The Packard Presence in Columbus

2019-08-06T13:17:24+00:00July 18th, 2019|

By Amanda Page

I was living in Columbus for the third time when I first heard of Frank Packard, a prolific, turn-of-the-century architect. During my first two stints in the city, I had noticed the buildings that seemed to have character, but I didn’t dive any deeper. I appreciated them, but I didn’t seek out their stories. At that point, Columbus did not yet feel like my home. I was just passing through. I didn’t have the time to really get to know it.

When I decided to return the third time, after several moves back and forth across the country, I knew that I wanted to live in a particular neighborhood. Specifically, I wanted to live in the one with all the ravines.

I grew up around hills, and Columbus’s flatness had a remarkable effect on my mood. The first two times I lived there, I felt like the landscape: vast and empty. Sure, there were tall buildings downtown that provided some height in the distance, but skyscrapers aren’t covered in trees, and unless you are a parkour enthusiast, they’re not kind to climb. When I drove the outer belt, I felt consumed with a sadness I could not place. After I returned to the hills of southern Ohio, I wondered if the Columbus sadness might have been a type of flatness madness; if I had been sick for the sight of hills.

When I came back to Columbus, I knew I needed to stand on the ground and be surrounded by natural elements much taller than me. I moved into an apartment within walking distance of a ravine, and I promptly contacted an organization called “Friends of the Ravines.” I saw their newsletter at the local grocery store, and knew in that moment that I wanted to befriend the ravines, too.

Midwest Architecture Journeys - Cover

This essay appears in Midwest Architecture Journeys, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.

I was welcomed into the fold, and the other friends quickly made use of my wordy nature. I was tasked with writing articles for the newsletter that connected us in the first place. They asked that I start with an article about a school that was built on the lip of Glen Echo Ravine. The school was designed by one Frank Packard, who, I was told, had designed lots of buildings in the capital city.

My curiosity was piqued, because Columbus is not a city renowned for its architectural achievements. We’re known for college football, or artisanal ice cream, or maybe as a test market. The state government lives here. Much of the city looks like it was built overnight, and many apartment complexes and condominiums are literally constructed from the same blueprints. To say the city is devoid of architectural distinction is an understatement. An accurate one. Developers like to build mixed-use buildings along the High Street corridor, which runs north and south through the entire center of the city. Every now and then, as you drive up or down High, you might spot an older building that survived the demolition and development onslaught. Chances are, the building that caught your eye was designed by Packard.

Frank Packard was born in Delaware, Ohio, in 1866, and took a few architecture courses at the Ohio State University. He transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied Beaux Arts architecture, and finished his degree. He returned to Ohio and settled in Columbus, where he became known in the Arts and Crafts movement as a champion of using the natural elements of the surrounding area of a building in the structure itself. He designed houses from stone by nearby quarries. At the end of his career, his architectural firm designed approximately 230 buildings, many of them in Columbus alone. He was prolific, and he seemingly suffered through no scandals. He didn’t seem to hunger for fame. He simply seemed to do his job.

Which makes him seem remarkably Midwestern.

My article about Frank Packard pushed me into the preservation movement in town. I was inspired to do every walking tour provided by a local organization that produced art walks throughout various neighborhoods. I attended a Columbus Public Schools community meeting to speak up for a building designed by a Packard mentee. The system decided to go ahead and tear it down, because the system in town often makes that same decision. Each time another demolition began, I thought of Packard. His work was all over the city, and the city seemed determined to wipe it out.

Without Packard’s buildings, though, I didn’t know the city. Those buildings had been standing long before I arrived, and several were standing when I did finally get there. I may not have known much about them, but I noticed them. They were an important part of my memory of the city, and what is a city if not a place that exists in the minds of the people who live there?

