A Glimpse at 1960s Preservation Efforts and the Mystery of the Alfred E. Kelley House

In my research into finding photos and information on historic buildings in Columbus, I have come across some interesting documents related to why some buildings were demolished. Take the Alfred E. Kelley House, which once stood at 282 E. Broad Street. Built over the course of about a year between 1837-1838, the house was a classic Greek Revival. Over the many years of its existence, the house functioned in multiple capacities, including as a school. During those other uses, the architecture was drastically altered, and by 1960, the year the house was proposed to be demolished to build the Christopher Inn, the historic nature had been “severely damaged”. Still, the house had survived 122 years by then, and a history-minded group of people got together to try and save it with the intent of restoration and operating a period museum.

The Kelley House in 1898.

Photo taken around 1900.

Photo taken around 1900.

The Kelley House in 1958.

The rear of the Kelley House in 1958.

An interior room of the Kelley House in 1958.

In early January 1962, the efforts to save the house during the previous year were detailed by one Dixie Sayre Miller, chairman of the Kelley House Committee, which had been formed on March 24th, 1961. The goal of the committee was as follows:

“Considering the time element and the importance of Kelley to the State**, the committee decided to ask the legislature for money for which to move the house intact. We, later, would seek private money with which to restore it.”

The Committee had some powerful allies at the time. State Rep. Chris McNamara and John Vorys, former delegate to the UN, were both in leadership roles. Given this, even during a time when preservation efforts took a clear backseat to development, the Committee did meet with some initial success. The Kelley House legislative subcommittee was able to pass an appropriations bill in July 1961 for the amount of $95,000. The governor vetoed the bill, calling the appropriation “frivolous”. In August, a member of the Committee, Lee Skilken, had the idea to solicit local contractors to volunteer in taking down the house in order for it to be moved. When the idea was presented to the property owners on September 5th, it was rejected because it could not be guaranteed that the property would be clear in time for construction to begin. Instead, the owners wanted a paid contractor to do the work so that the timeline could be met. The land had to be cleared by October 15th, 1961, and the Committee had to have the money to pay the contractor by September 15th.

Here is where the story becomes a bit shady and political. On September 6th, members of the committee went to the Governor for advice on how to proceed. He recommended that they go to the Emergency Board, which would be able to issue a grant towards the project. The Governor promised he would “not object, would not fight it and would not make a political issue of it”.
On September 15th, the money deadline, the Committee had raised only $11,000 towards the $35,000 cost of the paid contractor. However, the following day, they caught a break. Another contractor came forward offering to take down the house for just $20,000 and would begin immediately. Further, even though the Committee did not have the full $20,000, the contractor trusted that the Committee would have raised the amount by the time the work was completed. I’m not sure if such deals would ever occur in today’s environment, but they still happened 53 years ago.
Only 2 days after the contractor began to take down the house, the Emergency Board awarded a $20,000 grant to the Committee and the house was fully dismantled before the deadline of October 15th. Stonework and foundations of the house were moved to a holding site at Franklin Park, while interior detailing was stored “in a city building”, all waiting for funding to be assembled and restored at a new site. This new site was listed as being in Wolfe Park on “East Broad at Nelson Road”.

So, why isn’t the Alfred E. Kelley house at Wolfe Park today? Two things happened after October 15th. First, the Governor lied. On the very day that the Committee was supposed to pay the contractor, they received a call stating that the Governor had deemed the Emergency Board grant unconstitutional and was withholding the money, despite being his recommendation that the Committee seek the grant from it in the first place. This also after a promise that he would not interfere or stand in the way. The Committee considered legal action, but decided a costly court process was not “advisable”.

Without the $20,000, the Committee was only able to pay the contractor $6,000, who then threatened legal action for the full amount. Since the Committee had neglected to be incorporated, each member was personally responsible for a share of what was owed. By December 1961, the Committee had become incorporated and had managed to pay an additional $2,000, but still owed the majority of the contract.

That concluded the events through January 1962. After that time, there are mysteries that remain unknown (at least as far as I can tell). First, what happened to the Committee? Did it end up raising the amount to pay off the contractor or did they end up in court? Why had the Governor decided to prevent the Committee from getting the grant? Did he have a political axe to grind with members of the Committee? Finally, and far more importantly, what happened to the Kelley House? The materials were in storage in early 1962, but the house was never rebuilt. Were they destroyed? Did the contractor take possession of them if the Committee was unable to pay? Are they still sitting in some warehouse somewhere covered in half a century’s worth of dust? We may never know, though I suspect that someone out there has the answers.

The irony of a Dispatch article from the fall of 1961.

**Kelley helped save the state from bankruptcy during the Panic of 1837 by offering up his house, possessions and business interests as collateral.

Edit 7/18/2014:
I guess research pays off, and now, at least part of the mystery is solved. As mentioned above, part of the house’s remains, particularly the stone and brick portions, were stored at Franklin Park after the demolition in 1961. Five years later in 1966, these were moved to the Ohio Expositions Center at the Ohio State Fairgrounds. By then, the plans no longer called for putting the house back together and restoring it. Instead, the stone materials were planned to be incorporated into a new Ohio Historical Center in the late 1960s, presumably the one that sits adjacent to the fairgrounds today. But that plan also fell through. Today, the material is currently in the hands of the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. This still leaves many questions unanswered, such as where the interior portions of the house ended up, why none of the material was reused in Columbus and how they ended up in Cleveland. Perhaps an email to the WRHS is in order.