Home: A new downtown Columbus dwelling

Jeff Darbee and Nancy Recchie
The second floor great room of the Recchie-Darbee home Downtown involves a comfortable living and dining space. The couple built an entirely new, 2,700-square-foot home that fits in well with the surrounding streetscape.

Having worked in historic preservation for more than 40 years, we have learned that preservationists should be careful what they ask for. They just might get it.

When you work in this field, you get to know many interesting people as you engage in various projects. That web of knowledge about buildings and the experiences accumulated over a number of years can evolve in unexpected ways. For us, it occurred when we built a new home more than a dozen years ago; this became a tangled tale of what grew out of our very personal passion for preservation.

To start at the beginning, married life for us began in German Village in 1978. A few years later we moved to Library Park South—the little street where you drop your books off from your car at the Main Library—into one of the three fairly large condominiums that our family company redeveloped from the former carriage house that stood there for decades. Downtown life agreed with us, even if it wasn't yet the thing to do back then in the early 1980s.

Soon after our son was born, we moved back to the German Village house, which provided nearly twice the space. We were still there when we heard about a little property on East State Street with a rather Parisian façade, known as the McGavran building, opposite Grant Hospital.

The McGavran had an interesting history. Built in the 1880s as a single-family home, the building's front was torn away in 1923 and replaced with a two-and-a-half-story front section made of limestone. The building then served as medical offices for many years, but it was slated for the wrecking ball to make room for future Grant Hospital development.

Dismayed that such a distinctive little property was doomed, we worked up a plan to preserve and move it. But to where?

We had an idea. Years earlier, we had worked with Dr. Tom Mallory, a pioneer in joint implant surgery, to preserve the north side of East Town Street when the homes and carriage houses there were proposed for replacement by a parking lot. Later, Nancy's brother, Ralph Recchie, purchased Dr. Mallory's house and office at 380 E. Town St., which had been renovated in the late 1970s by the doctor. Ralph also purchased the adjacent parking lot that had been used for Mallory's office.

Now, that parking lot seemed like the ideal spot to relocate the McGavran. But how?

We called two house movers, and Dingey Movers in Zanesville got the job. Bill Dingey proposed that he would move our building from Point A to Point B for X dollars, no contingencies. So we talked to Dingey and we asked for references because we hadn't worked with him in the past (we found the company in a phone book). He explained that he didn't need references, because “you drop a house, word gets around.” That was good enough for us.

Then things got a little more complicated. We had received necessary approvals from the Downtown Commission to move the front portion of the building, and from the Historic Resources Commission to move it into the East Town Street Historic District. But we hadn't considered the utility wires that stretched through the area.

The house, once it was up on the moving dollies, would not fit under those lines. It would cost another $50,000 a day to drop those lines as we rolled across Downtown. So we adjusted our plan, deciding to move only the front façade. We'd build an entirely new house to go with it.

Working with Baker-Henning Productions, a skilled builder that had done many projects in Upper Arlington and German Village, we planned a new 2,700-square-foot house onto which we would install the fine-grained limestone façade of the McGavran building. Such a project is usually an anathema to preservationists, but when it's the only option, it's better than losing the entire building.

After receiving the appropriate approvals, construction finally began. The McGavran originally sat right at sidewalk level with no step at the front door. At the East Town Street site, the houses on either side, originally built by members of the Lazarus department store family, sat higher, with raised basements and front steps.

So we did the same. We built a house on a high foundation so it would fit into the streetscape. That gave us a raised basement for our home offices and a family room. Our happiest day was when the stone façade was installed.

It had been removed piece by piece and stored while the house was under construction. Bill Lantz, a friend who is an engineer, devised a system for attaching the stone to the frame house's façade. When it was done, every piece fit, and there weren't any stones left over.

After renting the house out to tenants for several years, we finally moved late in 2013. It has proven to be a great home in a great neighborhood, and we plan to be here for a while.