Curious Cbus: What's The History Of Old Beechwold?

Feb 15, 2018

Haley Vest used to live on the corner of Indianola and Morse Road in Clintonville. But she would occasionally explore other areas—like the picturesque Old Beechwold neighborhood.

“It’s such a stark contrast between East Beechwold and Old Beechwold, which is separated between High Street,” Vest says. “I would walk the dog to Old Beechwold, and it just feels like another time and place, really.”

Marveling about the area led Vest to ask Curious Cbus: “What’s the history of the Old Beechwold neighborhood in Clintonville?”

Beginning Of Old Beechwold

In the 19th century, Beechwold was a part of a larger area associated with the Rathbone family.

John Rathbone was a wealthy New York merchant who owned 4000 acres of land throughout Ohio, including Beechwold and most of Clintonville.

“John owned the northeast quadrant of Clinton township,” says Mary Rodgers, president of Clintonville Historical Society. “Everything from say, I-71 to Kenny Road.”

Rathbone had 11 children, including Eliza Rathbone, who married Dr. Charles Wetmore. He bequeathed about 260 acres to Eliza and Charles.

According to Rodgers, Eliza and Charles settled in this land in Franklin County – from Morse Road to Garden and from I-71 to the Olentangy River – until Eliza died at the Goodale House in 1853.                          

The Rathbone and Wetmore family were heavily influential in Columbus. Eliza’s son, Prosper, was a book collector and was the main benefactor of what became the Columbus Metropolitan Library.  

“You’ll see this name – Rathbone, Appleton and Wetmore throughout the state of Ohio,” Rodgers says. “This is all the same family.”

A watercolor of the bridge in Old Beechwold, found in an early promotional catalog from the Beechwold Realty Company.
Credit Beechwold Realty Company

A Forgotten Zoo  

When she reached out to Curious Cbus, Vest also sought to confirm a story she read on a Clintonville Facebook discussion form: the short-lived Old Beechwold Zoo. That’s a question that also spurred the interest of WOSU listener Ashley Baker.

By 1902, the Wetmores sold most of their land to the Columbus Zoological Company. That company’s shares and stocks are documented in the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s archives.

The zoo planned to open a new attraction in Northern Columbus—but so did the Olentangy Amusement Park located near Dodridge Street.

“So, there became a battle of the zoos,” Rodgers says.

Since the zoo was too far from the trolley line that ended at Dodridge, the only way to arrive to the attraction was by electric streetcar.

“In order to get you to ride their electric railroad, they wanted to have a lot of different attractions that appealed to you,” Rodgers says.  

When the zoo first opened, activities included boating and swimming in the river, a large parade field (where Mozart’s restaurant is today) and baseball. According to Rodgers and the Clintonville History website, the Columbus Clippers played on those grounds – back in 1895, when they were known as the Statesmen.

Beechwold’s Big Attraction

Once establishing a manager, the zoo found their main attraction: a massive exhibit purchased at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, known as “Creation.”

"Creation" sculpture from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
Credit Library of Congress

It was meant to be an immersive experience, with a large female sculpture welcoming the guests. Visitors would enter a dark room, board a boat, go upstairs to a dome, hear singing choirs, watch swans swim in the water next to them—all while viewing images of evolution or the rise of fall of cities like Greece.

It was a huge investment, and a big loss. A Columbus Dispatch article on June 4, 1905, reported that the exhibit had been postponed – and it seems the postponement was indefinite.

“They kind of delay the opening because they haven’t gotten this thing working yet, and then the following week they open the zoo but they open it with a dog and pony show,” Rodgers says. “So as near as I can tell, their very expensive 1904 exhibit never works.”

Nevertheless, the zoo successfully purchased a menagerie merry-go-round and a Philadelphia Toboggan Company ride called the “Forest Toboggan.”

“It would take you, as a roller coaster, up in the trees and roll you around and bring you down,” Rodgers says. “People did enjoy that. It was a very well-received ride.”

Postcards from the original Columbus Zoo in Beechwold seems to advertise a tiger, which reportedly stuck around even after the zoo's closure.

Bankruptcy And Meat-Eating Animals

Despite its attention-drawing plans, the Beechwold zoo did not actually attract enough attendees. Its remote location, competition with the Olentangy Amusement Park and the failed main attraction may have contributed to its lack of revenue.

The company filed for bankruptcy but were left with the animals, including white-tailed deer, elk, rattlesnakes, monkeys and perhaps another ravenous animal.

“One thing that we did see was that during this bankruptcy period, they’re purchasing meat,” Rodgers says. “So, we concluded that that they must have had a meat-eating animal that they were still trying to feed.”

