“There’s an energy and excitement in Columbus that’s going to hit you as soon as you arrive. Big things are happening here. The city is booming, and not just in population. It’s time to get to know the Columbus that grew up when you weren’t looking.”
That’s what the Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau proclaims as part of its Experience Columbus campaign to make the city an appealing, affordable destination to visitors, meeting planners and convention-goers. And it sounds like it’s working. Central Ohio tourism numbers were strong in 2015; the number of overnight visitors to hotels increased to a record high.
Attending the International Torch Club’s convention in Columbus afforded me the opportunity to be a tourist in my own city. Although I slept in my own bed at night, I indulged in all the special activities that the out-of-town convention-goers did during the day. I sat down to tasty catered meals at the Crowne Plaza Columbus-Downtown, engaging in “reasoned discourse” with my tablemates after listening to presentations and applauding a special Silver Torch Award recipient who serves the local club in an exemplary manner. I tucked into a German buffet dinner in a banquet room at Schmidt’s in German Village after an accordionist led us in a singalong of songs from The Sound of Music. I held an armadillo from the Columbus Zoo. I listened to a string trio performance. And I rode in a plush scarlet-and-gray Ohio State University motorcoach to tour a few local attractions.
Although I’d been to Ohio State University’s campus treasures, the Thurber House and Franklin Park Conservatory before, I saw new features on all three tours. If you haven’t been dropped off on campus in Mershon Auditorium’s loading zone, had my friend Kevlin welcome you to 77 Jefferson Avenue, or learned local trivia from Columbus Dispatch columnist Joe Blundo while being driven along East Broad Street, you haven’t experienced Columbus.
At the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum on Ohio State’s campus, my fellow convention-goers and I pored over treasured artwork and artifacts from its collections, then hit the highlights of two special exhibitions: Good Grief! Children and Comics, which examines the history, role and tensions of child characters in comic strips and comic books; and Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, a collection of new versions by 100 comic artists and illustrators of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, a full-page comic that ran every Sunday from 1905 to 1926.
And at Thompson Library, we admired the picturesque views overlooking the Oval from the second-floor Grand Reading Room and the open study space on the 11th floor. We were amazed by artist Ann Hamilton’s VERSE in the Buckeye Reading Room: a two-color cork floor laid as a field of words set in relief and organized in a concordance, in which the words are alphabetized within the context of the sentence in which they appear.
Did you know that right here in Columbus, you can see the Underwood #5 typewriter that James Thurber used during his days writing for The New Yorker? It’s in the room of the Thurber family home where the award-winning author and cartoonist slept when he attended Ohio State, reporting for The Lantern, writing plays for the Scarlet Mask Club and editing the humor magazine known as the Sun-Dial. The room’s Wall of Fame closet includes signatures of the authors who have given readings for Thurber House.
Discover other fun facts about Thurber through other artifacts, ephemera, manuscripts and photographs on display at Thurber House, such as how he worked as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924, covering current books, films, and plays in “Credos and Curios,” his weekly column. (For more on the James Thurber Family Collection in the Thurber House archives, see the finding aid I prepared during the winter of 2003-2004.)
A warm afternoon and a soft-spoken trustee emeritus made for a soporific combination next door in the Thurber Center, the literary center’s conference and classroom facility, but we persevered, perking up when we spotted this unpublished Thurber drawing, titled “You Two Ardent Chrysanthemum Lovers Should Know One Another,” on display.
But it was Franklin Park Conservatory – specifically, its barn and its origami exhibit — that made my pseudo-staycation.
The eight-acre Franklin County Agricultural Society Grounds opened in 1852, hosting the Franklin County Fair (1852-1885), the Ohio State Fair (1874-1884), and General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1880, when he delivered his famous “War Is Hell” speech. When a new fairgrounds was established at another site in 1884, the land became a public city park known as Franklin Park. Inspired by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and London’s Crystal Palace, which housed the first World Exposition in 1851, the city of Columbus commissioned a local architect to design and build its own glass conservatory at Franklin Park in 1895. Zoo animals called it home until 1925.
From April through October 1992, over five million people flocked to Franklin Park for a $95 million extravaganza called AmeriFlora. The international horticultural exhibition celebrated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World. It featured gardening demonstrations; an authentic Bavarian Festhaus, Irish-style pub and Hawaiian restaurant; three different seasonal plantings; Walt Disney World-inspired topiary displays; an 11,000-square-foot vegetable and ornamental garden created by the PBS television show, “The Victory Garden;” a “Seeds of Change” exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution that focused on the exchange of plants, animals and people resulting from Columbus’ voyages; and mass floral plantings and plantings inspired by foreign countries, including a floral clock and a traditional Russian summer dacha surrounded by pine trees. Lush turf grasses were surrounded by an ocean-like planting of blue flowers and white-flowering groundcover in a world map. Colorful maypoles with cascading streamers guided visitors toward NavStar ’92, a 30-foot tall, 20-ton stainless steel sculpture representing the three billowing sails of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, the three ships of Columbus’ first voyage.
My AmeriFlora season pass led to countless trips to Franklin Park Conservatory that year, but I petered out after that, returning only once to see an exhibition of over $7 million of Dale Chihuly glass art works displayed throughout the conservatory. I was long overdue to experience the botanical gardens containing more than 400 plant species in four global climate zones, including the Himalayan mountains, a tropical rainforest, the desert and a Pacific Island water garden filled with thousands of tropical butterflies.
During our docent-led tour, I breathed in the heady scents of star jasmine, with its beautiful, fragrant, star-shaped white flowers, and the mature five-pointed, golden-hued, star-shaped flowers of the Ylang-Ylang (Cananga odorata) tree that recall the fragrance of Chanel No. 5. But three highlights will secure my return.
In 2009, the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company sponsored a four-acre community garden in the southeast corner of Franklin Park. Culinary, herb and fragrance gardens, an apiary, a rose pavilion, a berry house and 40 community garden plots inspire food and gardening classes for all ages.
Last year, a circa-1815 Richland County, Ohio barn was taken apart and put back together again on the southeast side of the conservatory grounds. Used for education and outreach programs, as well as a rental facility for special events, the Wells Barn features hand-hewn beams from 300-year-old species of oak, chestnut, beech, walnut, cherry, red elm and poplar trees.
Through November 13, the conservatory is hosting Origami in the Garden, an exhibition of origami-inspired sculptures created by artist Kevin Box and collaborations with other artists who specialize in the Japanese art of paper folding. For example, “Flying Peace” is a collaborative project between origami artist Robert J. Lang, who folded one of the most complicated origami cranes from a single, uncut piece of paper, and Box, who captured the folded result in stainless steel. The work was cleverly previewed in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Columbus-Downtown; several versions of it are displayed in the Himalayan Mountain Biome.