January '03 Cover Story

City of Arches By Cindy Bent

Spirit of Columbus Illuminates Short North: Past and Present

Photo/ Gus Brunsman III

"Arches to be put up in dead of night," reads the Columbus Dispatch headline. The article details plans to erect metal arches that will light and decorate local streets; the construction will take place between midnight and 8 a.m. due to safety concerns.

Sound familiar? But this article is dated January 28, 1909 - almost 100 years before the high-tech, fiber optic-lit structures currently crowning the Short North were installed.

It is becoming common knowledge around the Short North that the arches, lit for the first time in a neighborhood celebration on December 4, are not the first to grace the streets of Columbus. Most, however, don't know the story of "the other arches" that stood at the turn of the century, nor much about how the current arches returned to High Street. This is the story of both, the people who worked hard to make them happen, and the pride in their neighborhood that they stood, and continue to stand for.

The story begins back in the late 1880s. Columbus was barely seventy-five years old, fighting to rise above a reputation as a town of country bumpkins. The city got its chance to strut its stuff in September 1888 as it played host to two massive events: the Centennial Exposition, commemora-ting the hundredth anniversary of the Northwest Territory, and the National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, a huge annual jamboree of the Civil War veterans of the Union Army.

The city fathers were determined to make the 1888 reunion the largest such encampment ever held. This was to be no mere cake sale and parade. According to local historian Ed Lentz, more than 250,000 conventioneers were expected, although the entire population of Franklin County at the time was barely one-third that number.

Illumination on a grand scale seems to have been a chief ingredient to impressing the throngs. Buildings and sidewalks were all to be lit with gas jets in patriotic designs and insignias; gas was still the primary source of lighting of the day. But the capper was to be a series of gas-lit wooden arches marching up and down High Street from the old Union Depot to the Courthouse, to cover about 12 blocks.

These arches, according to newspaper accounts, were paid for in part by individual subscriptions of merchants and others along the street, making the original arches a public-private partnership just as are the present ones.

The crowds were thrilled with the sparkling streetscape. Newspaper records of the times seem to indicate that the arch lighting was unique to Columbus. They remained to light the streets well after the encampment and the following Centennial Exposition in October. It seems, however, that the arches weren't always considered permanent.

"The disposal of the arches and globes used on High Street … is a vexed question for more reasons than one," states a Columbus Dispatch article from March 29, 1889. "…the council committee on gas and light could not find a purchaser for the arches … Further than that no one could be found who would take the arches down free of charge." The article goes on to discuss that a question still stood on who owned the "cumbersome gas pipe or cheap glass globes," the city or the merchants who helped pay for their construction.

The decision was made to leave the arches in place, and the citizens became fond enough of them to replace them eventually with more permanent metal structures, this time lit electrically, and build them further and further along the main roads of the city. According to an October 21, 1956 edition of the Columbus Dispatch Magazine, merchants themselves expanded the new electric arches in 1896 from State to Main Street along High and paid to light them each night, as they were a grand draw for business. The city eventually took over the bill in 1900.

A history of the city, The Story of Columbus, written a couple of years later (1900) demonstrates that the city was beginning to claim the arches for bragging rights.

"A feature of Columbus' principal thoroughfare, High Street, which excites admiration of all strangers is the fine electric display at night. In addition to the illumination effects of business houses, the street for over half a mile is spanned by arches of incandescent lights, the whole producing a beautiful and fete-like appearance. This novel idea is original with Columbus, having been in use here for several years, but is now being adopted by other cities. The expense of maintaining the arches is met by private subscriptions from merchants. The same plan of illumination is being extended to other streets, and Columbus will maintain her reputation of being the most brilliantly illuminated city in the country."

Arches spread up and down Fourth Street and Mount Vernon Avenue and up to North High.

The Dispatch seemed to play quite a role in the lives of the arches, from denigrating them in 1889 to suggesting that the entire city officially adopt the moniker "Arch City" in a 1909 editorial. The idea caught fire. Mayor G. A. Bond and other city leaders enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon; even Thomas Edison cabled his appreciation. On January 16, the city Board of Trade resolved that Columbus be christened "the Arch City" due to the "worldwide metropolitan distinction" provided by the glittering arches.

According to Lentz again, the metal arches doubled not only as bright lighting but also carried the cables for the electrified streetcars that by now ran throughout the city. Many streetcars themselves were draped with strings of electric lights to heighten the effect. Local businesses adopted the Arch label - Arch City Produce Co., Arch City Oil, The Arch City Publishing Co., and more.

But fashion is fickle, and only a few short years later, beginning in 1911, the arches were replaced by the newest style in lighting &endash; clusters of lighted globes on a single pole. They must have faded from the city's collective memory almost as quickly, for by the 1940s and 1950s they became the subject of "yesteryear" retrospectives.

