Revitalization Period, 1960 to present
The revitalization story in German Village is unique from many other neighborhoods for a several reasons. First, the narrative focuses heavily on a figurehead founder, named Frank Fetch. Mr. Fetch has secured a prominent legacy in the neighborhood, and today is the namesake of a public park and an award given by the German Village Society. As the founder and long-time president of the German Village Society, Fetch was instrumental in organizing interest in the area beginning in the 1950s.
As was typical of many urban neighborhoods during the period of mass suburbanization in the mid-twentieth century, the south side experienced disinvestment and was not regarded as a particularly desirable residential area by those with means. “Depending on the section of
the Village area, as few as 40% of the homes were owner-occupied while approximately 10% of the buildings had no private bath or were dilapidated” (Stover, 2001, p. 10). Frank Fetch, an employee of the City of Columbus (Campen, 1978, p. 15) and resident of Gahanna, a Columbus suburb, purchased his first house in the area in 1943 “just to have something to do and to create an income for the future” (Graichen, 2010, p. 40).
By the early 1960s, Fetch had invested in and restored three properties in the area and founded the German Village Society (Stover, 2001). Created “to promote the preservation and rehabilitation of the neighborhood,” the German Village Society is a membership organization that brings neighbors together and advocates for the historic district (German Village Society, n.d.). One of the Society’s most notable efforts is the Annual Haus Und Garten Tour, which draws thousands of visitors who visit the interior of homes and view outdoor gardens in the neighborhood. Since 1960, the event has been an integral component of the German Village Society and has contributed to the growth in popularity and prestige of the historic district.
In addition to the Society, a resident-led membership organization, the German Village Commission has also been instrumental in the revitalization of the area. Through the advocacy efforts of Frank Fetch, the Commission was the City of Columbus’ first historic preservation regulatory governance structure and was given design review authority in 1963 (German Village Commission, 1989, p. 8). The City of Columbus supported preservation in the neighborhood by funding a secretary position for the Commission. There are seven members of the commission appointed by the mayor for three-year terms. The ordinance
dictates commission membership as follows: one city council representative, one member of the mayor’s staff, one architect, two people with a special interest or expertise in either historic preservation or German Village, and two persons recommended by the German Village Society. The commission reviews requests for all exterior alterations, additions, new construction and demolition. It also was authorized to make recommendations on related zoning issues. Property owners seeking to alter their property must first obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) from the commission, a process which typically requires the submission of building site or streetscape photos, site plans, elevations, floor plans, and construction drawings by the property owner. According to the German Village Guidelines, by reviewing and approving proposed changes, the commission preserves the distinctive sense of place and historic ambiance provided by the neighborhood’s architecture.
With the help of aesthetic regulation facilitated by the City of Columbus, German Village was considered a less risky neighborhood by some of the city’s more affluent citizens by the 1980s. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the area attracted restorationists with an interest in historic architecture. A 1967 thesis by Matthew James Crofton at The Ohio State University divided the approximately 12,000 residents of German Village into three distinct categories:
(1) resettled suburbanites, (2) German immigrants or descendants, (3) low-income families or people of Appalachian heritage. By 1976, “property taxes in the Village rose so high that some residents threatened to withhold paying them as most were facing a 100% to 400% increase” (Stover, 2001, p. 18). Clearly, the efforts of Fetch and other early restorationists had an impact.
More than two decades after Frank Fetch’s initial interest in the struggling south side area, the German Village Historic District was transformed into a well-regarded neighborhood drawing national attention. The neighborhood was covered by the New York Times in 1968, the Boston Globe in 1972, the Chicago Tribune in 1984, and the Los Angeles Times in 1989. Journalists heralded the private funding of the restoration and the quaintness of the architecture, while Fetch claimed the area had become a “prestige community” (Thomas, 1972). By 1982, the area was described as a “ghetto for wealthy young professionals” by Columbus Monthly, indicating the status inherent with a German Village address.
This upward momentum has continued to the present. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal wrote about a couple who spent $600,000 on renovations of a German Village home which they purchased for $300,000 in 2010. The same couple converted a duplex into a single-family home and purchased an adjacent cottage to convert into a garage—reducing three historic dwelling units to just one. The conversion of a two-family residence to a single-family home, as well as elimination of a dwelling to store automobiles, are—seemingly—changes in the built environment that accompany an increase in “prestige,” as Mr. Fetch termed it. This example is emblematic of the process underway in German Village that will be discussed in this thesis. As a demographic shift has occurred over the past half-century, a change in the structures and physical environment has occurred as well.
Defined Boundaries & Unique Identity
One of the most fundamental aspects of German Village relates to its boundaries. As a formally designated historic district with enforceable regulations, it is necessary for it to have a defined boundary. With borders, a housing structure, for instance, is either within the area or not—no blurred lines. Establishing this geography at the beginning of revitalization efforts helped control the scope and incentivize investments within the historic designation zone and creating a clear boundary for regulation. Without the area boundaries and local governance structures of the German Village Commission and the German Village Society, the neighborhood could well have remained another deteriorating inner-city place competing for attention in a large city. The governance structures allowed for a certain amount of local control within the big city, and provided the stability and assurance attractive to owner- occupants and investment property owners.
