Founder Jordan Renda and Co. transform a former retail space in a deserted East Side strip mall into a must-see arts destination

When Jordan Renda first toured the abandoned East Side strip mall that now houses Otherworld, the real estate brokers who showed him the space expressed reservations.

“They were like, ‘Are you sure you want to move here?’” said Renda, whose team, over the course of months, transformed the massive retail space into an immersive, alien art installation that, up until it was forced to close temporarily amid the ongoing COVID-19 shutdowns, had captured the imagination of visitors, drawing massive crowds and earning national attention for Columbus. (Time magazine named Otherworld to a list of the World’s Coolest Places of 2019.) 

Renda, who has a background in haunted house creation, was undeterred by the abandoned site location, having repeatedly set up shop in closed shopping centers, “bouncing from one vacant space to another,” as he put it.

“Honestly, I’d rather it be a totally vacant shopping center than one that has a lot [of retail]. It takes a little magic out of it if the Best Buy next door is functional and people are walking out with new TVs,” Renda said. “We obviously had our doubts, I guess, from the beginning, but … our priority was on the things that were going on inside of the building. We would rather have as much of our budget as possible going to make those things cool rather than worrying about being in an odd area of town. I thought it would be fine, and people would drive out to it.”

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Indeed, the location certainly adds to the overall experience, with the gleaming Otherworld abutting shuttered big box retailers, giving it the appearance of a mysteriously funded government enterprise — a feeling that carries over into the puzzle-like mystery that plays out inside of the space and combines scientific elements (various textbooks on plants litter shelves, suggesting a genesis for the alien vines that grow in myriad rooms) with childhood fantasies ranging from “The Wizard of Oz” to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and beyond. 

Renda was correct in his estimation that people would find the space, his “Field of Dreams”-esque faith rewarded (“If you build it, they will come”) by massive crowds that spiked in December 2019 and continued through the recent virus-driven closure, which forced Renda to lay off the exhibit’s entire part-time work force, maintaining just six full-time employees for the time being. “We are trying to make the best of this situation by concepting and adding new content to the space,” Renda wrote in a follow-up email weeks after our interview, which took place before the word “coronavirus” was a part of the public lexicon. “Our team has put so much into creating Otherworld, and it’s heartbreaking to close, even temporarily.”

When Otherworld does resume operations, Renda envisions it continuing to evolve and expand, taking over still undeveloped areas of the building with new, imaginative exhibits. Beyond that, though, the success of Otherworld could have a growing national footprint. Renda said likeminded dreamers from other cities have reached out for advice about creating similarly out-there experiences, including a group in Virginia that hopes to craft a smaller-scale immersive experience that, like Otherworld, is miles removed from the sometimes harsh realities of the world.

“Part of the original idea was that this space could make you forget about that email chain or whatever is on Instagram,” Renda said, laughing at the irony (Otherworld has arguably become the most Instagrammed spot in the city). “You're going to see more places like this popping up. … ‘Immersive’ is such a blanket term, but, for better or worse, people are looking for some kind of escape. It’s only a matter of time before spaces like this become a staple in every city.”