Nearly ninety years later, the arches have reappeared on High Street. Their resurrec-tion is a symbol of the regeneration of the neighborhood that has since become known as the "Short North." The construction of the 21st century arches came about in much the same way as their ancestors did- as a method to distinguish the neighborhood, the result of cooperation between private business and the city of Columbus. The hard work is much more evident this time; the current arches have been more than seven years in the making. The efforts of an entire community to improve its surroundings and circumstances will continue to bear fruit even beyond the new arches in the form of the Short North Special Improvement District and the projects it will give to the Short North for years to come.

Jack Lucks, Continental Real Estate president, had the brainstorm as the result of a Short North Business Association meeting just after the Holiday Hop something like seven years ago. He recalls that merchants and galleries reported Hop attendance tailed off sharply north of First Avenue, and vendors in that area really didn't feel much of the benefit of being part of the Short North.

Lucks says he went home that night and wracked his brains for a solution.

"I thought, we need to mark our territory," he says. "I was enlightened by the way Les Wexner defined New Albany by those white fences. And I was flipping through my copy of Discover Columbus, and bingo, there is was!" Lucks found pictures of the old arches lit up brightly, and knew he had it. They would bring back the arches.

"I'd like to take all the credit," Lucks says, "and I guess my fingerprints are on the idea, but to quote Ray Crock, 'Any idiot can have an idea.'"

That is when, Lucks notes, the real work began. He talked about the idea to Cleve Ricksecker, then with the Short North Business Association, and Ricksecker set up meetings with city development officials Maury Portman and Pete Cass, and they all brought local developer Sandy Wood on board, as well as a large group of other community leaders, and the process took off.

A special improvement district was decided on as the best solution. These special taxing districts must be agreed upon by property owners within the district; extra taxes amounting to almost $1.8 million would be levied over a twelve-year period. That money would be matched dollar for dollar by the city. The funding for the new generation of arches - $2.2 million, according to Mayor Coleman's office, would come from this pot of money.

It took years of cobbling together consensus within the neighborhood, of knocking on doors and laying out the plans. Branding the Short North as the Arts District of Columbus, the prime arts, shopping and entertainment destination in town, was the plan. The Short North Special Improvement District finally was ratified in October 1998, and the way for the arches was paved.

Seventeen arches were decided upon, lining High Street from the bridge over I-670 to just north of Fifth Avenue. They stand 28 feet high and span anywhere from 57 to 69 feet, depending on the width of the street. They are high-tech wonders lit literally from within. Optic-optic lines reflect light from a single illumination source at each base down a filament to every glass globe, rather than each bulb carrying its own electric bulb. This way, individual bulbs cannot burn out and the whole of the arch sustains an even, pleasing glow.

The night of the first lighting, December 4, 2002, the entire neighborhood gathered on tenterhooks for the grand (if brief) ceremony in front the arch at Victorian Gate. Mayor Coleman, SID Executive Director Tim Wagner, City Department of Development officer Rich Sensenbrenner, Lucks, Ricksecker and all the other luminaries who worked so long to make the arches a reality huddled around a small podium. Faces were lit with anticipation &endash; and cold, for the temperature struggled to reach twenty degrees.

The Mayor leaned over a big red box with a green bulb and a handle like a cartoon detonator, and pushed - and the bulbs lit! From then on, High Street at night has been a little brighter.

Seventeen arches for $2.2 million may seem like a huge price tag, but all over the Short North, the word is that the arches are nothing but welcome. In fact, though they have lit the streets for only a month now, they already seem to be paying off in the eyes of the neighborhood.

"We've gotten so much positive feedback from everyone," says Maria Galloway, owner of fine arts and gifts shop pm gallery at 726 N. High Street. "I really think it does bring a cohesiveness to the neighborhood.

Daniel Koch, owner and proprietor of Columbus Eyeworks at 1127 N. High, says that he has already seen the difference. He noted that being situated just north of Fourth Avenue, many people would skip the shops in his block during the Hop and apparently did not really consider the area to be a part of the Short North. But now, he says, he and the galleries around him have been included in the neighborhood identity.

"It unifies the entire district," says Koch. "We definitely got more traffic during the Holiday Hop than we did last year at the same time. It does and will make a difference, and I think it will spur further development."

One last look back at the arches of yesterday could just as easily describe today's generation. A Dispatch editorial from early January of 1909 states,

"They stand, not only for enjoyment, but also for hope and promise - the desire of the city to be greater and better and the pledge that the wish will be realized … As the city grows, an increasing burden of responsibility rests upon good men and women to do their part in making the city what it ought to be … The aim is greater Columbus, but it is not to be forgot-ten that the city will not be truly greater, if it is not also better."

Photo/ Gus Brunsman III

e-mail cindybent@earthlink.net