I’m not skilled in speaking actuarial psychobabble or creating Woo Factors, but I certainly shine in my role as the Analytics and Research Office’s concierge.
Asked to recommend a destination for a recent birthday lunch, I looked out our windows, pointed out the LeVeque Tower, and suggested The Keep, the restaurant that recently opened on the tower’s mezzanine level.
This Art Deco jewel has been a landmark of the downtown Columbus skyline since 1927. At that time, the 46-story skyscraper at the corner of Broad and Front Streets was the tallest building in Ohio and the fifth tallest in the world. A six-year, $27 million renovation project ended last year, transforming the tower into a luxury hotel, office space, apartments and condominiums. I’ve been curious to see the results.
Named by Architectural Digest as one of the ten most beautiful Art Deco buildings in the world, the tower was first known as the AIU Citadel. It was built as the new headquarters of the American Insurance Union, then the world‘s largest insurance company that also promoted progressive social reforms. A version of the AIU company seal can still be found in a bronze disc embedded in the lobby floor. “Safety First” was its motto.
The Citadel was designed by Charles Howard Crane, a specialist in theater design who was also innovative in his use of electric heat, central air conditioning, elevators, and especially the special effect achieved by using terra cotta on a building’s exterior. Because the Citadel was situated on the sandy banks of the Scioto River, a special gridwork bedrock foundation was required to keep it from toppling over.
The building’s steel skeleton was covered with terra cotta that was rolled and stamped to achieve the effect of white oak bark. The fired clay was also fashioned into decorative garlands, laurel wreaths, shields and statues of guardian angels. Four 18-foot eagles were designed for corner niches at its 35th story. Four 26-foot-tall giants flanked by children, symbolizing the protection of insurance, were installed, but were removed for safety reasons in 1947. Weather-damaged terra cotta was carefully patched and replaced during this recent renovation.
Marble from Belgium and Italy, custom-cut glass from Czechoslovakia, oak and walnut paneling from England and wall tiles from Spain gave the Citadel its elegant look. Street-level entrance lanterns were modeled after lamps in an Italian palace. Hand-painted murals adorned the walls. An auditorium was equipped with a pipe organ, a ceiling fresco of painted clouds, and a scale reproduction of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
The tower was also home to the Deshler-Wallick Hotel, as well as WAIU, Columbus’s first radio station. Other tenants have included law and accounting firms, a Borden test kitchen, restaurants, and state and federal offices.
An observation deck was on the 44th floor. Four turret-mounted beacons were fitted with filters to change the color of the lights on special occasions, a tradition which is still honored today. It’s bathed in pink lights each May for the Komen Columbus Race for the Cure, to raise awareness of breast cancer. It takes on a patriotic red, white and blue glow for the Red, White and Boom fireworks display to celebrate Independence Day. And it has taken on a blue cast in March, in recognition of Colon Cancer Awareness Month.
After AIU folded during the Great Depression, the building was foreclosed upon. Columbus developer Leslie LeVeque, and John Lincoln, founder of a Cleveland electric company, bought the tower in 1945 and renamed it the LeVeque-Lincoln Tower. After LeVeque and his wife died in a plane crash, their son, Fred, assumed ownership. When Fred also perished in a 1975 plane crash, his wife, Katherine, bought the tower, renamed it the LeVeque Tower, and lived in a 41st-floor apartment there until 2011. She sold the building to an investment group in 2004; a local investment group purchased it in 2011. Mrs. LeVeque passed away in 2014.
Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the landmark property also included the Palace Theatre. Mrs. LeVeque invested $3 million in restoring the Palace. It reopened as a performing-arts hall in 1980; she sold it to the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts in 1989.
Walking over, I described what happened on July 9, 1986, when old brick sewers gave way and caused a 40-by-30-foot section of W. Broad St. in front of the LeVeque-Lincoln and the Palace to collapse, sending a Columbus lawyer and his Mercedes down into a 26-feet-deep hole. ” The world’s largest pothole” became a sensational attraction during the 13 days it took to fix.
When we arrived, we headed straight for The Keep. Named after a speakeasy expression, it offers a full-service bar patterned after a classic 1920s unlicensed saloon. The dining room features an exhibition kitchen with a brushed-steel countertop for dining. Traditional seating is also available under flickering gas lanterns on bronze-flecked walls.
Menu items are prepared with French cooking techniques. Braised beef hash with potatoes, caramelized onions and peppers, topped with an egg, was one choice we tried.
The other was a puff pastry-topped pot of local chicken and mirepoix veloute accompanied by “Verte,” a salad of mixed greens, dried fruits, crisp apples and candied walnuts tossed in a honey balsamic vinaigrette.
The Keep is operated separately from the Hotel LeVeque, part of the Marriott Autograph Collection of hotels noted for their unique decor. The hotel’s interior design has a celestial theme, recalling how the tower was once known as an “aerial lighthouse” visible from 50 miles away that guided aviators in the early days of passenger air travel.
For more on the LeVeque tower, read LeVeque: The First Complete Story of Columbus’ Greatest Skyscraper, by Michael A. Perkins.