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New Dimension to Urban Renewal : Ohioans Reclaim the 'Charm That Columbus Used to Be'

Charles Hillinger's America

May 07, 1989|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State University's School of Architecture calls it one of the most complete accumulations of early 1800s homes still intact in America.

"German Village is the charm that Columbus used to be. It keeps the present in the past," said Mary Louise Hendricks, 76, who has lived her entire life in the historic enclave in Ohio's capital city.

In the 1950s, the restored village of 1,600 houses, built in the 1830s, '40s and '50s, was a decaying neighborhood less than a 10-minute walk from downtown Columbus. It was just waiting to be razed by developers and replaced by high rises.

"But a group of 183 men and women, led by the late Frank Fetch, a city housing inspector, saw the possibility of saving the solid old brick houses and sparing German Village for posterity. In June, 1960, the German Village Society was formed to accomplish that end," explained Fred Holdridge, 65, president of the society for the past six years.

Now, 29 years later, German Village, with about 3,500 residents, is the pride of Columbus. What had been slums is one of the city's choicest residential areas. The once rundown 130- to 155-year-old homes are now the high-priced dwellings of merchants and professionals. Restored homes in the area sell for between $180,000 and $500,000. (Homes that haven't been restored, of which there are only a few left, have been selling for between $40,000 and $50,000.)

German Village, listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, is one of the largest restoration projects of its type in the country, urban renewal accomplished by hundreds of individuals who purchased the property with no public funding.

"Today, there are only a handful of the old German families still living in German Village," Hendricks said. Her home, a "Dutch double" (comparable to a modern duplex) with a slate-roof and limestone foundation, has been in her family for 125 years. The two-story house sits on a narrow lot framed by a wrought-iron fence, a typical dwelling in the historic neighborhood.

As found throughout the 233-acre village, the sidewalk in front of Hendricks' home is red brick laid in a woven pattern. The narrow village streets are also red brick. Old-fashioned gas lights illuminate the village at night.

When Hendricks was a little girl, German was spoken everywhere in the village. Everyone had either migrated from Germany, or were descendants of the original immigrants. Die Westbote was the German-language newspaper published in the community.

"Children went to village schools, where all lessons were in German. Families went to Catholic or Lutheran churches, where services were in German. There were seven huge breweries in German Village, where many of the men worked. But all the old Germans still made their own beer in their homes. Then along came World War I, and that was the end of it," recalled Hendricks, who has been on the board of the German Village Society since its inception.

All the streets in German Village had German names until World War I began in 1917. The names were quickly Anglicized. German books were burned in bonfires by non-Germans in Columbus who gave the Germans a bad time. Then, after the war, Prohibition closed all the breweries.

In time, most of the old German families moved away. By the 1950s, German Village was mostly slums, with a few old-time families like the Hendrickses, who couldn't let go, a scattering of old-time German shops and cafes, the abandoned breweries and club houses of six German singing societies.

The singing societies trace their roots to the beginnings of German Village. Columbus Maennerchor, founded in 1848, is the largest and oldest continuously active German singing society in North America. It has 3,200 members.

"But only 125 are in the Maennerchor (men's choir), 100 in the Damenchor (women's choir), and 45 in the Kinder/Jugendchor (children's choir)," explained Carl Graf, 72, first tenor in the men's choir for 42 years and president of the club for 21 years.

The club has a large concert hall and a large dining room and most members are in it for the socializing and dining.

The village has a number of boutiques; shops; restaurants such as Schmidt Sausage House, Max & Erma's and Lindey's, and a sprinkling of beer gardens like Diebel's Bier Stube and Plank's Bier Garden. Juergen's Backerei & Konditorei is one of many bakeries and delis.

The German Village Society has raised more than $1 million to restore Schiller Park to what it was in the old days. In the center of the park is a statue of Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, made in Munich at a cost of $6,500, and dedicated in 1891. A playwright and poet, Schiller is best remembered for his poem "Ode to Joy" and the play "Wilhelm Tell."

Each June, the German Village Society selects 10 homes and gardens for its annual Haus und Garten tour, open to the public. The old breweries have been converted into loft apartments.

"I think it's just great to have been able to preserve these wonderful 19th-Century homes . . ." Hendricks said, "to be able to show visitors who come here what can be done, instead of tearing down an area, and replacing it with modern behemoths."

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