Weekend Wanderlust: Mount Vernon turns trash to treasure with Ariel-Foundation Park

A monthly guide to day trips around the state

By Kevin J. Elliott
The observation tower at Ariel-Foundation Park

Situated in Knox County approximately 50 miles northeast of Columbus, Mount Vernon has everything one could want in the typical Ohio downtown. 

There’s a perfect independent bookstore, an adjacent coffee shop, a town center with monuments, a great little hotel, a leather shop that has been there since the 1880s, reputable art galleries, a couple of pizza shops, a diner and an incredible, newly installed Fountain of Dogs that you must see to believe. 

But there’s also the sense of a small town life left behind. Like many similarly sized Ohio towns, you will see defunct storefronts and empty factories, as well as a huge, historic bank that harkens back to a time when Mount Vernon was a power of industry. The town was founded on railroads, natural gas and most of all sheet glass. None of these survived. 

Which makes it all the more special that Mount Vernon has transformed its industrial collapse into a triumph worthy of visitation. Witness the former million-square-foot home of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, opened in 1907, which stood rotting on the south edge of the Kokosing River for nearly 35 years following its 1976 closure before being reborn as the highlight of Ariel-Foundation Park. 

Though many people have been involved in the still-evolving vision for the park, it was Mount Vernon’s previous mayor, Richard Mavis, who first suggested the creation of a greenspace that would connect the Kokosing and expansive Heart of Ohio bike trails. The only hurdle was what to do with the blight that was the PPG complex, which for a time served as a warehouse. It was an eyesore, an environmental liability and above all an expensive place to demolish. 

There were ambitious attempts to hire the same prestigious landscape architecture firm that designed Mill Race Park in Columbus, Indiana. Or to make artist studios on the same scale as the Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama. But with a $30 million price tag, that was a dream deferred. 

During that impasse, local artists Ted Schnormeier and Bob Stovicek volunteered to take the lead, but with some stipulations in place. They would use no public money. They would have carte blanche as to what to do aesthetically and physically with the park’s design. And they wouldn’t be paid a penny to build it. Understandably, the pair’s price tag came in significantly less than other bids, which was further offset when it was found that the steel that provided the bones of PPG were worth enough in resale to get the process rolling. 

According to Carrie Haver, marketing manager of the Mount Vernon Arts Consortium, the Ariel-Foundation’s vision is to “be a world class example of adaptive reuse that honors its industrial heritage and is the focal point for recreation, entertainment and social interaction” in Knox County. At the park’s dedication on July 4, 2015, Schnormeier and Stovicek gifted the park to Mount Vernon in front of thousands of attendees. 

Ariel-Foundation Park

The 250-acre park is stunning. There’s absolutely nothing like it in Ohio. And the most striking elements of the park are the ruins of PPG that remain strategically intact as “cathedrals of industry.” 

There’s the Coxley Building, once a steel forge and now just Ozymandian walls that harken back to the turn of the 20th century. There are a series of imposing elevator towers, looming like sleeping giants. Various sculptures dot the landscape, crafted with the factory’s innards — some salvaged from structures that stood at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The flagship Rastin observation tower, built on a 280-foot smokestack, serves as a challenging climb and offers a rewarding view of the entire park and downtown Mount Vernon in the distance. 

“This past year … has actually been huge for the park, because it was about the only place you could go,” Haver said of a 2020 where indoor spaces became vectors of coronavirus spread. “You can spread out [and] you can socially distance there. We actually had a few small events that were successful because there is so much space to explore.” 

Somehow existing both in harmony with and in natural counter to the ruins are the wide-open fields and reflecting pools, framed by the Terraces, geometric earthworks inspired by the post-modern landscape design of Charles Jenck and ancient Ohio mound-builders. There is nothing particularly sacred about the Terraces, however, which encourage climbing and tumbling.

“People always ask why there are no slides, swings or playground equipment,” said Carrie Haver, marketing manager for the Mount Vernon Arts Consortium. “And the simple answer is that the entire park is a playground. Kids are just drawn to the Terraces.” 

Ariel-Foundation Park

Beyond these features, the park boasts acres of woods and ponds to hike, fish and explore. There’s a meditation labyrinth. There’s public art, such as the River of Glass, created with actual glass cullets excavated from the factory. There’s an event space and a clock museum with room to host outdoor concerts and other socially distanced activities. With plenty of space to expand, Haver committed to the hope of even more growth, including educational opportunities and outdoor classrooms, which have been a focus of the diverse and visionary board that plans the future of the park. 

At the height of cabin fever, with our collective exhaustion at a breaking point, a visit to Ariel-Foundation Park is a welcome respite. It reveals the potential of a small town as it evolves into something awesome and magnificent, building treasure out of trash. 

Ariel-Foundation Park is open seven days a week from dawn to dusk. Visit arielfoundationpark.org for a list of upcoming events. Haver said a full-schedule would be available starting in June.