 

I traveled around in the United Kingdom in 2017. I needed things to do in Scotland, and I didn’t want to do the usual pub crawls or tourist fare. I wanted to do things that sounded like things I would do. I signed up for a class on “narratives of place” at the Scottish Storytelling Center, planned a van excursion to the Isle of Skye, and bought a ticket to a walking tour around Glasgow that focused on the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the man behind Glasgow Style.

I took the train from Edinburgh. I’d be in Glasgow only as long as the tour, and then I’d commute back to my bedroom in New Town, where I’d sleep away the chill I was developing in Scotland in June. I was not prepared for the hills of Glasgow, and I was out of breath as I arrived, finally, at the Glasgow School of Art. I stood in the gift shop, chatting with other Americans who were gathering for the tour, proud of myself that I got on the train and didn’t scrap my plan and stay in the other city. In my brief walk through Glasgow, I already had a sense of just how different it was from Edinburgh. I knew that a walking tour would be a mere snapshot, but it still felt like an important point on my self-designed itinerary. Our guide, an architecture student at the Glasgow School of Art, introduced herself, and as we stood in a circle around her and she explained that we’d be seeing Mackintosh buildings, as well as buildings designed by his contemporaries, at the turn of the century, when Glasgow Style came into existence.

Glasgow Style was immediately recognizable by its font. The free map we’d been given for the tour had the Glasgow School of Art logo on the front, and the font was distinct. A popular television program at that time was even using it for its title credits. I felt as if I had a head start in what I’d learn during the day, but I would be woefully corrected once we made our way around the city.

The tour included gems of Scottish architecture, designed by men whose work came long before Mackintosh. Our guided pointed out work Mackintosh had contributed to, as well as work done while he was a junior in his field. We heard tales of his wife, Margaret, and even gathered in front of the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists, which was estabished in 1882. We learned about tea room culture and Mackintosh’s role in designing the places where artists would come together. I was fascinated. I felt like I really got to know the man, and I’d been in his city for less than an hour.

I’d lived in Columbus for a total of eleven years at that point, and I could not tell you the name of Frank Packard’s wife.

We wound our way around the city, and our guide led us to a small museum of Mackintosh designs. We were told to explore, and we would meet back on the street in half an hour. Tour participants scattered throughout the building, free to learn on their own for a bit.

While I was wandering about, I happened upon a display that included photos of the architect’s home. Right in the center was a framed quote that said, “Yes, dear, this is the architect’s own house, and if it had been in our country he would have been Frank Lloyd Wright.” The quote was attributed to, “AMERICAN WOMAN IN THE MACKINTOSH HOUSE, TALKING TO HER DAUGHTER, 1992.”

Yes, the attribution was in all caps.

The quote stopped me in my tracks. My first thought was, “Of course, that’s the only architect we know or celebrate in the states.” My second thought was, “Why?”

Frank Lloyd Wright designed some amazing buildings, certainly. Many use enterprising incorporations of natural elements, such as a stream running beneath the structure. He lived a big life, one that included scandal, and for some reason, I remembered that he sought fame. He cared deeply about his reputation. He left one wife and his mistress was murdered and his home and studio were destroyed in a fire. I stood there in the center of Mackintosh lore, and thought about how in the states, we worshipped the architect with the flashiest life.

We didn’t spend much time thinking about the architects of the buildings we used everyday. We made architecture exotic, something we travel to see. Or, at least, I did. I knew there were local tours that pointed out significant buildings, often Packard’s, in Columbus. I’d been on them. But those tours did not make me think much more about the man responsible for designing the landmarks of the city I called home.

 

I came back from Scotland with an idea.

I had vague knowledge of different pieces of a puzzle, and I wanted to put them together. I knew that the art school in downtown Columbus had a “Packard Library.” I knew that there were four or five buildings designed by Packard in a corridor in walking distance from said library. I knew that it was not difficult to walk around downtown Columbus, and that there were several routes I could connect in my mind that passed several Packard buildings.

