The AIU Citadel: The Forgotten Vision of Progress
By Mark J. LucasPublished March 1, 2013
In 1927, while traveling along the muddy Ohio countryside by carriage, you would most likely be treated to a view of farms and corn in every direction. But pass near Central Ohio, and from 30 miles away you would begin to behold a wondrous sight. Thrust up over the horizon, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a monument of stone and steel would be reaching into the sky, growing more massive as you approached. It’s the fifth tallest building in the world, and at 555 feet, it stands just inches taller than the Washington Monument. This is the American Insurance Union Citadel, or as we know it today, the LeVeque Tower, the singularly unique, art-deco feature that gives our downtown skyline its character. But what would compel someone to target such an architectural feat, rivaling many in the world, for a modest and relatively unknown Midwestern capital
The Man With The Plan
Born in St. Clairsville in 1856, John L. Lentz had become a teacher and attended several universities before locking down a law degree at Columbia. He eventually moved to Columbus, and the young attorney eventually won the seat of the 12th Congressional District in Ohio, running on a progressive platform and championing things such as welfare, women’s suffrage, and child labor laws upon losing reelection. He later founded the American Insurance Union, a kind of combination social club-insurance company known as a “fraternal benefit society.”
“I’m not certain there is anything quite like it today,” says Seth Moherman, LeVeque historian and director of the film The Citadel, a documentary about the building. “It was a fraternal society, like the Masons, that was also an insurance company. I’m sure it was a good way to network. A lot of leading businessmen in town were in the AIU. I think that it was just a byproduct of those times.”
In those days, insurance as we now know it was primarily for the wealthy, due to its high premiums. Industrial insurance was available to the poor, but it was little more than a policy to cover the funeral of anyone killed on the job. A third option was fraternal insurance – a way of pooling collective resources between members when one member required them, but that wasn’t “charity” to be looked down upon. Members of the fraternities were also part of a social club that served to entertain with shows and events and rituals. The AIU was one of these fraternities, and between its founding by Lentz and the year 1902, a decade after it was created, it had to expand its headquarters three different times and held the present-day equivalent of about $281 million in insurance for 11,000 members. In September of 1921, seeing no end to the company’s growth, board members decided to build a huge 425-foot building on High and Broad Streets that would include an upgrade to the then Colonial Theater (now The Palace) and an annex to the Deshler-Wallick Hotel.
Lentz selected C. Howard Crane to design it. Crane was the architect of several ornate theaters for Vaudeville, such as the Fillmore and Fox Theaters in Detroit, and was a self-taught maverick in the architectural world. On a bulletin to the Michigan Society of Architects, he stated that he’d received “No Degrees” and had attended the “School of Hard Knocks.” Most of his theaters borrowed heavily from the classical period, with columns and large figures.
This however, would be no theater. Building the AIU Citadel was a massive undertaking.
Building one of the World’s Largest Buildings
As it turns out, there wasn’t bedrock underneath the site for 110 feet down, which put it below the river’s waterline. To dig the foundation, they would have to employ a pneumatic-caisson process, whereby a box, called a caisson, with a 10-foot-by-10-foot cutting edge at the bottom would be lowered into the ground, and workers inside the box would dig out the material and send it up out of the hole. Because of the water, the whole thing had to be highly pressurized to keep the river from flooding in on the workers. This meant that the workers could only stay down for about half an hour at a time, and would have to enter a pressure chamber on the surface to avoid getting the bends. One day, four men were killed when gas leaked into the one of the caissons. Right in the middle of this elaborate construction, a suit was filed against AIU, claiming that they couldn’t use company funds to build the building, because it wasn’t a part of the practice, under insurance law, of covering members. The suit asserted that such expenditure would put the policyholders at risk of losing coverage. AIU claimed that projections of the company’s growth showed that this wouldn’t be an issue, and so construction continued.
The AIU Citadel wasn’t just an office building; it was a work of art, like one of Crane’s theaters turned inside-out, with significance imprinted on almost every feature. AIU board members had decided that the building should be increased in height to 555 feet, so that it stood a foot taller than the Washington Monument. In the end, it was 555 feet and 6 inches, only an inch or two taller than the Washington Monument. The outside of the building was fitted with terracotta tiles, pressed with a pattern to make them look like white oak. Eight-foot cherubs formed a crown on top of the building, with huge eagles just below them. There were also four 30-foot statues below those, on each face of the Citadel, of a father figure with two children, and on each corner of the building was placed the face of an enormous guardian angel. More 22-foot eagles and angels were installed on the corners below that. For even more panache, the entire upper exterior of the building had icons from the world’s religions. Intensely bright lights were fixed to the top, so the Citadel could serve as an aerial beacon for planes.
The inside of the building was no less of a production. A bronze seal with words straight from Lentz himself read, “An Honest Man Is The Noblest Work of God, And An Honest Government is the Noblest Work of Man.” It also bears 13 stars, as the number 13 was a fixation of Lentz’s, who thought it was his “lucky number.” The seal shows the relative position of the planets on the day of the building’s cornerstone was set, February 13th, 1926. The Citadel boasted a hall of gold-tinted mirrors, modeled after the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, France, with a massive pipe organ.
“The Citadel was his monument to [the ideas of the progressive movement],” explains Moherman, “and probably to a great degree [also to himself]. He was building this late in his life, so I’m sure he viewed this building as a testament to himself. Even if he dared not admit it publicly, it was his company, his building.”
Dedication ceremonies were held for a whole week, with bands and singing and events. Speeches were made, and praises of Lentz were abundant, with one company executive saying that he “could dream dreams, and then make them come true.”
The Citadel was the fifth tallest building in the world, a marvel of engineering and architecture, and a sign of the endless prosperity that Columbus, which was now styled as the jewel of Ohio, would see for years to come.
Then two years later, the stock market crashed, and The Citadel – at least figuratively – came down with it.
What goes up . . .
Despite pulling out every move in their playbook, the company could not recover. The ridiculous cost of constructing The Citadel had done exactly what the lawsuit against them had tried to prevent. With all their money tied up in their new building, they couldn’t cover the policies they held. They took a hit in the press, a hit in the courtroom and a hit to the top of the building, in the form of a lightning strike, which was apparently more of a threat than promised. AIU went bankrupt, and after changing hands a few times, was purchased by the predecessor to Nationwide Insurance, the Ohio Farm Bureau.
Eventually, The Citadel was liquidated to pay off the company’s debt. Water got into the beautiful terracotta tiles, and destroyed a lot of the external features. The Hall of Mirrors was removed, along with the pipe organ and the giant, beautiful stained glass window that had been installed shortly after the building’s completion. It’s rumored that the 30-foot statues of the man with two children were removed so that one of the tenants could see out of his office windows. The AIU Citadel was eventually bought by local businessman Leslie LeVeque, and renamed the LeVeque Tower.
Lentz died in ’31 (yes, 13 backwards). He was given a modest funeral, attended only by family, where he was driven past his greatest accomplishment – and mistake – to his final resting place in Greenlawn Cemetery. His grave marker is a simple stone with no quotes or special inscriptions. Just his name, and the years he lived. No roads or buildings were named after him, like Deshler and Goodale. Most people don’t even know who he was, or that he was responsible for building what was, for decades, the only skyscraper in Columbus.
The Citadel stands, however, as our most identifiable landmark, and at one point, it captured international attention. It was a bold, if ultimately foolhardy, endeavor, but any Columbusonian that ventures out into the world is warmed to see its lights from 30 miles away, a sign they have returned home.