At just the third meeting to bring interested citizens together around the concept of preventing the demolition of the German Section of the South End, a goal of the movement was already to establish boundaries (Cambell & Murray, 1967, p. 16). The boundaries were also relatively arbitrary, as they identified only a small portion of a neighborhood that was cohesively understood as the South End at the time. When the neighborhood was constructed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, residents did not establish smaller regions with specific boundaries—especially not the jagged boundary on the eastern edge of today’s German Village. During a contentious period in 1977 when some residents just outside the historic district petitioned for inclusion, a City of Columbus staff member determined that a “hard border for German Village” could not be drawn, based on the similarities of the architecture of the areas (Lubrano, 1982, p. 78). According to students working with an Ohio State team in 1960, the boundaries were established “by characteristics that were common through the neighborhood…basically brick houses of similar proportion and scale, with slate roofs, clay chimney pots, iron picket fences, and brick walks and streets” (Javor, n.d.; included in Appendix D).
Nearly a century later, local historian and neighborhood resident John Clark writes that while “the term ‘German Village’ is used primarily to describe the 233-acre historic district…the
early Germans settled a much broader area—generally, from the Scioto River on the west to Parsons Avenue on the east and from a few blocks north of the I-70/I-71 split on the north to well beyond today’s Nursery Lane historic district boundary on the south” (Clark, 2015, p. 20). Again, the wider area inhabited by German immigrants shows that the historic district boundaries could be considered relatively arbitrary. For example, the boundaries could have been segmented to only the northern portion, closer to Livingston Avenue. This would have created a more chronologically homogenous district, as “there is a general gradient in age (older to younger) from the north to the south and from the west to the east” (Travis, 1973, p. 52). However, the northern section was regarded as more distressed. "North of Sycamore, many of the houses were empty,” resident Bill Scheurer told the Columbus Dispatch in 1986. “The fire department made many trips to the area to put out fires started in empty houses by transients trying to keep warm.” Third-generation German Village resident Mary Louise Hendricks asserted that "A lot of people have the misconception that the whole area was running down at the heels. The northeast section was pretty bad, but the area around the park was pretty solid” (Bohley, 1986).
Ironically, even the figurehead founder of German Village acknowledged that the neighborhood was no longer German by the late twentieth century. “It’s not German at all,” said Frank Fetch in an interview published in the Christian Science Monitor in 1983. “We kept the name because of the architecture, almost identical to the homes their builders left behind in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and other cities” (Wood, 1983). It is curious that a neighborhood full of “Dutch double” cottages and “Italianate” homes is assigned the nationality-specific German Village title, but certainly understandable given the
concentration of German residents in the past. More importantly, the language that Fetch uses here is also indicative of his close relationship to the new neighborhood. He says that “We kept the name,” asserting that he and other new neighborhood residents with no history there possessed the authority to re-name a section of the city that had existed for over a century as simply “the South Side” or “South End.” This reveals Fetch’s paternalistic posturing toward the neighborhood, which is not a subtle hint considering the popular recognition of Fetch as the “Father of the rejuvenated Village” (Campen, 1978, p. 4). He believed he was starting something new out of something old—essentially forming a new neighborhood from one that had been neglected and abandoned.
Despite this more collective history of wider German heritage in the area, some post-1960 residents took the new boundaries very seriously. One particularly passionate resident asserted: “We built a perfect little jewel. We weren’t going to lose it” (Lubrano, 1982). The proposal of a group of adjacent residents was to expand the historic district by 11 acres, which would have brought them under the jurisdiction of the German Village Commission and likely increase their property values by using German Village prestige and aesthetic regulatory protection. The same passionate resident compared the proposed annexation to diluting good whiskey with water. German Village’s early leader Mr. Fetch, however, differed on the matter. Fetch used the term “snob” to describe the annex opposition and declined to serve as president of the German Village Society after the spat (Lubrano, 1982).
The fierceness with which some residents defended the borders of the new German Village illustrates a unique sentiment of exceptionalism. New German Village residents had not
moved to the South End. Nor had they necessarily moved into the City of Columbus, exactly. Rather, they had moved to German Village proper—an aesthetically policed enclave with enforceable borders and semi-independent governance structures. This new endeavor was an experiment and an experience, and being part of that was made the neighborhood and the incoming residents exceptional.
