Historic preservation in the U.S. has evolved over many decades since our country’s founding. For many years, preservation efforts were focused on the grandest places associated with the grandest people in our society. Little attention was paid to the simpler structures of common people. That began to change after World War II with the advent of Urban Renewal and the federal highway system, and its devastating impact on large numbers of historic places.
The German Village area of Columbus, platted in the early 1800’s, and known as the South End, was a proud neighborhood of German immigrants who built small, sturdy homes and shops. The area was very stable for over 100 years. When Columbus implemented zoning in the 1920s, the area was zoned for manufacturing and commercial use, after which the residential character began to change. The zoning change, discrimination against all things German during World War I, Prohibition—which shuttered south end breweries, and later, the urban renewal philosophy, all conspired against the area over several decades, and the area declined.
In 1949, a city employee and resident of nearby suburban Gahanna, Frank Fetch, decided to purchase a property in the south end as a rental, which strengthened his appreciation for the village and its architecture. When the northern third of German Village was leveled for new development, Mr. Fetch recognized that action was needed to raise awareness and encourage investment in the rest of the south end. He called an open meeting in Shiller Park, with several buildings open for tours, that was attended by over 200. This led to the creation of the German Village Society in 1960 and soon thereafter to the German Village Commission, created to serve as an advisory body. By 1963 the city agreed to designate German Village as the city’s first historic district. The designation also gave the German Village Commission design review authority. Thus, German Village became one of Ohio’s first city-designated historic districts with a mayor-appointed design review board empowered to preserve its character.
This City legislation became possible because Frank Fetch, and several other Columbus pioneers in the modern historic preservation movement, understood the workings of the city and succeeded in getting the attention of decision makers who were impressed by the grass roots nature of the excitement and commitment that grew around saving and revitalizing German Village. And, famously, the turn-around in German Village was accomplished almost entirely through building-by-building investment by individuals and small businesses and without the assistance of public funding programs.
There is a lot to celebrate in German Village today. It is a stable and thriving neighborhood that continues to benefit from the controls put in place beginning with city designation in 1963. German Village is a nationally recognized success story.
Fetch’s dream of reversing urban blight through preservation and rehabilitation was a radical approach at the time. The scope of its success might surprise Frank Fetch if he were to see it today, yet that success is a dream yet to be realized for many places that German Village can and does still inspire.
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Click here for a list of past State Historic Preservation Office Award recipients.