As it Were: Planning Ohio's capital city was much easier than building it
By 1810, Ohio had been a state for seven years.
During that time the capital of the state had been in the village of Chillicothe, but an increasingly noisy group of legislators and friends wished to see the capital in the central part of the state.
The capital was moved to Zanesville for a couple of years before returning to Chillicothe. The advocates of central Ohio eventually prevailed, and a new site was chosen on the “High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto” at a place called Wolf’s Ridge.
To build a new capital city, the Ohio General Assembly chose a man named Joel Wright, a surveyor who had laid out several towns in the Midwest. He lived in the village of Springboro in southwest Ohio and was active in local affairs. He had not expected to be asked to undertake this project, but he accepted it gracefully.
The General Assembly picked the new site partly because the four “proprietors” of the property had offered 10 acres for a Statehouse and 10 acres for a penitentiary, as well as $50,000 – an immense sum in those days – for buildings and “dependencies.” The plan of the legislators was to build the prison first and then use the prisoners to build the other buildings.
It did not work out quite that way.
The General Assembly gave Wright enormous powers. He was to “superintend the surveying and laying out of the town” to “direct the width of streets and alleys” and to “select the square for public buildings and the lot for the penitentiary.” He was empowered to lay and disburse taxes on the village until Jan. 1, 1816, and was the “director” of Columbus.
The members of a Joint Committee of the General Assembly soon made it clear, however, that they wished to be the surveyors, designers and architects of the new town.
On Feb. 20, 1812, the General Assembly resolved “that the director, after selecting the squares and scites (sic) whereon the statehouse and the penitentiary shall be built, shall proceed to lay down the size and dimensions of the said buildings as follows, viz.: the statehouse to be 75 feet by 50, to be built of brick on a stone foundation, the proportions of which shall be regulated by said director, according to the most approved models of modern architecture, so as to combine, as far as possible, elegance, convenience, strength and durability.”
The committee went on to give similar detailed instructions for the construction of the penitentiary, and Wright went to work.
With the help of Joseph Vance, Franklin County surveyor, Wright surveyed and laid out the street pattern for the new town. He chose the location of both Statehouse Square and the site of the penitentiary where the Cultural Arts Center is today.
In December 1812, Wright submitted a report to the General Assembly and was not too happy when he did so.
“Having with diffidence submitted to the unexpected appointment, I repaired to the post assigned me, superintended the surveying and laying out of the town on an elevated and beautiful situation, on the east side of the Scioto River, opposite the town of Franklinton. ... After selecting the public square and penitentiary lot, I proceeded to designate on the ground plat, the size and dimensions of the Statehouse and penitentiary, according to the size of each building prescribed by the legislature.”
“It was contemplated to proceed, soon after the last harvest, in building the penitentiary ... but the unsettled state of public affairs (the War of 1812) and the drafts of the military prevented. The foundation, however, is dug, a large quantity of stone and upward of 300,000 bricks are on the ground ready.”
“PS. As the last legislature did not furnish any pecuniary compensation for the director’s services and expenses, he now applies for what may seem proper, and requests to be excused or released from further attention to the subject of his appointment, and another appointed in his room.”
Wright went on to successfully complete a long and distinguished career in surveying and town planning from his base in Springboro. It seems he never returned to Columbus.
Needing someone to take his place, the Ohio General Assembly chose William Ludlow.
A later account noted that Ludlow was “neither an architect nor much acquainted with building” but was “a faithful agent” and a man “of some talent and unquestioned integrity.” Needing and using all these traits, Ludlow eventually built the town Wright had planned.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.