To most Americans aging carbarns from the trolley era would probably be seen as nondescript relics of the nation’s industrial past — quaintly curious, perhaps, but hardly worth preserving. Depending on such factors as condition, location and competing community needs, sometimes the wrecking ball really is the best option.
Happily not always.
A nonprofit development group in Columbus, Ohio, is looking for ways to preserve and redevelop a former carhouse complex on Oak Street, south of Franklin Park. According to this Sept. 2 Columbus Dispatch report, nonprofit group The Columbus Compact (here’s their trolley barn page) will host a public meeting this Saturday to gather ideas. They’re working with The Neighborhood Design Center, another nonprofit group that does planning and design work for inner-city neighborhoods.
While the volatile mix of combustibles found in working carbarns often led to disastrous fires over the years (there was a major carhouse conflagration as recently as 1975 in Philadelphia), the structures themselves were built to last. As quoted by the Dispatch: “These buildings are stout,” said Al Berthold, the Neighborhood Design Center’s executive director. “The walls are too thick. The wood’s too thick.”
So it is that many carbarns have long outlasted the trolley systems they were created to serve. Naturally, many continued as bus garages after the trolleys were gone, and more than a few of those still stand across the country. Others were sold off for other industrial or commercial purposes; there have been some interesting examples of adaptive reuse over the years — as a community college building in Williamsport, Pa., for example (now razed, I believe) and as a house in Canandaigua, N.Y. (still standing). In later years, many have morphed into more funky guises as restaurants, nightclubs and shopping centers, such as Trolley Square in Salt Lake City. In rare cases, original carbarns also have survived as home to museum collections.
The problem, of course, is that preserving such cavernous old piles doesn’t come cheap. Estimates for the Columbus property are “at least $5 million,” the newspaper reported. All too often, time and the elements present landowners with a far more compelling case for demolition — and, where the land is valuable enough, replacement by some modern, purpose-built structure. A decade ago in Lockport, N.Y., I recall a former carbarn, which had been used as a thrift store, being felled and replaced by a modern chain drugstore.
It will be interesting to see what they come up with for the Columbus site, where the buildings reportedly date between 1880 and 1920. The article says some have suggested uses such as a farmers market, antiques center or community events venue.
Columbus transportation resources
Columbus’ last streetcars ran 62 years ago this week, on Sept. 5, 1948. An impressive collection of information about the system can be found on the Columbus Railroads website.
The Dispatch, meanwhile, published a photo gallery in connection with the Sept. 2 story, which can be found here. As the mayor was clamoring for a modern streetcar system, the paper published this retrospective piece on April 14, 2008. Nearby Worthington is home to the Ohio Railway Museum, whose collection includes Columbus city car 703 of 1925.
Out in the blogosphere, CBus Transit looks at a diverse range of local transportation issues in Ohio’s capital city. Columbus Underground, meanwhile, takes a broader look at local development issues including transit; check out CU’s posts on the trolley barn as well as the region’s interurban history. Lastly, the Friends of Franklin Park Trolley Barn have a Facebook page.