Explore Columbus' industrial past with the 400 Square Mini-Museum

Kevin J. Elliott
Boiler doors at the entrance of Zach Henkel's 400 Square History Show and Mini-Museum.

To the naked eye, the 400 Square History Show and Mini-Museum doesn’t look like much. Maybe it’s a salvage sale or factory detritus left to collect dust once the gears stopped turning? But explore a little closer and you’ll see intentionality, a pure love for the Franklinton building in which it’s housed and a way to remember Columbus’ industrial past.

“It came about because the 10-year anniversary of us working on 400 happened in October,” said curator Zach Henkel. “We realized that we did nothing to celebrate or recognize that milestone. We also had some recently empty square footage in our ample Promenade Gallery, so I thought a good way to commemorate the decade of work on the building was to assemble a show of antiques, artifacts and curiosities we’ve collected from our buildings over the years and [juxtapose] that with some more contemporary photographs and stories.”

According to Henkel, the purchase and rehab of the 400 campus, which encompasses a 7-acre area, including Walnut and Lucas streets, the 400 West Rich building, Strongwater and the shell of the former B&T Metals factory, was never meant to revitalize East Franklinton, a once-dilapidated area of town. It was meant to make something from almost nothing. Or breathe life back into the area’s manufacturing days.

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Sure, Franklinton is now an up-and-coming “district,” complete with breweries, galleries, restaurants, music studios, the thriving Idea Foundry and upscale apartments. But a decade ago, 400 Square and the dedicated laborers, contractors, tradesmen and artists who helped rip out its guts and build a new creative hive were there with a Wild West mentality — one that Henkel thrives on. He, along with Chris Sherman, are the only guys who have been there since day one.

For the past year, Henkel has been the official maintenance man at 400 Square. The idea for the museum came from his love of history, architecture and labor, along with his desire to present the old to new audiences. Plus, the pandemic presented some downtime, and the boredom inspired Henkel to get creative.

Like the constant activity at 400 West Rich and the adjacent Chromedge Studios, the museum echoes the buildings’ former lives. Built in 1911, it started as D.A. Ebinger Sanitary Manufacturing Company, which made ceramic plumbing materials. In the 1920s it became EBCO, most famous for inventing the Oasis chilled water fountains found in schools and hospitals. The structures housed Sweden Furnace up until the '70s, then became storage, as well as the germ for what it is currently, namely artist studios, starting with Bob Eickholt Glass.

The history of since-demolished B&T Metals is even more intriguing. When it was thriving in the 1930s and '40s, B&T employed over 500 laborers, making it the largest African American business in Columbus. Primarily focused on aluminum fastenings for flooring, the company was also secretly contracted to extract uranium for use in the Manhattan Project during World War II. When the property was purchased in 2011, the factory was in disrepair and in need of demolition, along with extensive environmental remediation. In the early days of the 400 Square project, most will remember its hull casting a shadow on Independents' Day.

“Through the 10 years working on the 400 Square buildings, we’ve always kept the cool stuff,” Henkel said. “Some of the stuff on display is borrowed decor from Strongwater Food and Spirits. The rest — especially the big items, like the huge steampunk industrial press, the imposing boiler doors and the elevator gate — are things we just kept in storage thinking someday we can take a breather and clean them up and display them.”

Indeed, there are plenty of other artifacts that Henkel has found in his decade at the site, such as a mummified raccoon (not on display) and vintage pizza trade magazines (from when Pizza Hut used the building for storage). Being that it started as a plumbing factory, several varieties of toilets also survived.

Though Henkel is modest in this pursuit, calling himself more of an “executor of the vision” than a visionary, one could imagine future endeavors including an exhibit on the history of Columbus commodes, or perhaps a Mark Twain-esque lecture on Henkel's mammoth road trip to the Arctic Ocean last year. But that’s a long story for another time. For now, it’s good to know that an executor of visions is helping to keep the infinitely interesting history of our city alive.

The 400 Square History Show and Mini-Museum

Open by appointment until mid-January 2021

Schedule appointments through Zach Henkel: zachh@400westrich or 614-806-6559

Admission is free

A vintage steampunk industrial press at the 400 Square History Show and Mini-Museum.