A Typology of Change to German Village Structures
With nearly 60 years of positive upward momentum in the district, the state of housing has been drastically altered. There are six primary ways in which the housing stock has changed. The first was an effort to valorize housing in the early days of revitalization by converting single-family units into multi-family. A common example of this is the addition of an exterior stairwell to allow access to a second-story living unit. The second is the opposite: converting a multi-family dwelling into a single-family dwelling. As I demonstrate later in this thesis, this shift from multifamily to single family is more common than vice versa. A common approach is to remove a portion of the dividing wall between a duplex, opening up the space. The third change is converting a building from retail or commercial use to residential use. Because of the area’s historic architecture, buildings originally constructed for retail or commercial use are readily distinguished from residential architecture. The fourth is changing a residential building into a business use. This conversion type proliferated in the 1980s, when attorneys found the German Village location attractive and converted dwellings into office space—enough to create a relative disturbance in the neighborhood. The fifth primary change is the combination of multiple residential dwelling units into one. There are a handful of examples in which owners purchase adjacent structures and connect them architecturally, usually with subtle and recessed additions that preserve the historic façade and massing. The last major type of alteration is an addition. Some are small, like rear kitchen additions to cottages. Others are large, like additions that are much larger than the original structure.
With these changes occurring since the genesis of the neighborhood in the mid-nineteenth century through today, the cumulative impact has considerably reshaped the original built environment. There is no presumption that historic neighborhoods should retain their original structural and demographic qualities into perpetuity. However, there is a defensible standpoint of working to preserve elements of cultural heritage beyond architecture.
The business composition of the German Village neighborhood has changed considerably from its genesis as an immigrant enclave to its current state as a fashionable historic district. A scan of the 1926 Columbus Phone Book shows a wide variety of businesses located in the area, from the Linkenheil Planing Mill (182 E. Columbus) to Smith's Pharmacy (193 Thurman). In the German Village area, there were butchers, beauty parlors, doctors, dentists, drug stores, photography processing, cheese manufacturing, dry goods stores, and trades like plumbers, roofers, and machinists scattered throughout. With 18 groceries, the area had a plethora of options for purchasing food, as well as options for running into friends and neighbors. By 1963, the number of groceries declined to 12 and today there are no groceries within the boundary of the German Village historic district. There are groceries on the eastern border and near the northwest corner of the neighborhood, within walking distance of the district. Some of this change can be attributed to an evolution of retail at a national and international scale, but the decline in businesses also occurred in tandem with the neighborhood’s renaissance as a residential enclave, as imagined by its new inhabitants.
Household Size Dynamics
In order to understand how German Village household size and demographic composition has changed over time, this research used historical census data for Mohawk Street, a 3,400 ft. road between E. Livingston Avenue and Schiller Park. The scan identified 29 individual census documents and produced data for 176 unique dwelling units in 135 individual structures, with an average household size of 3.57. The largest household was 828 Mohawk, owned with a mortgage by Richard and Frances Callahan and their eight children, ages 6 to 19. The average household size for owners and renters differed only slightly, at 3.59 and 3.55 respectively. Of properties with data available, 33% were owned and 57% were rented. Of homes that were owned, 74% were owned without a mortgage, while 26% were mortgaged. Both homes that were rented and owned took on boarders, though it was more common to have boarders as a home owner than a tenant. Only 8.6% of dwelling units recorded having boarders for the 1920 census.
Figure 12: Average Household Size, 1920 to present illustrates the change in average household size from 1920 to the present, using the Mohawk Street sample as representative of the neighborhood. The decline from over three people per dwelling unit to less than two is indicative primarily of a reduction in the number of families with children living in the neighborhood. More contemporary census data can also shed light on neighborhood change. Average household size in the two census tracts that comprise German Village (Tracts 52 and
57) has declined since 1970, the first decade for which the number of households is available.
The figure continues to decline to the most recent 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) census data. The survey conducted for this research shows a slightly higher household size, at
1.88 for a sample size of 144 people.
The number of people living in the two census tracts that comprise German Village has declined since U.S. Census figures became available at the tract level in 1940. Figure 13: Population decline since 1940 (Source: U.S. Census) shows that before restoration efforts began in 1960, the neighborhood was home to about 13,000 people. A decade after the revitalization period started, the neighborhood had just over 9,000. Then a relatively stability of around 6,000 people was achieved in 1980 and continues today. This trajectory points to the period of gentrification having been a 20-year era between 1960 and 1980, and that the transformation was complete by 1980. This assertion is supported by archival evidence presented in Chapter 5 that acknowledges the high-wealth status of German Village by the early 1980s.
That the population of a revitalized neighborhood would decline is particularly notable. To focus on the word "revitalize," we must look at the "vitality" of the neighborhood. Considering the root of the word vitality is Latin for “life” (vita), to put life back into a formerly struggling district would ostensibly mean increasing population, increasing commercial activity, and more generally restoring it the level of prosperity it enjoyed before its purported downfall. At the very least, one would assume the post-revitalization state would exceed the level of vitality during the pre- revitalization state. In German Village, however, there is evidence that the pre-revitalization neighborhood had more than twice the current population and offered a rich variety of retail and commercial options for residents, prompting the question of whether German Village was revitalized or more properly suburbanized.
In the remainder of this thesis, I describe the ways in which German Village has embraced the suburban both in terms of the physical elements of the built environment as well as the socio-cultural characteristics of local residents.