Renovating a timeworn home is an expedition best endeavored by those open to the twists and turns of a journey through history, style, and compromise. Carrying a legacy within your walls is a distinction offered to few. But the neighborhood of Olde Towne East is saturated with history at every turn, and the tight-knit homeowners love to tell the stories of their abodes. Before the summer tour of historic homes has OTE homeowners opening their doors to the public this month, (614) got a sneak peek into a few of the buildings being remade in this residential renaissance.
Urban History, Unearthed
A streetlight from Chicago, a view of stained glass church windows, buried treasure in the yard, and a baby on the way.
In three years, Michael and Amanda Smith have remade their home on Bryden Road into a polished glow of its ancient splendor. Built around 1893, the elephantine structure boasts unique curved walls and high ceilings. Warm-hued wood banisters and hulking pocket doors are right at home in the entryway, and custom art and details abound.
As we wandered through the house he shares with his wife, daughter, and dogs, Michael reflects on ending up with such a massive home, one they scooped up for far below market value.
“We weren’t looking for a renovation, but it worked out well,” he said. “The size is a lot bigger than we ever planned for. With the third floor, it’s like 4,800-square-feet. But we felt this is a great location, we can really put some work into this and make it something special. And we did.”
Days after closing, the Smiths found out they needed to furnish a nursery sooner rather than later, as a baby was about to make three. And so they got to work.
The house had been split into apartments, so doors and walls needed to be broken down to reparcel the spaces on the second floor. A master suite was added, with an enviable bathroom. It’s a far cry from what they started with:
“I’m not kidding—it looked like a set from the first Saw movie. All white tile, busted and cracked, nasty radiator hanging off the wall. We got rid of it completely,” Michael said.
A huge shower and a stand alone tub now share the space, which is coated floor to ceiling with white Carrara marble from Tuscany. In the walk-through closet between the bedroom and bathroom is a custom stained glass window made by Franklin Art Glass, a final piece of renovation that Michael had installed to surprise Amanda.
Across the street, dominating the view from the master suite is the Old First Presbyterian Church, dating back to 1806. The ancient stone structure has stained glass depictions in the windows that cast their light across Ohio Avenue.
“It’s really nice in the morning, the sunlight comes through the church before the sun gets high. Those stained glass windows just light up,” Michael said.
The Smiths had to begin their work literally from the ground up. In regrading the entirety of the yard, and adding a play area for their young daughter, Josephine, they uncovered a newel post that was tossed aside decades ago. The couple decided to keep the statue, a robed woman surrounded by multiple antique bulbs, as a sort of reclamation trophy. Cleaned up, and set upon a custom pedestal made by Fortin Ironworks, the now floor lamp is wired for power and stakes a claim inside the foyer.
The house acts as a collaborative effort between the homeowners and artists from around the capital city. The sliding door in the guest bath, created by Branches Craft Company, reflects the old six panel doors from elsewhere in the house and has a beveled mirror to recall the antique glass on the entryway door.
Hanging above the stairs is an antique Chicago street light made by Westinghouse, which was rewired and hung with metalwork by the people at The Lamplighter, another in a series of locally-produced furnishings that harken back to a time when everything was custom.
“If you look at the history of the neighborhood, when Bryden Road and Broad Street in particular were built, the people that built those homes, they were the titans of Columbus,” Michael said.
The Smiths feel a responsibility to care for that history as they update their home in a way that keeps it on display for future owners.
“You can get a little nostalgic and think: different people have had a stake in this home at different points in history. When you think about it, at some point in the future, we won’t be here anymore. So what did we leave? It’s a part of that history and continuity of the house. That newel post, at some point 130 years ago, some craftsman was probably out front with chisel sets carving that, and I walk up the stairs and put my hand on it. That’s cool. And that’s what we love about the house and the broader neighborhood—everywhere you look, there’s incredible craftsmanship that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Risk. Renovate. Reward.
She replaced each broken window, and plastered and painted over the bullet holes in the front of the house.
She had a structural engineer reinforce an added wing that threatened to fall away completely from the original structure.
Now, the house on Ohio Avenue stands proudly with a new coat of paint, flowers blooming at its feet. Suzanna Lynch of Sherman Ohio Enterprises sees potential in places that may seem beyond repair. All she needs is good bones and a little elbow grease.
“There was a lot of structural stuff we had to do… But for the most part, the brick house was in great shape. The foundation was in great shape. That back part was just hanging on by a thread.”
Back when the tour started in the ’80s, Columbus had a program where you could buy blighted houses for a dollar, if you renovated them. What started 35 years ago as a walking renovation tour—when the changes in the surrounding neighborhood began to spur curiosity—has grown to include churches, gardens, and 15 homes.
Lynch joined the accelerating movement of renovators in Olde Towne East, and four years later, has found herself growing increasingly attached to her latest project, which she calls her baby. Divided up into apartments, the structure witnessed decades of drugs and violence before being put up for sale in a state of disrepair. It eventually went off the market because no buyers were willing to step in and take on its burden of decay.
But Lynch saw possibility where others saw obligation.
“When people see you working on something, they’re like, ‘Well, hey, I’m going to fix up my house..’ and it just really spreads. It’s really rewarding to see.”
Bright light floods each floor of the house as Lynch strolls down the halls, observing her work. She has become a seasoned house flipper in only a few years, due in part to trial by fire. Her first house in OTE was on Sherman Avenue, the namesake of her business.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was terrible. The roof caved in, it was like Niagara Falls on the front porch, drug dealers around … but when I looked at it, there were beautiful houses all around it, and about every third house, there would be someone taking care of it. And everyone I met there was really nice. So I knew it would be a good investment.”
Like other homeowners in OTE, Lynch attributes her dedication to the neighborhood to the intimate friendships she’s made in her short time there. It’s a place where everyone waves as they stroll down the street, and you can hear calls of questions carried over from previous conversations from porches to sidewalk and back again.
Up a narrow stairway, the attic opens up into a geometrically divided space. Facing the street is a balcony, set on the high third floor. Her little perch above the city has a view of the slowly growing skyline, and Suzanna points to each home encircling hers, referring to the owners by name.
“My neighbor two doors down has been here since he was two. So he’s been here 60 years. And the lady across the street, same thing. It’s really nice to get to know the neighbors. They really watch out for each other.”
House by house, Lynch and other homeowners are rebuilding OTE from the ground up.
The Olde Towne East Summer Tour of Historic Homes is Sunday, July 9th from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are available online in advance for $20, or for $25 the day of the tour. Visit oldetowneeast.org for more.