Victorian Village: A Once-Grand Neighborhood Fights Back

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Margaret Sater has lived with her husband Kenneth at 840 N. Park St. for 49 years. Her husband's parents built their home at 114 Buttles Ave. before the turn of the century.

Mrs. Sater will tell you of the period around 1880 to 1900 when the wealth of Columbus stopped moving east to Broad St. and Bryden Rd. and turned north, to the area that has recently been named Victorian Village.

Affluent people and grand houses typified the neighborhood for years. Mrs. Sater remembers the doctors, the lawyers, the teachers, the businessmen she knew in the neighborhood's heyday. S.M. Levy, founder of The Union, lived there with his family. So did Peter Sells, whose Sells Circus took the first elephant west of the Mississippi.

But then, as with inner city areas all over the country, the neighborhood began slowly to crumble. Many pf the proud old brick homes were broken up into rental units. Beautiful woodwork was painted, fireplaces were cemented shut, doorways were walled over. Still other houses were razed. Elaborate wooden spindlework was destroyed, rose marble was ripped out of once elegant bathrooms.

"It just makes me heartsick to think of some of the fine places that were torn down," Mrs. Sater says. When the old White Cross Hospital expanded, some houses went; Mrs. Sater speaks sadly and with some anger of a house that was a copy of one in France, with 12 foot ceilings and walnut woodwork.

But Mrs. Sater is a person of some energy and optimism, and does not dwell for too long on the losses of the past. She is greatly heartened by the trend she believes is in progress today: "Young people are putting houses back into single homes. It's a real joy to see them coming in. And they're getting houses they couldn't possibly build in the suburbs for $80,000."

Mrs. Sater's "young people," like Lisa Galat (cover photo) and her husband Al, are willing to haul out old plaster, maintain only a few habitable rooms, and endure various other hardships to restore their houses to former splendor.

About three months ago, after four years in Europe, the Galats came back to Columbus, bought and moved into their house at 1126 Neil Ave., and began a wholesale renovation effort. "I really like the idea that our house is the worst house on the block; that'll help us appreciate it more when we get done," Lisa said, laughing.

Like most of the people who are working on their homes, the Galats know precisely what they're going to do in each empty shell of a room. Lisa can take you on a detailed tour, pointing out the future shape of the house, from the butcher block counters in the kitchen to the "look but don't touch" Victorian parlor in the front of the house, to the revision of a closet in an upstairs bedroom.

New and old residents alike are becoming increasingly renovation conscious in this area, the nucleus of which is the old Dennison Ave. neighborhood. In October of 1973, parts of the old Buttles to Third section, the Michigan Avenue area, and the Goodale neighborhood south of Buttles came in with Dennison to make the current boundaries.

The new neighborhood society decided to re-christen thus composite area "Victorian Village." The term accurately describes the general architectural style, and "'the Near North Side' just sounded too much like a slum," one resident explained.

Probably partly because of the "Village" term and partly because of the similarity of the concept of rehabilitating and renovating old brick homes within a 10-minute drive to downtown, some confusion has come up about Victorian Village. Does it or does it not aspire to become the new German Village?

Almost to a person, Victorian partisans will tell you they have no intention of doing so. While they do not exactly look down their noses at German Village – they are quick to comment on the beautiful places there, and some have already lived and renovated there – they have a pronounced neighborhood pride and feel Victorian can be better than German in two major aspects.

Firstly, they think they have better raw material, in terms of house quality and size, than German Village. Secondly, many of them are determined to keep their neighborhood residential – they eye the offices and shops and restaurants and tourism of German Village with some concern.

Victorian Village was originally a considerably higher-income area than was German Village; the old brick houses along Neil and Buttles and Park are larger than most houses in German Village. Lot size is also far more generous. Many Victorians feel they have more to offer young families than does German Village.

As Larry Schwartzenberger wandered through the 7,000 square feet in his 10-room house at 41 W. Third Ave., looking up at his 11 ½ foot ceilings, he compared his grand-scale dwelling to those in German Village, where he used to live. "There's no house down there that's equal to this one on the inside, as far as I'm concerned. There are only half a dozen there that equal this one in size," he said.

Marlin Sprouse, who now is living in and renovating his second house on Neil Ave., said, "I looked in German Village and it was outlandish – the prices you had to pay for what you got." Sprouse and others do think the precedent of German Village's success will help.

"Victorian Village is going to take off and happen much faster than German Village, because people have seen what's happened there," he said. "I think it's going to work as a residential area downtown."

This concept of a residential area is the second idea about which most Victorian partisans are adamant.

