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Post Modern: One for the Athens History Books
Walking down Athens’ streets provides students with the familiar buildings they have come to know. However, the places that might be commonplace to students now were once full of stories and history.
From its start as a village in the early 1800s to its emergence as a city in the early 1900s, Athens has seen buildings come and go as Ohio University has grown.
The past is always with us — be it in the form of buildings, ideas or cultures, said Ron Luce, director of the Athens County Historical Society and Museum.
“(Athens) is unique because of the perpetual mix of old and new,” Luce said. “We have reverence for the past and appreciation for the future.”
Efforts have been made to preserve some of the history, but the fact that no real legislature or code exists to protect certain architecture or buildings makes it difficult, Mayor Paul Wiehl said.
“As time goes on and we get older, we recognize that there is history here that is important,” Wiehl said. “But there has to be a balance between what constitutes history, what we decide to keep and what we toss away.”
Sheltering Arms Hospital
Throughout the 1800s and up until the early 1920s, doctors were summoned to homes to take care of patients or sent the patients to Columbus by way of coal train.
Dr. John Sprague had been summoned to Charles Breinig’s Athens boarding house multiple times to deliver babies, and it is said that upon leaving once, Sprague joked about creating a hospital there.
Delia Breinig liked the idea and along with her husband, a building contractor, drew up blueprints for a small addition to her home. On May 21, 1921, Sheltering Arms officially opened its doors.
Upon opening, there was room for only five patients, but with more additions to the home, it was eventually able to house 66 patients.
Because the hospital was smaller and had fewer employees, everyone had more responsibilities, said Joy Boals, who has worked at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital since 1952.
“I started at Sheltering Arms washing baby clothes when I was still in high school,” she said. “I then learned about sterilizing the equipment, working admissions and then ended up in transcriptions. We had to learn everything, and people nowadays do more of a specific job.”
The Breinigs sold their home and the hospital to Dr. T. H. Morgan in 1947. After Morgan’s death in 1957, it was given to Athens.
After O’Bleness Memorial Hospital was built in 1970, Sheltering Arms shut down, but the Sheltering Arms Hospital Foundation Inc. continues to financially support O’Bleness through donations.
The former Sheltering Arms Hospital, 19 Clarke St., is now known as the Sheltering Arms Apartments.
When Charles Grosvenor retired from Congress in 1907, a bill appropriating money for a new post office in Athens was passed in his honor. In 1911, the Athens Post Office was completed.
“That bill went through quicker than any bill I know of in that time,” said Marjorie Stone, historian and co-author of Getting to Know Athens County. “It was passed and hand-walked from the House to the Senate to the president to be signed.”
The Athens Post Office was in operation for 50 years until it was moved to Stimson Avenue in January of 1969.
According to a May 24, 1964, article in The Columbus Sunday Dispatch, Athens county and city officials made a deal with the university for the post office: The university could purchase the building for either $400,000 or 40 acres along East State Street.
An agreement was reached, and OU received the post office in June 1964. Renovations were completed in December 1965, and Haning Hall was officially opened for university offices.
According to an article in The Athens News on Sept. 28, 1981, Henry Lin, dean emeritus of the College of Fine Arts, wanted to move the Trisolini Gallery to Haning Hall in the early 1980s, but the plans never went through.
The Trisolini Gallery moved to Baker University Center in 2007, and Haning Hall still houses multiple offices, including the eCampus department. the Dairy Barn
The Athens Lunatic Asylum, now known as The Ridges, was a network of buildings, gardens and farmland that spanned more than 1,000 acres.
Built in 1914, the Dairy Barn’s primary service was to provide the asylum with dairy products for the patients and workers.
According to Robert L. Daniel’s book Athens, Ohio: The Village Years, the barn provided work therapy for patients and helped reduce the operating costs of the institution by helping it become self-sufficient.
The barn was in use until the 1970s, when it was shut down for economic reasons, said David Malawista, who started work at The Ridges in 1968 as a graduate student and continued there in various positions until 1993.
Malawista then became psychology director for Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare and now manages the part-time reserve officers for the Athens Police Department.
“As the hospital downsized, it became less imperative to have a large dairy farm providing milk, cream, cheese and all that for the patients,” Malawista said. “It was highly productive, but it became economically impractical.”
A citizen task force committee saved the barn from destruction in 1977, and the Dairy Barn has since become a center for art exhibitions and community events.
The Silas Bingham House
The Silas Bingham House, the oldest home in Athens and now known as the Visitor Parking Registration Center, was the focus of a preservation battle during the 1980s.
Silas Bingham, Athens County’s first sheriff, originally built the house — which is now on the corner of Richland Avenue and Shafer Street — on South College Street in the early 1800s.
According to a Logan Daily News article in 1887, the home was used as a courthouse, a commissioners office, a tavern and a schoolhouse. It was also the home of Robert G. Wilson, OU’s third president, and John Templeton, OU’s first black graduate.
In 1853, the home was moved to East State Street and served as a student rental, Stone said.
“Richard Rainsford, a local real-estate developer, purchased the house to renovate it, but after a fire destroyed the back section of the home (in 1983), he left the home derelict,” Stone said. “The city was going to tear down the house, but with the help of the Save the Bingham House Committee, Rainsford finally surrendered all claim to the house.”
With the help of former OU President Charles Ping and his wife Claire the house was moved log by log to the corner of Richland Avenue and Shafer Street and opened as a visitor center in 1987.
Civil War Soldiers & Sailors Memorial
Though it has now become a popular hangout for students and visitors, the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial was built in 1893 after a 65-year dispute between OU and Athens over what was known as the Public Commons.
In her book Ohio University 1804–2004: Spirit of a Singular Place, Betty Hollow described the Public Commons, now College Green, as a 94-foot wide strip of land owned by OU but freely used by the town. OU officials were eventually able to fence off the area until only a small section near Court Street and East Union Streets remained open to the general public.
After the Civil War, there was interest in erecting a monument to honor the Athenians who fought in the war, and the Athens County Monument Association chose the open section of the Public Commons as its location.
The monument stands 45 feet tall and is topped with a sentry. Surrounding the base are life-size bronze statues of an infantryman, a cavalryman and a sailor.
Artillery pieces and cannon balls were added in 1907, but were melted down in a World War II scrap-metal drive. Throughout the years, the monument has been used as a meeting place for protestors of the Vietnam War and also has been prey to vandals.
“We (the Athens County Historical Society) have one of the swords from the figures because students kept stealing it,” Luce said. “We are still trying to locate a brass gun that belonged to the soldier. It’s disappointing when people abuse something like that.”