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Postcards from Columbus

2005.10.12 — Culture | Postcards | Travel | by Derek Jensen

Leveque Tower detail

LeVeque Tower detail. (hi res)

I spent a week in Columbus recently. I won't tell you which week and I won't tell you which Columbus. There are about a dozen Columbuses in the United States, including ones in Indiana, Ohio, and Georgia, and none of them are very well known. Shoot, I gave away that it's in the United States. There are probably ten more Columbuses in other countries.


With the days getting shorter and the weather ranging from mostly cloudy to generally overcast and all the way to continuous cloud cover, it's been hard to get out to shoot pictures. This was the first week I'd been in a big city since I'd bought my new camera, a Canon Digital Rebel XT. I've spent several weeks in the dumpiest towns the Midwest has to offer (come for the abandoned steel mill; stay for the traffic!).

The hi-res versions of pics here are 2500 pixels on the long edge. Earlier postcard articles always offered hi-res pics at 1400 pixels. I chose 1400 pixels originally because that's the resolution of my monitor, and my primary purpose was to create pics easily usable as wallpaper. I chose the new size arbitrarily as the size of pics I would upload to Wikipedia, so I decided to make the same available here.

Columbus City Hall

Columbus City Hall. (hi res)

Columbus isn't a dump. It's not an especially scintillating urban experience either. It's got an odd mix of architecture that suggests that at one time the city fathers were intending it to be a world-class city, with tall buildings, stately architecture, elaborate theaters, and a fine university. Somewhere in the 1960s they gave up and started putting up slabs of concrete with gun slits for windows.


The City Hall building is a stolid, uncompromising shoe box with fine architectural details that give it the impression of being built by the Soviets if the Soviets had come 200 years earlier during the Enlightenment.


Leveque Tower from across the Scioto River

LeVeque Tower. (hi res)

The most striking building in the city is LeVeque Tower, a financially failing skyscraper 40 stories tall with huge stone figures in its upper stories. It's a great example of 1920s and 30s Art Deco architecture, altho when it's lit at night it gives the impression of trying a little too hard.


It was completed in 1927, shortly before the big crash and a few years before the Empire State Building. The Empire State stands about 1200 feet. That's twice as tall as the LeVeque. Of course, the Empire State is now the tallest building in New York again, so it's not really a fair comparison. It may be an old-timer, but it's a heavyweight. Keep your shiny Freedom Tower, mac.


Palace Theater in Leveque Tower

Columbus Palace Theater...er Theatre. (hi res)

In the base of the LeVeque is the historic Palace Theater, a really fancy stage house designed for vaudeville and reduced now to playing off-off-Broadway junk Broadway never actually heard of and not playing anything very often, which is why I couldn't get pictures of the inside or of the outside on an event night. Or maybe it just isn't "theatre" season right now.


The LeVeque is the most prominent building and the oldest skyscraper, but it's no longer the tallest building in the city. The tallest building in Columbus is the crummy state office building right behind it. It's barely any taller and not for any good reason. And it's got about as much character as a cracker.


Columbus skyline, with the state courthouse

Columbus courthouse is the low box on the left, to the right of LeVeque Tower. (hi res)

Columbus is the state capital (now have you figured it out?), so it's full of state office buildings and the courthouses, and bankruptcy lawyers that support them. The courthouse is a pretty nice building, looking old and elegant, but probably built rather recently [Update: it was actually built in 1931 —DJ]. It's right on the Scioto River (what, you've never heard of the mighty Scioto?) and festooned with a semi-circle of flags like the UN building in New York.

I like the word "festooned." It's simultaneously festive and sarcastic.


Nationwide headquarters

Nationwide Insurance headquarters. (hi res)

Nationwide Insurance has its headquarters in Columbus (have you guessed which one yet?) and has tried to make Columbus into something more than Palookaville, USA. Its headquarters building is striking at night, but anything would be if you bathed it in blue floodlights. Try it with a parking garage sometime.


During the day, One Nationwide Center is as boring as the AEP building that I took a picture of but fell asleep trying to post here. Nationwide has a whole plaza-center-piazza thing going downtown, with a couple of other prominent office buildings and the stadium, inevitably called "Nationwide Arena." What happened to naming buildings after people you admired, like the founder of the company, not the company itself?


Nationwide Arena

Nationwide Arena. (hi res)

Nationwide Arena is home to hockey, when there's hockey to be played. I got a pic the evening of a country and western concert, hence the cowboy hats. Hockey fans don't usually sport cowboy hats. It's not a rule; just an observation.


The city of Columbus also decided some time ago to get their act together and get a nickname. No self-respecting city can go for long without a nickname. It implies that there's a lively debate about current events in the local press and some wag has pronounced judgment on the character of the city with a shiny new half-proud, half-sass moniker. That's what happened in Chicago and Detroit and LA, anyway. In Columbus, the city fathers dug up some old accounts of wooden arches having been built over the streets to hold lights, so they built new ones out of steel and called it the "City of Arches."

Columbus Short North district

Short North district, where the arches are. (hi res)


The problem with city nicknames is that they're supposed to be both descriptive and proud and kind of secretly derogatory. Chicago is the "Windy City" for political blowhards as much as weather. Detroit is the "Motor City;" sexy yes, but who wants to live in a dirty, noisy motor? And LA is the "City of Angels" both because it's the translation of its Spanish name and because it's hilarious.


So Columbus, Ohio (did you get that it's the one in Ohio?) remains a decidedly minor league city (or NHL city, anyway), as big as Indianapolis (depending on how much outlying suburbia you count) and yet virtually unknown, at least until those freeway shootings a while ago. Remember them? No? Crap. Maybe its nickname should be the "Rodney Dangerfield City."


Columbus High Street at night

Columbus at night, from my hotel room. (hi res)

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned anything about the people of Columbus. That's because I didn't meet any. Downtown Columbus is even deader than Cincinnati after 6 o'clock. The first night I was there, I walked up and down High Street, the main north-south street east of the center of town. There were a few college kids having a drink on a Sunday night and a couple of bicycle cops, but other than that it was dead to the world. A gay pride parade could have marched thru without raising an eyebrow.


Columbus skyline

Columbus from a distance, all spread out. (hi res)

I didn't take my camera out that first night because I didn't have a tripod and I would have felt a little self-conscious with it anyway. But having crossed paths with a total of six people in the course of an hour at 9:30 at night, I shouldn't have worried.


But Columbus is very spread-out, so I started driving around with my camera. There are plenty of places to park on the street (at least temporarily), so I could grab a couple of quick shots and move on.


And move on I did.


More postcards from Columbus...


f e e d b a c k

Your Name writes:

Please go to another U.S. city if you think Columbus is so horrible! Were growing and building things everywhere! sorry that we can't be as big as New York but we were just named the 8TH best BIG city to live in! Thats according to money magazine! Peace F#$%er!

Derek Jensen replies:

You're right; Columbus ranks right behind Omaha—which I worked in for a few weeks and found myself quietly loathing—and a little ahead of NYC—which I've visited several times and always find messy but exhilarating. Maybe I was too hard on Columbus. Now that I've been here a while longer, I can say it has a lot more going for it than some towns. You'll notice that I've never done a Postcards page on my home town, for instance. Thanks for the feedback. Peace F#$%er, to you too.

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