Young Ohio Preservationists group builds momentum in the city

Columbus has no shortage of old buildings rich in history and community. Located on East Main Street, the Holy Rosary Church Campus features a collection of structures that have served the city in varying ways for more than 100 years.

The onsite rectory is an 1840s farmhouse that once provided safety as part of the Underground Railroad. The present-day convent was built in 1905, and the Northern Italianate-style church was constructed in 1916. Mirroring the design of the church, the Holy Rosary Catholic High School operated from 1928 to 1966.

Today, the site is owned by the Rock of Faith Community Development Corporation, which also operates the Rock of Faith Baptist Church. Included on the Columbus Landmarks 2018 Most Endangered Buildings List, the site is in need of restoration — and the high school is vacant.

“The Baptist church has really felt like they could be caretakers of the site, but with a dwindling congregation, they’ve lost the financial means to do what they envisioned for the complex,” said professional preservationist Sarah Marsom. “The pastor is a very nice man. You can tell that he just cares for the building so much, but he’s been approached by developers who want to tear it all down.”

Marsom is an organizer for Young Ohio Preservationists (YOP), an arm of Heritage Ohio, a historic preservation organization.  To help advocate for the preservation of Holy Rosary Catholic High School, YOP co-hosted a “Heart Bomb” event in February.

“It’s a national campaign where groups create valentines for buildings to show their love,” Marsom said. Holding their valentines, Holy Rosary alumni recorded video messages about the importance of the school. Marsom said they expect to hear a decision on the fate of the school by early next year.

YOP and similar groups throughout the U.S. schedule their “Heart Bombs” on the same day to maximize awareness through shared hashtags. The Columbus group even hosted out-of-towners for a weekend of tours, workshops and more last April.

YOP has also taken a special interest in the Near East Side, partnering with the community to learn the history and advocate on its behalf in the face of new development.

“We are already seeing new construction and demolition regularly,” Marsom said. “So we’ve just been slowly trying to build relationships because we know that the best preservation impact somebody can have is when you engage and empower the community, and you don’t come in as an outsider and believe you know everything.”

This year, YOP hosted two “Green Book Bike Tours,” which visited the Columbus stops in the Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to safe, non-discriminatory businesses for African-American travelers during the Jim Crow era.

“[It] really illuminated for us the historical context of the area,” said Marsom, a North Carolina native who moved to Columbus five years ago.

YOP is also advocating for the preservation of the commercial building at Mt. Vernon and Taylor avenues. Built in 1900, it most recently served as a laundromat, restaurant and art gallery before becoming vacant.

A few months after YOP’s “Heart Bomb” — they left valentines on the building — the owners paid for a muralist to paint the plywood.

“I believe we had some impact to help them see that the boarded up building was having a negative impact,” Marsom said. “We keep a strong eye on that one and go by it regularly.”

Most recently, YOP took action to stop a proposal to replace the 19th-century Greater Columbus Antique Mall on South High Street with a drive-thru restaurant. They encouraged locals to send dissenting emails to the Brewery District Commission. As of Nov. 1, the developer withdrew its proposal.

“It feels so good to bring the community together over a cause like this,” said Nimisha Bhat, a librarian and YOP board member. “That’s definitely been one of our most successful things we’ve done so far.”

Unlike Marsom, Bhat doesn’t come from a traditional preservationist background, but is able to use her unique strengths and connections to contribute to YOP’s mission.

“We’re trying to broaden the definition of what a preservationist is to make sure that everybody who has an interest in city history and culture … can be considered,” she said.

With its “Heart Bombs,” bike and walking tours, happy hours and affordable restoration workshops, YOP strives to make preservation appealing and inclusive. And Marsom challenges older institutions to rethink how they approach younger volunteers.

“The biggest thing is how these organizations communicate,” she said. “I don’t want a physical newsletter. … Culture is shifting so rapidly. You have to evolve your verbiage.”

“We may not be interested in touring a historic house museum,” she continued. “We may prefer slapping on a hard hat and going through a property before it’s even fixed.”

Whatever the tactic, the ultimate goal is to prevent the city from losing its history.

“Once you lose a tangible aspect of history, it’s a lot easier to lose the intangible, the stories behind it,” Marsom said. “I think it would be a huge detriment to the community to let these large, institutional structures decline and perpetuate the idea that people’s histories don’t matter.”