As It Were: Downtown Columbus building traded ammo for art
Standing on West Main Street just east of the Scioto River in downtown Columbus is a red brick building that appears, with its turrets and crenellations, to be a castle or a fortress -- or maybe a little of each.
What's now the Cultural Arts Center, operated by the city of Columbus, was born as an arsenal.
The land on which the building stands was never intended to be a place for an arsenal. Instead, it was to be the site of the first building to be constructed in the planned town of Columbus, which would become the new capital of Ohio.
Ohio became a state in 1803. For the first several years of the state's history, its capital moved from Chillicothe to Zanesville and then back to Chillicothe. By 1810, it was clear that most of the members of the Ohio General Assembly preferred a capital city closer to the center of the state.
Unable to decide where that capital should be, the Ohio General Assembly did what government bodies often do: It appointed a committee.
The committee went forth and looked at a number of places in central Ohio. It concluded its work by recommending the Sells Plantations on a bluff overlooking the Scioto River. Today, we call that place Dublin.
In the end, the Ohio General Assembly made a different decision. The proposal of four men who called themselves "the Proprietors" was for a new capital city on "the high banks opposite Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto." The proposal included $50,000 to construct buildings, 10 acres for a statehouse and 10 acres for a penitentiary.
The members of the Ohio General Assembly shrewdly concluded that the cheapest way to get buildings constructed in the new capital city of Columbus was to use prison labor. So the first building to be built in Columbus in 1813 was a sturdy, 2-story brick building on the 10 acres set aside for that purpose.
Later accounts noted the site was home to wild plum trees and a pawpaw patch. All of that was removed to make way for the penitentiary.
The brick house was sturdy enough, with a few cells for prisoners on the second floor and a home for the warden on the first floor.
West of the building, the site sloped down to the river, making the construction of secure fencing to contain the rest of the prisoners problematic.
In fact, through much of its early history, the penitentiary saw several successful escapes by prisoners who simply had jumped the fence and walked away.
But those who stayed literally built Columbus. Prison labor removed most of the clay from the 40-foot mound that stood at Mound and High streets. With that clay, the prisoners built their penitentiary, the first statehouse, the first state office building and the first courthouse. In later years, prison labor would help build other public buildings, including the current Statehouse.
Over the years, the prison expanded down the hill to the river and held more and more prisoners. By 1830, it was clear a new prison was needed -- and it would be built in a place then far removed from Columbus.
In 1834, the new prison opened at the corner of Spring Street and Neil Avenue.
A later account noted that "the old buildings were no longer needed. ... The main prison building which had been erected in 1818, remained some two or three years longer, when it was also removed, leaving the original building erected in 1813 and the brick storehouse erected ... in 1822, still standing; and they were taken possession of by the Quartermaster General ... thus converting the two into a kind of state armory; and they remained until 1855, then they were both razed to the ground and the bricks used in filling some part of the new statehouse."
There was a dispute as to the ownership of the cleared land that finally was settled with the state in control of the empty site.
What was needed was a state arsenal. But with no wars underway, it took a while for that to occur.
A later history recorded that "the General Assembly had prior to that time steadfastly refused to appropriate money for the erection of a state arsenal."
Then, in June 1859, "a contract for the building of such an arsenal had been let to George Gibson ... "
The foundation was laid in July 1860. The state arsenal was completed in early 1861 -- just in time for the American Civil War.
It would serve military uses until 1975, when it passed into the hands of the city of Columbus to become the Cultural Arts Center.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.