Since the 1830s, the historic Mound Street establishment has been home to taverns, brothels and spirits of all kinds
When Blind Lady Tavern owner Seth Laufman took over the historic Downtown building at 22 E. Mound St. in August of 2015, he had recently moved back to Ohio after a 10-year stint in California, where he had been running San Francisco’s second-oldest bar.
“It was a coincidence,” said Laufman, seated at a table in the bar. “I didn’t know anything about the history before coming in. I found out it was for sale, sat down, looked around and was taken aback by how beautiful it was in here. And how old it was.”
Situated near the courthouse Downtown, Blind Lady Tavern claims to be the oldest bar in Ohio. Based on maps and records and charred ceiling beams, the brick structure that houses the bar dates back to about 1831, according to historian Doreen Uhas Sauer, author of Historic Columbus Taverns, and the land on which the building sits was originally awarded to American Revolution veteran Thomas Asbury as payment for soldiering.
While none of the other historic buildings that house old bars in Columbus can claim to be as old as Blind Lady’s building, Uhas Sauer said that the “oldest” distinction depends on how you define it. Another Downtown bar, Ringside Cafe, can claim to be a continuously operating bar under a single name since the 1930s, whereas Blind Lady has operated as a tavern, boarding house and brothel (and sometimes a combination of the three).
For many years, the Mound Street business didn’t have a name (a “wine and bar” sign found in the basement likely hung outside at one time), and its proximity to the courthouse has made it an ever-popular spot for local politicians to wheel and deal over a drink. Throughout its history, the establishment was known as Welde Cafe, Irvin’s Place and the Jury Room, among other names.
According to Uhas Sauer, during the Civil War, the establishment also hosted Union soldiers, as well as high-ranking Confederate officers from the nearby Camp Chase prison; the ladies of the evening entertained Union soldiers one night, Confederate soldiers the next.
A photo from 1876 depicts the three-story J.F. Gaiser Saloon and Boarding House at 22 E. Mound St., but by 1885, another photo reveals a two-story structure. At some point in between those years, a fire destroyed the top floor of the tavern. “That’s why the drop ceiling is in there — to hide the smoke and the soot,” Uhas Sauer said.
Today, Blind Lady’s vintage, pressed-copper ceiling is painted black. “While doing renovations upstairs, they had to bring the floor up in a couple places and refinish them, and they found soot from the fire on top of the ceiling,” said Laufman, who isn’t sad the copper has been painted. “It would be tough to keep things dark and intimate in a room where there’s this shiny presence.”
Laufman bought the space from the previous owners of the 1831 Tavern (briefly named Balls), and before that, Elizabeth Lessner ran the space as The Jury Room since 2010. Much of the renovation was already done by the time Laufman established Blind Lady, which boasts an intricately carved black pillar in the center of the room; burgundy decor; period-appropriate chandeliers; and a 100-year-old wooden back bar that was salvaged years ago from a barn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Blind Lady prides itself on its cocktails, and Laufman pays homage to the bar’s past by serving libations that date back almost as far as the building. “The drink scene has come full circle. It’s gone back to its roots of fresh ingredients and artisan spirits,” he said.
Another type of spirit supposedly infuses Blind Lady, as well: Ghosts have reportedly haunted the building for years. The spirits are attributed to a murder that took place in 1859, in which the madam of the brothel, Frances Miller, shot and killed Paulus Rupprecht, who was drunkenly trying to enter the bordello after hours. Miller was convicted of manslaughter, spent 11 years in prison and was never able to get back on her feet upon release.
Employees of The Jury Room kept a written log of strange occurrences and ghost sightings, and Laufman said his chef has heard piano music late at night.
“Some spooky figures have been seen walking up the back steps a couple times,” he said. “One of these barstools has taken upon itself to fall over when nobody was around.”