loved modern style known as Brutalism (Ireland had worked on the St. Louis Gateway Arch for Finnish architect Eero Saarinen before founding Ireland Assoc. in Columbus.)

Apart from its clearly non-historical design, the history center, which opened in 1970, used innovative techniques of post-tensioned concrete structures, which allowed a cantilevered design in which the library—the upper part of the building sided with brown, Ohio-made, silo tiles—“floats” above an underground base containing the historical exhibits. Things have changed a little—the entrance is at ground level now, not up the east side stairway—but the building remains mostly as built.

I heard the Ohio Statehouse renovation in the 1990s cost around $180 million. Wasn't that an awfully big budget?

Well, you have to consider what the project started with. A large team of historical/architectural/design consultants worked on the seven-year renovation, including yours truly, so some of the backstory might be helpful.

The main problem was that even after it opened in 1857, the Statehouse was never under single management. Responsibility shifted among state agencies and departments, so changes and improvements never were done according to an overall plan. By the 1980s it was something of a mess: The original 57 rooms had been cut up into more than 300; there were close to 100 air-conditioning systems; and some emergency exit routes were blocked. The Ohio Senate had keys to part of the building, the House had some, the Department of Public Works had some, and for several rooms there weren't any keys. In addition, the adjacent 1901 Judiciary Annex (today the Senate's offices) had long been slated for demolition but simply deteriorated because no demolition funds were approved. Finally, with enough political will and funding appropriated, Schooley Caldwell Assoc. led the team that thoroughly updated heating, cooling, electric power, communications and security systems. At the same time, public spaces were carefully restored to their original character. Most importantly, though, maintenance of the Statehouse, the Senate Building and all of Capitol Square was placed under the authority of the newly created Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board.

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