Photos by Kimberly Potterf

Heart of Oak

History on display in revitalized, little-known Columbus neighborhood

We’ll probably never see streetcars in Columbus again.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t hang on to the little pocket neighborhoods directly inspired by that turn-of-the-century innovation.

A group of homeowners are doing just that in Old Oaks, a newly revived area just southeast of Downtown (located between I-70 and Livingston Avenue).

For being lesser known to locals, the area is rich with history, even beyond its mix of American Foursquares, Neoclassical Revivals, and Queen Annes. Ohio State football legend Chic Harley once called it home, and it was a stop on the Underground Railroad as well. Many new homeowners are setting up shop in Old Oaks, but the area is rife with vacancies—something a handful of residents are advocating to change. They see a future for the historic district, one where willing owners will embrace updating heirloom homes, and the nearby Livingston corridor is once again teeming with local businesses.

“Given that Columbus has a shortage of housing stock, we’re hoping that people find the value in the quality of housing stock in [this] neighborhood—so many homes [here] are vacant,” said Pam Waclawski, who recently let us tag along on an Old Oaks home tour. “It would be nearly impossible to rebuild these homes with the same materials and craftsmanship in today’s climate. There’s nothing wrong with modern new-builds since there’s definitely a need for more affordable housing, but we need to consider the houses that are already available that may just need some TLC.”

“It’s not about displacement, but about preserving irreplaceable beauty.”

Not only are today’s owners preserving the historic homes that line its streets, but they’re actively embracing the neighborly feel of the former “streetcar suburb.”

The best example of the unique spirit of Old Oaks is “Wednesdays on the Porch,” a weekly community gathering that brings a sense of fellowship—without a sense of obligation (you don’t even have to clean your house)! Resident Beata Gray, who’s lived in the area for 20 years with her husband David, started the notion of stopping by for quick hellos in the neighborhood.

With such a community spirit on display, (614) wanted to explore more of the close-knit area, and get to know the neighbors a bit:

David Gray642 Wilson Ave.

Built right around the turn of the last century, 642 Wilson is a functional marriage of art and history. David Gray has committed the stories of the house to memory and, through living there and adding his own touches, he is continuing its history of care.

There are 31 pieces of stained and painted glass throughout the residence. A past owner, Gebhard Jaeger, was close friends with Theodore Von Gerichten, who owned the Capital Art Glass Company.

The panels are works of art, with painted eagles, crests, fish, scarabs, grapevines, seashells, and geometric shapes. To remove them would be a crime.

“I have lived in the house for years and I never tire of looking at them,” Gray said. “They bring a smile to my face. The work that went into these windows is outstanding.”

A pond was added in the rear garden to enhance the backyard, give a place for birds to visit, and provide the sound of running water.

During cold winter months, Gray can be found sitting by the living room fireplace, reading a good book, and drinking a Manhattan (or two). During these months the family (wife, Beata, and sons, Tennison and Montgomery) also enjoy the third floor, which provides enough space for the whole family to use as a gathering room. As the days get warmer, they move to the sunroom to look out over the backyard and watch the birds. During the summer months, the wide front porch becomes a favorite place.

Gray further recounts his learned history: Jaeger was one of the leading figures in the business life of Columbus in the early to mid-1900s. In 1905 he designed and built the first concrete mixing machine. In the 1980s the house became a church called “The House of God, Which is the Church of Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy.”

The Grays appreciate the dwelling itself, but the domestic love affair includes the intangible. The stories of the people who inhabit the home over time are passed down through the years, an inheritance of recognition.

On a wooden table sit multiple small picture frames. Some of the old photos look like they could have come with the house.

“All the pictures are of family members,” Gray explains “Some gone now, of course… the boys smoking cigarettes or pipes [are] my grandfather and his brothers. The picture was not staged, as my grandfather started smoking unfiltered cigarettes at 13, smoked his whole life and lived into his ’80s, his younger brothers smoked even earlier and lived longer —that is not a recommendation, just a fact. I find that picture amusing as I look at four boys ages 10-15, smoking as if it is the most normal thing in the world. Can you imagine that today?”

