City Quotient: Lincoln Theatre and the Macon Hotel

A Near East Side theater and a hotel helped define a swinging era of Columbus.

Jeff Darbee
Lincoln Theatre

I know the Lincoln Theatre on East Long Street has been restored, but wasn’t it in a ruined condition years ago and close to demolition?

Yes, ruined and close to being lost. Back before freeway construction and suburbanization, the Black community of Columbus had a thriving commercial district along Long Street and Mount Vernon Avenue just northeast of Downtown. At a time when those residents were not allowed in Downtown theaters, Al Jackson and Ernie Williams, successful African American real estate owners, opened the Ogden Theatre and Ballroom in late 1928 at 769 E. Long St. It became known for its jazz performances, hosting many giants of the genre—Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Etta James and Columbus’ own Nancy Wilson.

The Ogden became the Lincoln Theatre in 1939, some years after the name had been applied to its ballroom. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, the neighborhood was torn by highway construction and population loss, and the theater closed. For years, it sat empty, the roof finally giving way and damaging the interior. Fortunately, in the early 1990s, a private developer bought the building (it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places around this time) and rebuilt the roof to stop deterioration and let the place dry out. He was unable to take the project further, but the building at least was stable.

Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman named the Lincoln as a cornerstone of the reimagined King-Lincoln District in 2002. The city bought the building, and CAPA led an 18-month restoration, which included the one-of-a-kind-in-Columbus Egyptian Revival theater auditorium.

I have seen an old place called the Macon Hotel on the Columbus Landmarks' list of endangered historic buildings. What is the story behind it?

The Macon, at 366 N. 20th St., is important in our city’s Black history. Built in 1888, it’s a three-story commercial building that, at the time, was sort of run-of-the-mill—much like any number of similar buildings popping up all over the growing city.

Its real significance, however, arose as the Near East Side became the center of Columbus’ Black population. It was one of the hotels where African American musicians, barred from many Downtown hotels, could stay after performing at places such as the nearby Lincoln Theatre. The Macon was among several hotels in the 1957 edition of the “Green Book,” the guide for Black travelers seeking safe accommodations.

To be fair to Downtown, that edition also included the Neil House across from the Statehouse on High Street, the Deshler at Broad and High, and Fort Hayes on West Spring Street, but all of them are gone. One other, the Hotel St. Clair near the Macon’s neighborhood, which today houses apartments, was originally built as a hospital for the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad.

So what happened to the Macon? It was owned by members of a local family from 1963 until after it closed in 2008, though it had not been a hotel for some time. The current owner has proposed renovations, but other than city-required repairs of problems such as deteriorated bricks, nothing has happened. There are stories of offers to buy the building, but no deal has occurred.

Sources: lincolntheatrecolumbus.com; heritageohio.org; dispatch.com; columbuslandmarks.org

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