Columbus Convention

American Institute of Building Design

July 29 - August 1, 2014

A Closer Look: German Village

German Village is a historic neighborhood just south of downtown Columbus. Initially platted in 1814 it was settled largely by German immigrants and their descendants who at one time comprised as much as a third of the population of the entire city of Columbus.

German immigrants who arrived in the South End in the 1850s immediately felt at home: people spoke German in the stores, schools, and churches; their homes were solid yet unpretentious. After work, bakers, stonecutters, storekeepers, carpenters, tanners, bricklayers, and brewery workers relaxed in nearby bier gartens. Most belonged to gymnastic and singing societies. This simple, yet distinctive working-class neighborhood was a little bit of Germany.

German Village grew and developed before anyone thought of zoning regulations. As a result, businesses were scattered throughout the neighborhood, though few blocks had more than one or two commercial buildings. This allowed the Village to retain its predominantly residential character. Typically, a business owner set up shop on the first floor and lived above the store.

Social and economic changes during the first quarter of the 20th century combined to send the neighborhood into decline: As Germans became Americanized, they depended less on the traditional German community. Perhaps most devastating was the onset of World War I, which stirred strong anti-German sentiment in Columbus’ largely American-born population. German books were burned, German newspapers closed; speaking German was also verboten. Officials renamed Schiller, Germania, Kaiser, and Bismarck streets as Whittier, Stewart, Lear, and Lansing Streets. Schiller Park became Washington Park.   Further decline occurred later due to the closing of the local breweries during Prohibition (1920-33).  By the 1950s, the area had become a slum. The city then demolished one-third of the neighborhood (between Main Street and Livingston Avenue) to make way for the new interstate highway system. The remainder of the South End was seriously deteriorated and a prime candidate for leveling.

As the neighborhood faced the possibility of total demolition, Frank Fetch defied common wisdom.  In 1959, he and his father-in-law bought and restored a small cottage on Wall Street.  The following year, Fetch and a group of like-minded people created the German Village Society, to promote the preservation and rehabilitation of the “Old South End.”

At the time, Fetch’s dream of reversing urban blight through preservation and rehabilitation was a radical approach. Ironically, the same characteristics that urban renewal studies of Columbus used to describe “blight” are the very attributes that give German Village its unique and appreciated character today: small lots, narrow streets and the absence of new development. Those attributes brought working-class people armed with dreams and elbow grease back to German Village. Significantly, this Village revitalization has been privately funded without the aid of government programs or subsidies of any kind.

Concerned citizens managed to save the neighborhood’s historic architecture from demolition by successfully lobbying in that same year for a local commission. The German Village Commission and the German Village Historic District were established in 1960. The German Village Commission has power over external changes made to buildings and was responsible for having the entire area rezoned from manufacturing/ commercial to high density residential. This classification eliminated industrial uses and limited commercial uses.

Working together, the Society and the Commission made a positive impact on the Village in a very short time. According to building permit records, in 1962 owners and investors made over $1 million in improvements. At this time, some buildings had price tags under $5,000.

In 1963, the Columbus City Council gave the German Village Commission design review authority. Thus, the Village became one of the nation’s first historic districts with an architectural review board to preserve its character through enforcement powers.

The Society also petitioned and received a listing on the National Register of Historic Places on December 30, 1974.  The German Village Society presently has nearly 1,000 preservationist-minded members who are dedicated to maintaining the historic quality of the buildings and neighborhood. As a result, German Village is currently considered one of the most desirable areas to live in the city. More than 1,600 buildings have been restored since 1960, and it is credited as one of the most premiere restoration districts in the world.

Today, German Village is a model of urban neighborhood preservation and revitalization - a nationally recognized success story. The average home price in the neighborhood is $377,450 and several are well over $1 million. The Village has a single commercially zoned strip along Livingston Avenue, and the rest of the neighborhood is mixed use. There is some concentration of businesses along Third Street, Mohawk Street and Whittier Avenue, too. The Village is mostly a residential neighborhood of sturdy, red-brick homes with wrought iron fences along tree-lined, brick-paved streets.