Gray adds his stories to the collective memory of the house, caring for a property in the present, but looking always back into the home’s past.

Michael Herman633 Linwood Ave.

Michael Herman’s house on Linwood was built at the turn of the century by Charles Schneider. Schneider built many homes in the Columbus area, owing to what was likely the perk of having a brother who owned a brick factory near what is now 5th Avenue. Herman bought the house in 1985, and has been working on his Zen ever since.

The Thai meditation garden is a quiet place in the back of the property, nestled next to the carriage house. The focal point is the flowering Dogwood tree and Buddha head on top of a terracotta base, added when the pool was installed in 2009.

The lush South Garden is dominated by Japanese-style plantings which include Japanese maple, a Bonsai Jade (which is a houseplant that winters over inside the house), a bed of Pachysandra, a large Creeping juniper that drapes over the water feature, a Japanese Umbrella Pine, and a small moss garden. Crawling up the walls of the Carriage House is a large Climbing hydrangea and two weeping Larch trees. The one-piece fiberglass pool was installed in 2009. It only took a weekend to dig the hole, install the pool and construct the concrete deck.

Out back stands an oak gazebo structure that was built in 1906, along with the house. Its original use was as a lath house where clean wet clothes were hung to air dry. The dowel holes for the hanging rods can still be seen today.

The biggest challenge Herman faced was amending the clay Columbus soil to accommodate some of the more acid loving plantings, and also the challenge of adequate sunlight with all of the tall buildings and trees that put much of the garden in shade. Outside, near the pool, Herman replaces bits of his moss garden, flung aside by bug-hunting robins. His fastidious care of the garden and property ensures that this historic home will be preserved well into the future.

Pam Waclawski & Brandon Wilburn • 1200 Livingston Ave.

Perched on a grassy hill, with its red door, moss-colored shutters, and Greek-inspired pillars, 1200 Livingston Ave. has welcomed 12 homeowners, including current owner Pam Waclawski, who has maintained the original character while adding her own splash of individuality.

Twelve is a relatively low number, considering it was built in 1854. The list of owners includes Harry D. Shephard, who was vice president of Columbus Driving Club and lost the house in a game of poker; Dr. Edgar Allen Fry who used the lower level of the house for his physician’s practice; and the previous owner, Thomas Glass, who had a great understanding of the house’s historical significance. He was a major part in restoring the home’s woodwork, including the double staircase. Before his passing he made major contributions to the content of a book published by the Neighborhood Design Center: “The Caroline Brown Home and the History of the Streetcar  District.” Anyone that had met him will tell you that he was extremely passionate about the history of the home and surrounding area.

None of the owners were more memorable than the house’s namesake, Caroline Brown.

This house served a meaningful purpose for Brown, an emancipated slave, and many others, as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Legend has it that there is a tunnel located in a closet in the basement that has been cemented over. There are stories of Glass entering the tunnel with his father, only to go so far. He cemented it over because structurally, the tunnel was collapsing. There’s no hard evidence that this is the location of the clandestine entrance. But a telltale area of concrete in an otherwise meticulously finished basement alludes to a truth behind the storied  location of the tunnel. Given that Waclawski has been in the home for less than a year, opening up a secret  passage hasn’t been at the top of the priority list, but she can’t say her curiosity won’t get the best of her in the future.

Waclawski may tend to the secret tunnel some day, but so far, her time has been spent on the soft details of the home. Glass was the proprietor of a drapery business and, in Waclawski’s opinion, had fantastic taste. The items decorating the house are unique—some selected by her, some left behind by the creative former owner.

It’s mostly about letting the house and each room dictate what belongs, Waclawski said.

“Each room has its own personality and we’ve tried to remain true to that. We peruse multiple sources to selectively choose what we feel would fit the house.”

The combined taste of and then and now combine for a home unlike any other. To date, it’s the finest compliment they’ve received.

“Someone once told us, ‘This is a house that you wouldn’t find anywhere else filled with things you wouldn’t find anywhere else.’”

Just like there isn’t anywhere else quite like Old Oaks.

For more info about the area, visit oldoaks.us.

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