City Quotient: The Cultural Arts Center's Military Origin

Jeff Darbee
Sources: Online “Military Map of the United States, 1861”; Cultural Arts Center website; “Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships”

I know that brick building on West Main Street, with the towers and high wall, is the Cultural Arts Center, but why does it look like such a fortress?

Well, it kind of was. Not a fort, really, but close. This was the Ohio State Arsenal. Built in 1861 on the original site of the Ohio Penitentiary, it housed arms and ammunition for the various Ohio military groups that served on the Union side in the Civil War. Other arsenals at the time were in Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Because of its function, the building on Main Street had to be secure, hence the high wall, iron gates and limited access. Eventually, the Ohio National Guard took over the building and used it until the mid-1970s. Mel Dodge, the visionary late director of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, saw the arsenal’s potential as a replacement for the firehouse on Oak Street that then served as the city’s cultural arts center (that building still stands, just east of Parsons Avenue).

The city executed a 99-year lease of the arsenal in 1975, and preservation architects Schooley Caldwell Associates (later the designers of the Statehouse restoration and the Supreme Court of Ohio building on the riverfront) got to work on planning the redo of the old arsenal. It was dedicated in June 1978 as the Columbus Cultural Arts Center and has been a fixture of the local arts scene for more than four decades. Fun fact: The large corner medallion on the wall surrounding the building came from the USS Ohio, the third in a series of Navy ships by that name.

Driving along Convention Center Drive on the north side of the railroad tracks, I saw what looked like filled-in windows on the lower level of the convention center. Why are they there?

You’re pretty observant. Those are knockout panels that can be removed for access to the lower level of the convention center. Why? First, some background: After Amtrak was created in 1971, Columbus was served by a single passenger train running between New York, St. Louis and Kansas City. It stopped at Union Station, which stood where the convention center is now.

When the station was demolished in 1977, Amtrak moved to a small metal building near the Smith Bros. Hardware building on North Fourth Street (local rail-fan wags called it the “Amshack”), and then the train was discontinued in the fall of 1979, mainly due to lack of political support. But since the tracks still ran through the site, the convention center builders allowed for the possibility of locating a station there. It would have been easy to knock out those panels and finish the area inside.

And it almost happened. At one point, in 2010, we were on the verge of starting that “3-C” route among Ohio’s three main C-named cities. The federal government had awarded $400 million to establish the service, but shortly after he first took office in 2011, Gov. John Kasich turned the funds back, and they were re-granted to other states’ rail services.

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