Downtown Columbus, Ohio, has a long and interesting history. The roots of Columbus can be traced to a community named Franklinton that founder Lucas Sullivant established in 1797 on the Scioto River’s western bank, also known as the low side. Sullivant chose the name to honor someone he respected, founding father Benjamin Franklin. Franklinton remained a sleepy frontier community for the next 15 years.
Unlike many towns that were founded by settlers looking for better opportunities, Columbus owes its founding and initial expansion to speculators and politicians. The capital of Ohio was originally Chillicothe, but legislators from the northern part of the state lodged numerous complaints about the distance they had to travel. In an effort to find a more suitable location, the capital was relocated to Zanesville, but since the town was incapable of housing all of the assembly, this arrangement was unsuitable as well. The capital reverted to Chillicothe temporarily while a committee looked for a new location that would appease everyone, and a new law was passed requiring the capital to be within 40 miles of the state’s center.
Although the committee evaluated a number of suggestions, the offer made by four men who were residents of Franklinton proved to be the most appealing. These four men offered to donate 20 acres of land as well as construct all of the buildings necessary to house the government. The land donation was split, with 10 acres earmarked for a new state penitentiary and the balance to be used for the Capitol and its grounds. To sweeten the deal, a cash bonus of $50,000 was offered to the state for locating the new Ohio Capitol on the bank opposite Franklinton. The government accepted the men’s offer, naming the new capital Ohio City.
The name was short-lived, however. Between the time that surveyors began their work in 1812 and the city’s incorporation in 1816, a vote in the state legislature resulted in the choice of Columbus as the new capital’s name. The name change is largely credited to a Franklinton tavern owner, Joseph Foos. Foos admired Christopher Columbus for his courage in leaving behind familiar surroundings and sailing into uncharted waters, much as Foos and many residents of the area had done. Foos invited a number of state legislators to his tavern for a “social gathering.” Although there are no official records of what transpired at the gathering, after the group met, the recommendation was made to name the town Columbus instead of Ohio City.
By 1815, the Ohio Statehouse built in Columbus and the state office building were under construction near the intersection of what is now known as State Street and South High Street. The first mayor, 22-year-old Jarvis W. Pike, was appointed in 1816. Pike is remembered for having grown corn and wheat on the front lawn of the Statehouse.
During the 1800s, the fortunes of downtown Columbus ebbed and flowed. The city served as a staging area and supply center for the military during the War of 1812, but following the war, the population declined and land prices fell dramatically. In 1831, a feeder canal connecting Columbus to the Ohio and Erie Canal brought renewed prosperity that was bolstered when the National Road reached Columbus in 1836. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Columbus was connected by telegraph and railroad lines, and the city became an army town once more. The population swelled, but just as it had following the end of the War of 1812, Columbus fell into decline after hostilities ceased.
The state government quickly outgrew the Ohio Statehouse that had been constructed initially, so the cornerstone for a new building was laid in 1839. Work was halted due to a design controversy and the expiration of Columbus’ charter making it the state capital. Work on the new Statehouse would not resume until 1848, and it would not be completed until 1857. This proved problematic after the original Statehouse was destroyed by a fire in 1852, forcing the relocation of offices to various buildings until the work could be completed.
By the turn of the 20th century, much of the downtown area had fallen on hard times. The riverfront was home to several coal yards, factories, derelict boarding houses and tenements. In 1908, civic leaders began working on a plan to improve the riverfront, but they failed to gain the necessary support. Nature intervened, however, when the Scioto River flooded in 1913. Many of the factories, tenements and boarding houses were swept away by the flood. The flood claimed the lives of at least 90 people and shut down the city for almost a week. Water reached a depth of 26 feet in Franklinton, closing that part of the city for more than six weeks. The Corps of Engineers constructed flood walls on both banks to protect downtown Columbus and Franklinton from future floods and the river was widened in the downtown area.
Although the Wyandotte, an 11-story building completed in 1897, was technically the first skyscraper built in Columbus, the first modern skyscraper was the LeVeque Tower. Formerly known as the American Insurance Union Citadel, LeVeque Tower is a 47-story, art deco tower that has become a notable landmark in Columbus. LeVeque Tower was to be followed by numerous other office towers in the downtown area, including the 629-foot James A. Rhodes State Office Tower completed in 1975.
Despite the city’s progress, however, issues remained with the riverfront area of downtown. Attempts were made during the 1920s to transform the area into a park, but bond issues failed. The depression and World War II hampered additional efforts, and by the 1950s, many residents had begun leaving the downtown area for the suburbs. Unlike the reaction common in many other cities, though, the downtown leaders in Columbus did not abandon the idea of improving the riverfront. Through their efforts and a $500,000 donation from John Galbraith, what is now known as Bicentennial Park opened in 1976.
Bicentennial Park was just the beginning of the transformation of downtown’s riverfront. In 2011, the Scioto Mile was officially opened. A unique partnership of businesses, individuals and government, the Scioto Mile is an oasis of nature in the heart of downtown that encompasses over 145 acres. Visitors can enjoy walking trails, bike paths, fountains, parks and boulevards. Throughout the season, various special events are hosted, including food tastings and arts and crafts festivals.
With so much attention paid to making the downtown area attractive, it is not surprising that the market for downtown real estate is strong. Downtown lofts and condos are extremely popular among those who work in the area as well as retirees wanting to downsize. Whether they prefer downtown lofts in renovated older buildings or a newly constructed condo, shoppers are sure to find a unit that suits their needs. Adding to the appeal of downtown real estate is the convenience offered by the many restaurants, shops and entertainment venues that are within a short walk or bike ride.
Although the history of downtown Columbus encompasses more than 200 years, the final chapter has yet to be written. From humble beginnings, Columbus has become an elegant urban center that just seems to get better with every passing year.
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(all data current as of 7/11/2020)
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