History of the Jefferson AVENUE Center

The Jefferson Avenue Center is one of the earliest multiple tenant nonprofit centers in the country, and in 1983 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. 

This innovative adaptive re-use of historic buildings has given the properties purpose and has created a sustainable economic model for maintaining them. Many of the buildings have public spaces that draw visitors. There are three separate art galleries on the block, a reading garden, and the Thurber Museum House. The Jefferson Avenue Center maintains these buildings and funds the capital improvements to improve efficiency, to protect the fabric of the buildings, and to prevent the types of failures which occur predictably within the life of a much used historic property.

We provide shared conference space and office equipment, and our block-wide events, picnic tables for summer lunches, and public gallery spaces foster collegial relationships amongst our tenants. As importantly, when not for profits can save money on overhead costs, they have more to allocate to the programs and services that directly impact individuals and local communities, increasing direct program and service delivery.  

The current tenants are busy dealing with both today and tomorrow. They include a literary center that teaches children to write; a mix of organizations working on international programming and global issues; agencies whose mission it is to protect children or assist vulnerable women; small performing groups; state-wide advocacy organizations and a museum.

The first known people to settle in the Columbus area were the Erie tribe of American Indians. They are thought to be the mound builders behind the naming of Mound Street in downtown Columbus. Eventually, the Eries were displaced by Iroquois and Miami tribes, who were the first to meet European settlers when they arrived in Ohio in the mid-1700s.

In 1802, the United States Congress and President Thomas Jefferson granted all lands 4.5 miles wide and 48 miles east of the Scioto River to refugees from Nova Scotia and Canada who had supported the colonies during the Revolutionary War. Ohio was granted statehood one year later.

The State of Ohio acquired land in the Jefferson Avenue area in 1838 for use as the Ohio Lunatic Asylum. Over 450 patients lived in the complex at any given time. In November of 1868, the building was destroyed in a fire, killing six patients. The Asylum was subsequently moved to the Hilltop area.

Beginning in 1870, the State sold the Asylum property to individuals interested in becoming a part of the newly designated East Park Place development. In 1870, when the East Park Place Addition was platted north of Broad Street, it brought a new concept to Columbus. Houses in East Park Place faced elliptical parks, making the three streets – Jefferson, Lexington, and Hamilton – one of the first attempts to integrate landscape architecture and “suburban” development in Columbus. Jefferson Avenue was the westernmost of three Avenues comprising this wealthy downtown neighborhood.

Its residents were ministers (including the renowned reformer Washington Gladden), jewelers, druggists, and even a humorist-to-be (James Thurber lived with his family here in the 1910s).  

Architecturally, three widely popular styles of the 1870s to 1890s predominate: Italianate, a mid-to-late 19th century style loosely based on buildings of the Italian countryside; Eastlake, inspired by the design philosophy of English author and aesthete Charles Eastlake; and Queen Anne, a picturesque style of the late 1880s and 1890s derived from medieval architecture, as seen through Victorian eyes.

Gradual deterioration similar to that experienced by other inner-city blocks throughout the country had robbed the community of much of its charm by the 1950s. The once-handsome buildings had fallen into disrepair and the automobile was infringing on the parks. The construction of Interstate 71 during the early 1960s very nearly completed the destruction. It divided what was left of East Park Place leaving Jefferson Avenue separated from adjacent neighborhoods.

The Arthur I. Vorys family, sensing the need both for preservation of what was left of the neighborhood that gave the world James Thurber, and determined to find a place for small charitable, religious, educational, and scientific, and cultural organizations, purchased most of the buildings along Jefferson Avenue between Spring and Broad Streets. The family then donated the buildings to the newly formed Jefferson Center for Learning and the Arts.

Refurbished in a style approximating their original condition but adapted for contemporary office usage, the homes now provide space for twenty-eight nonprofit organizations. The Jefferson Avenue Center acts as the owner and manager, leasing the houses at sub-market rates to these organizations, as well as providing residential units for a substance abuse rehabilitation program.