Gerald Howard, newly-elected president of the Victorian Village Society, feels that the area currently zoned for business is enough. "If they want to put restaurants on High St. or Fifth Ave., fine," he said.

Some people in the neighborhood feel that a few shops and maybe one or two good restaurants are a must, but nobody's advocating much more intra-neighborhood commerce than already exists.

One of the major differences between German and Victorian Villages is the source of funding. German Village is a very charming, very beautiful example of what private money can do in an inner-city neighborhood that is structurally sound enough to rehabilitate.

A prime catalyst in the facelift of Victorian Village, however, has been the 10 year old Dennison Conservation Area project, funded jointly by federal and city funds. The Conservation area, within the present Victorian Village, includes the territory from High St. to Neil Ave., and from First Ave. to Fifth Ave.

The federal grant for the project now totals $3,666,600, and the city's share adds up to $1,736,750. Much of the city's one third share has been contributed in services, which include such things as street lighting, an extensive tree planting program, improved streets and sewers.

Of the total federal grant, $187,500 was in direct rehabilitation grants to low-income Dennison Area residents. According to HUD, further federal money in the form of three per cent rehabilitation loans in the area has amounted to $620,100.

One of the most readily apparent exterior changes the Dennison project has wrought is the tree planting. The city tore out old trees, many of which had heart rot, and planted new ones. Garry Kane, a city Development Department rehabilitation technician who's been in the Dennison Conservation Area for 10 years, is proud of the fact that they replaced many of the old trees with ornamentals, like flowering crabs and Bradford Callery pears.

Any bureaucracy that brings flowering trees to a poor neighborhood has to be on the right track. Improved sewers are great; but it is the little amenities like this that can transform a mundane urban rehabilitation program.

Kane, who's become the combination cheerleader-father image for the area, shares an office at 1013 Hunter St. with other city employees, including some of the relocation workers of the Developmental Department's urban renewal division.

Robert Applegate, project coordinator with the division, estimated that the city has acquired between 170 and 180 properties in the area. Most have been razed, their occupants relocated.

Kane thinks the Dennison Conservation project, which has gone through several extensions since its original four-year stint ended, has had a real impact.

"This area was hurtling downward. There was very little stability in the neighborhood, with constant transients in and out," Kane said. The neighborhood had become essentially Appalachian white, heavily low-income.

"It used to be that people would buy a single here, and the first thing they wanted to do was chop it up into a two-unit or four-unit; now we're getting people moving in whose thought is to restore it to its original single family capacity, to live in it," Kane said.

The predominately white neighborhood is now diverse, a blending of many elements, many levels of income, many philosophies. And all is not serene and harmonious.

It is inevitable that there be some conflict, some "dynamic tension," as a neighborhood activist put it, between residents. Many of the new people like the neighborhood mainly for its diversity; they think it can work, and they're not interested in pushing out the poor.

Others may be less tolerant. They may be worried about property values, about their investment. Some will tell you they have absolutely no objection to welfare or low-income families, as long as they maintain reasonable control over their children and their property.

Gerald Howard, Society president, is working to heal the split. "One thing we're not trying to do is run out the low-income families," he said. Most people seem to think the problems can be worked out, the polarization overcome. Pat Thompson, treasurer of the Society, said, "I think the new people and the old people will very definitely bridge the gap."

She and her husband Glenn, vice president of the Society, have lived in the area for 21 years, the last 12 at 1034 Neil Ave. "I find it a very friendly area. It's old-fashioned enough that if there's a death, the neighbors will take food over; if you need a helping hand, it's there," she said.

There are still some typical inner city problems. One is the schools; people with young children are thinking twice before moving in. Another is crime. It is up, following the national trend. Those crimes on the Police Department's crime index – from murder down to larcenies and vehicle theft – have increased in the general Victorian Village area, from 197 in 1973 to 250 last year.

Vandalism seems to be down in the area, according to Charles Morrison, community relations police officer. A possible positive influence is his Junior Police Post, involving about 50 Victorian Village children.

These efforts at improving stability and those underway by the United Way sponsored Godman Guild, a social service agency for the area, give residents hope. "It is not an urban ghetto slum," Godman Guild executive director Randy Morrison said emphatically. "There are many dilapidated buildings and many living in poverty; but there are also many dwelling units that are up to standard. Most of the residents are fine citizens – they're interested and involved in solving neighborhood problems."

Many people who don't have thousands or even hundreds of dollars to pour into their homes have been able to make substantial improvements with the low-interest loans of the Dennison Conservation project.

The Dennison project finally comes to an end June 30. What happens then?