I had coffee with a friend who works in historic preservation. I mentioned the Mackintosh tour. I mentioned how easy it would be to walk around downtown Columbus and point out the work of Frank Packard. I mentioned how important the small Mackintosh museum was to the Glasgow tour.

My friend mentioned a state agency that awarded planning grants for projects like cultural heritage tours. I nodded. I said, “Good to know.”

From there, I went home and started to make inquiries. I emailed a contact at the art school and asked, “Hey, do you know if the Packard Library is named after Frank Packard?” She didn’t, but she forwarded my message to an archivist there saying, “She should be able to help you.”

And she did.

It turned out that the archivist had recently been tasked with creating a display about the life and work of Frank Packard for the entryway of the Packard Library, which absolutely was named for the architect, who donated money to the art school that was just getting off the ground at the turn of the century. Columbus College of Art and Design was born from the minds of a small group of women who started an art school at the brand-new museum. Packard contributed to the efforts to start an art school. He did not design the school, but he had a hand in it. Packard had more of an impact on the city than just designing the buildings that populated the landscape.

I began to design a tour of Packard’s architecture that incorporated the bits of his story that I knew. I wanted to walk a path that extended beyond the buildings and their facades and revealed a legacy that had yet to be properly celebrated. I held the Mackintosh tour up as a measure of such.

Reader, I applied for the grant. I was awarded the money to assemble a team of humanities professionals, myself included, and design “Packard’s Columbus Walking Tour,” which highlighted his work, as well as the work of his peers. It would include time at the Packard Library, where participants could take in the display about the man whose presence made an indelible impact on the city of Columbus.

In a room in the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the small team gathered. Joined by the Packard Library archivist, two employees of the local landmark association, and a woman from the state historic preservation office (who was writing a book about Packard), we deliberated the best route, duration, and distance for a tour. We confirmed the existence of restrooms along the route. A ticket price was set. In a little over an hour, we created the equivalent of the Mackintosh tour, but for our own Frank Packard.

The tour begins and ends at Columbus College of Art and Design, with the display at the Packard Library. Although Packard’s work is sprinkled throughout the city, in its suburbs and along its ravines, the concentration of his work downtown, in a one-and-a-half-mile walk, says a lot about his presence in the capital city.

You can barely walk a block without seeing a structure that he touched in some way. In the first minutes of the tour, for example, you encounter the Seneca Hotel.

I once worked next door to the Seneca Hotel. It was a rat-infested structure that my boss called “an eye- sore.” I thought it could be magnificent. A developer must have thought the same. In 2008, the hotel was converted to luxury apartments, and an architecture firm keeps an office on the first floor. On the tour, you walk past it at the beginning, and you walk past it at the end. It is a true landmark, and on the Packard’s Columbus Walking Tour, it is a beacon. It assures you that your journey is almost complete.

The hotel is on the opposite side of the street, though. The first Packard-designed building that you come to on the northside of Broad Street is Columbus Memorial Hall. It was built to honor veterans, and to be a venue for big bands—one that rivaled Madison Square Garden. I remember it mostly as COSI, the Center of Science and Industry. It was a popular destination for elementary schools looking for field trips, and it was filled with space capsules and hair-raising static electricity machines. The center eventually moved across the river, and Columbus Memorial Hall removed the shiny black glass facade and reverted back to its more traditional Packard look, along with its focus on veterans’ affairs. The county’s Veterans Services Commission moved in to exist among several other county offices.

The Empire Building sits at the corner of Broad and 4th. When the building was constructed, it was named the Yuster Building, but eventually became the Empire Building, and like many of the buildings in Packard’s Columbus, it was eventually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The white stone used to erect the building is reminiscent of that used for Columbus Memorial Hall, and contrasts with the brick on display in many of the Packard structures in downtown Columbus.

Next to the Empire Building, and moving west along Broad, the Athletic Club is exactly what the name suggests: an athletic and social club. Founded in 1913, it has been host to several notable folks who’ve come through the city. It stands now as a beacon of economic class, its blue awning reaching toward the street, ready to cover the members as they walk from curb to door. The Athletic Club eventually earned a plaque from the National Register of Historic Places, as well.