Perhaps linked to the meat, Rodgers says stationery from the early zoo depicts a tiger.

“A tiger would have been a major attraction, so if they had a tiger that would have been fascinating,” Rodgers says.

Ultimately, the animals, merry-go-round and Forest Toboggan were sold to the Olentangy Amusement Park. By 1907, after four years, Beechwold’s zoo was out of business.

A map of the old Columbus Zoo in Beechwold.
Credit Clintonville Historical Society

Today, the zookeeper’s gatehouse, the rustic bridge and a few garage buildings that may have been affiliated with the zoo still remain.

Old Beechwold Today  

With 137 property owners, Old Beechwold is Clintonville’s only neighborhood listed simultaneously on the city, state and national historic registries.

The Columbus Dispatch once described Beechwold as a drive through Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Former and current residents agree.

“The houses are so incredibly different than on the other side of the street,” Vest says. “They seem much, much older than the houses on East Beechwold.”

When the zoo closed, that land was sold to Mr. J. A. Jeffrey, founder of Jeffrey Mining Company. Jeffrey evolved the land into an estate and his wife named it “Beechwalde,” meaning “The Beech Forest.” While their house was under construction, the Jeffreys moved into the zoo’s restaurant.

In 1914, Jeffrey sold the land to Charles H. Johnson, a prominent developer in Columbus who’s linked to 99 suburban subdivisions. He took a keen interest in Beechwold, even changing the spelling and hiring a landscape architect to map out the land.

Johnson also founded the Beechwold Realty company. It first promoted Old Beechwold as we know it today in the 1915 Beechwold Reality Company brochure, when the area was platted for homes. Emphasizing nature, trees and the general scenic attractiveness, the brochure portrayed Beechwold as a community free “from the contaminating influences of the city.”

A 1975 pamphlet created by Old Beechwood residents say that none of Johnson’s peers believed he could sell homes in the area. Johnson was supposedly adamant that Beechwold would be a good place for teachers – something that became a reality, as it now houses many faculty members of The Ohio State University.

The 1987 nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places also chronicles Old Beechwold’s history, describing the neighborhood as a hybrid of architecture and nature, homes made of brick or stucco surrounded by terrain.

A plaque memorializes Beechwold's placement in the National Register of Historic Places.
Credit Deepti Hossain / WOSU

The form details the unique planning of the district. Prominent architects designed early 20th century “revival” homes, echoing Tudor and English Cottage, Georgian and Dutch Colonial styles. Built in the 1900s, the residents deemed the age and styles are what make the homes an historical component of Old Beechwold.

However, the applicants wrote, Beechwold’s greatest significance is the architecture in context of the location. Beechwold was further from Columbus than other developments, but mobility and improved transportation allowed developers to advertise Beechwold as 20 to 30 minutes from downtown.

The application also differentiated Beechwold from other subdivisions. For instance, Arlington and Bexley prioritized the neighborhood’s design by placing streets onto a farmland.

In contrast, gorges and streams determined the locale for Wallhalla and Overbrook.   

“These are beautiful environments but lack the feeling of being a neighborhood,” the applications says. Beechwold, however, “manages to strike a balance between imposing on the land and being dominated by it.”  

Thus, the application catalogues Beechwold as a “pioneering suburban neighborhood” because of its successful and mindful arrangement into an environment that was already there.  

In the 1980s, when the application was submitted, residents of Beechwold were comprised of doctors, lawyers and businessmen. It still is.

Beechwold (and neighboring Delawanda) has several times escaped razing, as part of attempts to create a connector between Morse Road and Bethel Road in Northwest Columbus. The last effort, in 1998, was defeated by voters after a harsh campaign, pitting Old Beechwold residents against Morse Road businesses.

Beechwold surrounds North High Street, just north of Clintonville.
Credit Deepti Hossain / WOSU

Robert Palmer, a lawyer who has lived in the area for 34 years, is the current president of the Old Beechwold Association. He will end his 2-year term in the end of January. Palmer was also heavily involved in moving Old Beechwold through the historical registration process in Columbus in 2009 and 2010.

“It’s an area in which, I think, people who live there are very fond of not only their own properties, but the setting,” Palmer says.  

Palmer adds Old Beechwold is a unique neighborhood with mature trees and a beautiful ravine.

“The roads were laid out to reflect the country setting and they are anything but a square,” Palmer says. “They meander through the topography and it’s just a wonderful respite. You don’t feel like you live in the city… and the proximity to things in Columbus has always been a drawing card to people who live there.”

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