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A Year Without Lazarus
By Jennifer Hambrick
August 2005

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Photos by Jennifer Hambrick ©

Workers remove the iconic Lazarus sign from the store's High Street facade, August 28, 2004.

One year after downtown Lazarus closed its doors for good, I'm still lamenting its loss. Judging from the outpouring of grief that washed over Columbus last August in anticipation of the event, I suspect I’m not alone. After all, the center of Columbus life for more than a century was excised without ceremony. It takes time to bounce back from something like that.

What did Columbus do for the store that, since 1851, had done so much for it? Sure, for a while local talk radio stations hosted call-in shows on the store’s closing and newspapers ran stories announcing Lazarus’ imminent demise. But no minute of silence at noon last August 14 marked the store’s closing. No formal ceremony accompanied the removal of the giant Lazarus sign from the building’s High Street façade. Lazarus even hosted its own funeral in an extended clearance sale leading up to its last day of business. Although all Columbus lamented the store’s closing, there was no public ritual of mourning. Lazarus was buried, as it were, in a pauper’s grave.

People say funerals are for the living, but they exist to honor the dead. Consider the time you take to read this story as the official moment of silence Lazarus never had. And think of the story itself as one Columbus native’s eulogy for the icon that defined our city and united its people.

Remembrances of Times Past
My early trips to downtown Lazarus weren’t ordinary shopping trips. They were adventures animated by a vivid cast of recurring characters. I remember as a child riding the COTA bus with my mother down High Street to Lazarus – Big Laz, as she called it. Sometimes we played the alphabet game to pass the long bus ride: “My name is Althea, I’m going to Albuquerque, and I’m going to fly an airplane. My name is Bonnie, I’m going to Baltimore, and I’m going to buy a big blueberry.” And so on.

We’d unload from the bus in front of Baker’s shoe store on High Street and enter Lazarus through the side door off of the alley between the north and south Lazarus buildings, weaving through racks of men’s clothing toward the escalator that would carry us to other departments.

Ironically, I have little specific recollection of any of the goods we bought at Lazarus over the years. Lazarus wasn’t about the merchandise. I recently bemoaned the loss of downtown Lazarus to a colleague. “I know,” she said, “and now there’s nowhere downtown to shop.” Though true, this comment missed the bigger point.

It was the people-family and strangers-who breathed life into our trips to Big Laz. Each time I went to Lazarus the same blind man with no arms was selling pencils just outside Lazarus’ Front Street entrance. He sat cross-legged on the sidewalk with his back against Lazarus’ outer wall. A few pencils poked up out of a small tin cup before him on the sidewalk. Someone would always drop a coin or two into the cup and pass by without taking a pencil.

Lazarus was home to many fine restaurants, but I remember the Chintz Room for its hostess who, it seemed, had worked there forever. She was middle aged and wore her hair in an impeccable beehive that matched the formality of her jacket and skirt. With military precision, she would hold up the same number of fingers as there were people in your party. A businesslike flick of the wrist signaled you to follow her to your table.

Right outside the restaurant was a large common space with plenty of stuffed seats and portraits of members of the Lazarus family peering down from the walls. After my dance classes across Town Street from Lazarus, my mother and I would wait in this lounge for my father to meet us after work, and then we’d all go home together. On these evenings, we would see the same half dozen older men and women sitting in the same seats, teasing each other and talking. Where did they go when the Chintz Room shut down and the seats were removed from the lounge a few years before Lazarus closed?

The End of the End

Shelves once brimming with clothing were empty on the store's last day of business.

I went to Lazarus on its last day of business, not to shop but to try to make the store’s closing seem real. The High Street level men’s wear department, once brimming with Tommy Hilfiger and Lacoste, was a wasteland of vacant prefab shelving and dilapidated unclothed mannequins. Gaudy signs trumpeting discounts of 80 percent dangled haphazardly from the ceiling above an expanse of empty sales floor. Large stains stared up from the carpet. I suspected that the shoppers there that day, jubilant over their bargains, were not among those who had bared their souls over the Columbus airwaves earlier that month.

While driving north on High Street from German Village two weeks later, I noticed two cranes struggling to pull the large Lazarus sign down from the High Street side of the store. I parked in front of the Ohio Theatre and walked back to watch. A few people sat beneath a covered bus stop on the east side of High. Across the street, a couple of kids stood around with their bicycles. A man leaned against the old Ohio National Bank building across Town Street from Lazarus, eyes cast upward toward the sign. I crossed High Street and stood not far from him. “That’s our city they’re tearing down,” he said, without looking away.

This rag-tag assembly at the corner of High and Town was a sorry memorial service for what had been the bastion of our community. Those of us present were there because we happened to be in the neighborhood at just the right time.

A Look Ahead

What do we have now in Columbus after a year without downtown Lazarus? City Center Mall, whose halls once gleamed with Henri Bendel, Jacobson’s and Marshall Field’s, is a shadow of its former self. What was once Northland Mall, abandoned for its trendy cousins at Easton, Polaris and Tuttle, is now a single office building in a blighted macadam lot. The empty sarcophagus that was once Big Laz slouches beneath the weight of its own destiny.

Planners long ago abandoned the Lazarus building’s past to develop what they hope will be its high-tech future. The City of Columbus, the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, the Ohio State University and Battelle have recently begun implementing plans to renovate the building and create the Columbus Center for the Arts and Sciences, complete with research labs, artists’ studios and a rooftop garden. If all goes well, the Center will bring good jobs to the city and revitalize downtown with a new RiverSouth district.

The roof garden will no doubt afford nice views of the city. And if the new Center really does bring much-needed jobs to Columbus and revive our decadent downtown, then at least Lazarus will not have died in vain.

Still, whatever may inhabit the Lazarus building, it will not be Lazarus. Columbus kids will now grow up not knowing the souls who brought Big Laz to life. As Columbus abandons its small-town ways to follow the siren song of big city status, its people, I fear, will lose each other and let go of their common past.

Many traditions call for special ceremony on the anniversary of a relative’s death. On this first anniversary of Lazarus’ demise, I salute the patriarch of our Columbus family and hope that new traditions may again bring our city’s great people together in days to come.

Lazarus, may you rest in peace.

© 2005 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.