Saturday, November 28, 2009

A brutal place at a brutal time

Just as you begin to enter the central downtown area of Columbus as you motor south on Interstate 71, a curve of the highway passes you my a very square and unassuming block of a building. Is it an office building? There are no windows. Is it an arena? It's too small. What is it? It is the center of Ohio's historical universe: the architectually significant Ohio Historical Society's headquarters and museum (see left, click to enlarge).

Housed within are the typical fare for a statewide museum charged with the mission of protecting, preserving and promoting the state's historical interests. There is a museum with permanent displays of the state's progress from a backcountry frontier in the 1700s and early 1800s to its political heyday in the Victorian Age and early 20th Century to its might as an industrial power in the mid 1900s.

A favorite with younger school aged groups is the wing on Ohio's natural history, with the mammoth Mammoth that greets visitors to this section of the building (see left, click to enlarge). There are plenty of animals and some hands-on activities in this part of the museum. The entire lower section of the museum offers a lot to see with artifacts and reproductions from Ohio's past and promise.

There are many temporary displays that can be national or local in flavor. One such display was of Norman Rockwell's America, another on photographs that changed the world. 2009 saw the introduction titled Soul! which focused on African-American art and historical contributions (see right, click to enlarge).

But this odd building is home to more than tourist displays. On the floors above there are archives and a library where one can delve deeply into the written history that has built the state's legacy. A private tour of the archives can unearth the unusual. If lucky enough to arrange an off-site tour (as a group of teachers was able to do in 2008), there is an off-site warehouse chock full of large and varied treasures of the past.
Next door, but on the property, is a limited-operation recreated village known as Ohio Village. At one time it was a regularly staffed 1800s village, but budget reductions has it now operating as a special event venue.

Hours vary for the museum and the research library, and budget issues at the state level can change the schedule even more.

The research library offers county histories, military unit rosters, city directories and much more for the curious or the family genealogist. A massive collection of newspapers and other state documents can be viewed on microfilm and microfiche.

But it is sitting in the library where gazing upwards can begin wonderment to the architecture of the building (see left, click to enlarge). At first glance once can muse about why the building hasn't been finished in all these years. The bare concrete roof is visible and the walls are but bare slabs of poured concrete. Were windows originally designed and cut out due to cost overruns? The answer is brutal... literally.

The building was built in the late 1960s in the architectural style known as "brutalism" (wiki, web). As described by the historical society:

Distinguished by its structural honesty and undisguised, blunt use of materials, Brutalism departed from conventional bourgeois styles. Stone and marble were rejected in favor of form-textured concrete, or beton brut, a technique employed by the French architect LeCorbusier.

The American Institute of Architects hails the building as a "bold, imaginative, almost startling structure" and the Architectural Record described it similarly as "the most architecturally significant public structure built in Ohio since the State Capitol Building." (see above right, click to enlarge)

Walking around the building brings a different sense then to history, as not only are the displays within the building historic, the building itself has become the same. While budgets are hard to balance in tough economic times, history and the arts tend to face the scalpel -- or sometimes the axe -- in cuts first.

The Ohio Historical Society is a treasure and here's hoping that it is not plundered to stem the loss of revenue during a lengthy recession and recovery.

- J.

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