Most believers think the end to federal moneys for low-income rehab loan won't bring the area's progress to a screeching, abrupt end. Some point to the private money that made German Village and predict something similar will happen in Victorian. "Private money has always done things better and faster anyway," they say.

Others look to the possibility of setting up a non-profit housing corporation with funds from the Community Development Act, passed last year by Congress.

Under the CDA, Columbus is making an application for $26 million, to be used over the next three years. Contingent on how that money is used, another $26 million will be forthcoming the following three years.

Columbus plans to use about $9 million the first year in eight program areas. One of the areas includes Victorian Village, along with two adjoining neighborhoods, Harrison West to the west and Italian Village to the east.

People in the near northside area hope to use a chunk of these federal funds as seed money, seek matching funds from private sources, and then use the money to either as renovation loans, or to buy houses, renovate them, and sell them.

Still another possibility in the private money realm exists. Jerry Cox, a loan officer at the downtown branch of Buckeye Federal Savings, has begun a sort of one-man campaign, working on loans which combine the cost of the purchase with the cost of rehabilitation and renovation.

In the last year, which is about how long Cox has been working on the concept, Buckeye has made between 15 and 20 such loans in the Victorian Village area, he estimated. He said requests for mortgage loans for buying and renovating have been gradually increasing. They are made based on property appraisal and the financial qualification of the borrower.

Although he himself lives "out in the sticks," Cox is quite interested in older houses, and appreciates the unique characteristics of Victorian Village. "Personally, I'd like to lend a few million dollars up there," he said. "But it's difficult. You can't turn the area around overnight."

A couple of things are coming up that Victorian residents hope will benefit the area – one is their first summer festival. The second is the convention center, to be built just down High St. from the southeast corner of the village, on the site of the old Union Station.

The festival, planned to raise money for the Society's use and draw some attention to the area, is scheduled for Sept. 12-14.

Everybody seems rather excited about the festival; some are equally positive about the convention center. "Located between the convention center and the university, this area can't go anywhere but up," Chris Snell, a Village commissioner, commented.

One major worry for some people involved with the area is that the real estate people, the spectators will come in and begin buying up chunks of property, moving out some of the older residents. So far, it doesn't seem to be happening.

One major holder in the area is Battelle Memorial Institute. In addition to large holdings north and west of the boundaries of Victorian Village, Battelle owns 34 houses and eight vacant lots in the Village, according to Daun Peterseim, manager of corporate property development for Battelle.

The gradual acquisition had begun in the 40s when Battelle, a rapidly growing institution, felt it would be needing more room. By the 50s, though, it had become apparent that many of the Institute's activities weren't particularly appropriate to the residential, university area. So these activities – like a foundry, and nuclear facilities that needed isolation – moved out into open country, and the Institute began to rent its properties.

Battelle's rentals are primarily single-family dwellings in the Victorian Village area, according to Peterseim. "We haven't complexed them, although some were already broken up into units when we purchased them," he explained. Peterseim said Battelle is interested in keeping their rents comparable to others in the area.

Clyde Tipton, who is vice president of communications for Battelle, said, "Philosophically, without regard to where our houses are, we'd like ours to be at least as good as the average of the neighborhood. If the Victorian Village thrust is to go upward and to rehabilitate and to make more nice homes in that area, we're not going to want to be the sore thumb that's got a couple of really uglies down there."

With the Victorian Village commissioners keeping an eye on building permits and zoning, it is unlikely that anything garish, offensive or just plain ugly will happen in the neighborhood. There are seven functioning commissioners, five of whom are elected by the Village Society, with two appointed by the mayor. City Council has never bothered to make its two appointments to the commission.

But buildings are not by any means the whole story in Victorian Village. If the new, affluent people with big plans for lovely old houses and the older, in many cases poor, residents – many of whom also have big plans for lovely old houses – can make the neighborhood work, their success story should give heart to other inner city neighborhoods.

The possibilities are there. It may be that the real problems are just beginning. Or, it may be that in this unique situation, the polarizations can be overcome, the neighborhood will stay a neighborhood, the arguing will be constructive.

Some people are convinced that once owner-occupancy has gradually eliminated the phenomena of absentee-landlords, all the problems will disappear. This, of course, would displace many of the poor. Others are equally adamant that the best long-range goals for the neighborhood do not include bulldozing the poor into some other part of the city.

Maybe 10 years from now, the corporate vice president and his family will live just around the corner from two welfare families and they'll get together for neighborhood cookouts. Bluebirds will sing in Garry Kane's Bradford Callery pears.

Photography by Jeffrey A. Rycus