City Quotient: Downtown’s Midcentury Modern Holdout

A distinctive building and neon sign remain a beacon in Columbus.

Jeff Darbee
The Beacon Building

I love the retro Beacon Building sign Downtown. Can you tell me about the building’s history? 

Columbus keeps losing examples of its midcentury modern architecture, but this one is still with us. The Columbus architectural firm Benham, Richards and Armstrong designed the building for the Beacon Mutual Indemnity Co., one of the many insurance firms Columbus has been known for over the years. Located at the northeast corner of West Gay and North Front streets, the six-story building began construction in 1955 and was completed two years later.

Its design was aggressively modern but had some very traditional materials, such as Indiana limestone for the south and west walls and red granite on a windowless corner block extending well above the roof. Its massive red “Beacon Building” neon sign on a corrugated teal backdrop made it hard to miss, as did the plain punched windows with an aluminum grid overlay. Three large aluminum ribs once ran from bottom to top on the west side near the building’s southwest corner, but most of these were removed for safety reasons in 2014.

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The city of Columbus bought the Beacon in 1978 and housed several city agencies there before moving them to a new Front Street building in 2018. News reports said the Beacon Building would be sold to a private developer, but county records show that as of now it’s still owned by the city.

The Open Air Building in Old North Columbus has been renovated, and businesses like Emmett’s Café and Understory, a sister brand of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, are about to move in. What’s the story behind the building and its name? 

The former Neil Avenue Elementary School at 2571 Neil Ave. replaced a 1913 frame building built as an “open air” school, part of the city school system. The open air movement evolved from late 19th century efforts to control tuberculosis, which was rampant at the time. The idea was that at-risk children (but not those already sick) could fend off the disease if provided with abundant fresh air, outdoor play and nutritious food.

The North Columbus location proved ideal because it also removed children from the “distressing noise” of the central city where most of them lived. The U-shaped 1928 Open Air School was built as part of a $10 million program that gave the city 16 new elementary, junior high and high schools. It was dedicated in 1929 and designed by architect Howard Dwight Smith, best remembered as the designer of Ohio Stadium.

Its structure is reinforced concrete, with brick and terra cotta on the exterior, and it reflects the Italian Renaissance Revival style popular at the time. As tuberculosis waned in the 1940s thanks to antibiotics, the building became a regular neighborhood school, though it also served numerous children with physical disabilities. It closed in 1975, was used as office space and then sat empty. Fortunately, it has been redone—in a certified historic rehabilitation that respected its architectural character—as a location for various commercial enterprises.

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.

Sources: columbusalive.com; “Columbus Business and Industry Scrapbook,” Volume 1, Columbus Metropolitan Library; 1978 City of Columbus Annual Report; Judith B. Williams, historic preservation consultant; Open Air School National Register of Historic Places nomination form

This story is from the November 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.