Lost and Found: Random oddities from abandoned buildings

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The doll might've been a birthday present once, standing slim and shiny in her own box, with bright clothes and soft features.

Now, cracked and lonely with black hair messy and tangled, she sits waiting for another day to dawn through the saw-tooth windows of 400 West Rich, a forgotten Franklinton industrial building being resurrected as an arts complex. Her only friends are a few barrels of spare glass lamp globes and a needlepoint that reads, almost desperately, "God Bless Our Home."

How she ended up here remains a mystery.

That's kind of how things work in this Dada daydream of vintage machine presses, spare parts, building supplies and a mining cart once used to haul dynamite. The building at 400 W. Rich St. measures roughly 103,000 square feet, and something strange lurks in every one.

"I was kind of overwhelmed," project manager Chris Sherman said of taking over the building. "I was sort of intrigued and sort of excited. Obviously, I anticipated sorting through all that stuff."

Ever wonder what's hiding in the vacant factories, offices, hospitals, mansions and barns of Central Ohio's changing landscape? Everything you'd expect - and a few items you'd never guess.

Though it's sat almost completely vacant and unused for years, the building saw small civilizations come and go several times after opening in 1910 as the D.A. Ebinger Sanitary Manufacturing Company.

A Taco Bell regional office is remembered in a few cream-colored restaurant booths now sitting in a makeshift break room. Machine parts and electrical wires speak of the building's time as a union-run machine shop.

Eras left their mark in scraps, supplies, spare parts and weird additions with no explanation. As Sherman became the superintendant, he doubled as an archeologist, finding whispers of past lives preserved only in a few odd souvenirs.

One room held a collection of touchtone phones, toilet seats, a lone orange sock and dusty fans with spare steel blades. Others stored rusty garden shears, vintage safety goggles and a refrigerator full of '80s-era salad dressing.

The strangest thing Sherman found?

"The gear presses were pretty odd, and I wasn't quite sure what they were used for," he said. "And the '70s Penthouse mags were kind of strange - that'd be at the top of the list."

To reinvent the space as studios and offices for artists and creative-class manufacturers, Sherman plans to recycle what he can, scrap some metal and keep any interesting industrial pieces.

These will live on as relics - personal items and consumer detritus transformed into art and artifact.

"I think there's just generally a lot of curiosity about how people lived in the past," said Lisa Wood, curator for visual resources for the Ohio Historical Society. "It kind of sparks your imagination - you find something, and it's evidence of somebody and someone's life."

Some with found objects are motivated by dreams of striking it rich with a rare heirloom, while others just want answers about where stuff came from and how it got into their hands.

"People call us quite often with things that they've found," Wood said. "People do find things in old houses - maybe a print or newspapers in the attic or an old book."

Almost always, she said, found objects aren't worth much money.

To have historical significance, archivists need to know an artifact's provenance, or the details of context, ownership, era and origin. To fetch big money, an antique dealer prizes an object's rarity, original value and good condition.

The finds' value lies most often in the oddity department.

"Many of the things that are found in abandoned places aren't always that valuable, because we don't know that much about it," Wood explained. "When we can get a background from people, that's valuable for us."