Continuing west, you’ll reach the corner of Broad and Front streets, where you can consider the Scioto Mile, which is a 175-acre park along the Scioto River. Packard developed a plan in 1908 that utilized the river and the riverfront. The city eventually did incorporate some of his plan into the new and improved waterfront, although it is hard to tell exactly what parts without studying the plan online before you enjoy it in person. In the distance, beyond the river and further down Broad Street, you can see the Packard- and Yost-designed Toledo and Ohio Railroad Depot that was made to mimic the Macklin hotel that once stood beside it. Both structures included pagoda-like pieces of architecture, and the former train station still stands out as a remarkable landmark in the landscape of the city.

The next leg of the tour includes a walk up a slight incline, back to High Street, where you head north to the Atlas Building on East Long Street. Built to be a savings and trust, it’s undergone two major renovations. The first-floor window long featured an ad for “New York City Style Living,” in the building’s apartments.

Turn east toward 4th Street, where you’ll turn right to walk past The Columbus Athenaeum, which was constructed as meeting place for Masonic lodges in 1899. The building has acquired several additions through the years, but the Packard flair is unmistakable. It is the last Packard building you pass as you head back to Broad Street, and a bastion for weddings and teacher conventions. If you’ve driven on 4th Street with any regularity, you’ve slowed down to watch gussied-up guests spill out of the building and light up the street.

The final stretch along the south side of Broad takes you past the Columbus Club, a formidable mansion that became an exclusive club in 1886. Many an Ohio governor has been honored there. The house is spectacular, and passers-by can assume it still stands as a playground and gathering place for monied locals. As you pass the Columbus Club, you get closer to the Seneca Apartments, and you know your tour through Packard’s Columbus is coming to an end.

The entire tour has a radius of less than three miles, and yet, it introduces you to only a small selection of buildings in the Packard legacy in downtown Columbus. Walk further along Broad and you’ll pass two churches and a mansion made from Packard plans. But, because they’re not inside the easy loop identified by the experts on the planning team, they must be encountered on their own. You can drive past them. You can drive all around Columbus to see Packard’s work. But for this particular journey, a walk makes the most sense. You can stand beneath the buildings and understand their scale. You can absorb the history of the structures. You can listen for their ghosts.

The tour will be led first by the foremost expert on Packard and his work, Barb Powers, from the state historic preservation office. She will train other guides who will continue to produce the tour. The hope is that the audience grows beyond the already curious. The hope is that it creates interest, possibly even of art students who pass the buildings almost every day. The hope is that the tour fosters connection between those who live in the city, and the man who helped design it.

 

I no longer live near the ravines.

At least, not near the ones where Packard has a presence. I’ve moved north, closer to a different ravine, one that separates my neighborhood from a small Usonian one. I walk my dogs near the houses inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and I think about the American woman who understood his fame, his impact, his legacy. She stood in the house of a famous Scottish architect and thought of the most famous one in her own country. I’ve found that not many people in the city know of the Usonian neighbor- hood’s existence. If they do know, they’ve never been through it. Fewer know the name “Frank Packard.” If they do know, they rarely know his work by sight. It took a trip across the Atlantic Ocean for me to care more about making his name known. It took a two-hour architectural tour in Glasgow for me to understand what it’s like to know the story behind the buildings you pass every day.

I no longer live near the ravines, but I still tell the stories of the Packard buildings along them. I walk my city and ask that others do the same. There was a man who designed the buildings of our lives. There is a presence here. The name is Packard. ■

 

 

This essay appears in Midwest Architecture Journeys, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.

Amanda Page is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio, with two senior dogs. She divides her time between Ohio and Scotland, where she hosts an annual writing retreat on the Isle of Skye.

Cover image of the Seneca Hotel in Columbus, Ohio, via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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