Chance Discoveries in the GPS Age: Nelsonville, Ohio
It happens that the state of Ohio has only one National Forest, and in the midst of that forest, nestled among the hills of the Hocking River Valley, is a small city called Nelsonville. It is seemingly unremarkable – it has a population of just over 5,000 and a technical college, but on a long winter drive from Chicago to Washington DC, accompanied by an infant on the cusp of waking to find himself still regrettably strapped to a car seat – the purple dot and floating letters appearing on the face of my GPS and announcing Nelsonville’s existence offered a very welcome reprieve. Being accustomed to modern conveniences, and having seen what is probably more than my share of horror films, I thought it best to research the place before we made any unscheduled stops in Appalachia – crying baby or no. Imagine my startled surprise to find the words ‘Opera House’ and ‘Historic Public Square’ floating up at me from Google maps and tingling at my architect senses. This would be a more interesting stop than anticipated.
Indeed, Nelsonville, founded in 1814 and bearing the somewhat typical historical narrative of other Appalachian mining towns (civil war troops, industry, railways), is fascinating. The approach into town along the Hocking River and Canal St is not as urban as one would hope given its gridded street map. The remnants of the Historic Hocking Railway still litter the side of the road, with several open industrial-looking lots facing the river. However, turning back up Hocking St towards the mountain, we rounded the historic Dew Hotel and found a decidedly more aesthetic scene upon entering Public Square. Nelsonville is one of the few American towns to have a true public square, lined with civic buildings, restaurants, shops and galleries; functioning as a beating heart and gathering space. It is rectangular in shape: seven two and three story brick facades on the east face another seven on the west over a fountain and green. The northern end was formerly anchored by the Central Nelsonville Elementary School – an impressive showcase of local Nelsonville brick production, complete with a bell tower – which was unfortunately razed in 1960 and replaced by a parking lot. The top of the belfry still stands in memoriam on a little corner of grass. At the southern border is the historic Dew Hotel, the first building on the square built for the influx of miners, with it’s wood porch front.
The Stuart Opera House, as advertised, is still in business at the northern end. It is one of Ohio’s last remaining operating historic opera houses. It seats 395 people for theatrical and musical performances and hosts a yearly summer music festival. As was typical of such buildings, the auditorium is on the second floor behind tall thin windows with arched storerooms at street level. It was constructed in 1879 with local handmade bricks (Nelsonville is actually quite renowned for its bricks – but more on that later). One might consider Appalachia to be an incongruous location for an opera house, I certainly did, but it turns out that show business in mining towns was rather popular.
The enterprising George Stuart, who built Stuart’s Opera, was originally the owner and operator of a traveling showboat, which he took up and down the Ohio canal system with a professional minstrel troupe. Fatefully, in 1869, the boat sank, and one imagines that George was in the market for a more permanent sort of business locale. Construction began on the Stuart Opera House shortly after. Like with other buildings of its ilk, the name ‘opera house’ was loosely defined. It functioned as a community center for anything from high school graduations, community meetings, Sunday school classes as well as true traveling acts – but it did have a full auditorium with stage – the interior being fairly plain and evidentially painted a cheerful blue. Not so cheerfully, it closed in the mid 1920’s due to an audience preference for films, but was reopened again in the 1970’s only to spectacularly burn down several years later in true dramatic form. Nevertheless, it was rebuilt, restored and reopened in 1997 and has become one of the “premier performing arts centers in Southeast Ohio”.
Stuart’s Opera is not the only surprise in store; the streets and sidewalks of the Public Square are paved in the iconic Star Brick – which hails from the nationally renowned brickworks of the Nelsonville Brick Co. Nelsonville made sidewalk brick, paving brick, building brick and sewer tile from it’s five major plants operating in the latter half of the 19th century – their product names: Nelsonville Block, Hallwood Block, and Hocking Block might be familiar to brick aficionados (such as those that I can only assume will be found at the yearly Nelsonville Brick Festival), or residents of towns all over America, including Columbus, OH; Niagara Falls, NY; Franklin, MI; and Pittsburg, PA. Several ruined beehive brick kilns remain outside Nelsonville, now enshrined in the Brick Kiln Park, which alas, we didn’t have time to visit. The Nelsonville Block was so well regarded that it won first place at the World Fair in St. Louis in 1904, and is allegedly still dug up during road repairs all over the country – covered by asphalt but looking good as new.
It is unlikely that we ever would have stopped in Nelsonville had it not been necessary at that moment in time, but I am grateful to have been there. It was exciting to find an American town with a true public space at its heart. Public Square is host to several art, music, and food festivals during the year. It is the stage for public life, social interaction and community in Nelsonville. It sets it apart from its neighboring towns and ought to be a reminder and confirmation of the resilience of these types of spaces. Despite its relative isolation in a forest and its faded glory days, this is a town that is still vibrant and alive and reinventing itself for the modern era. These days, the thrill of chance discovery is diminished when all our routes are easily planned or computer navigated. It is important to resolve to deviate from the expected path every so often – you never know what you might find.
This post was authored by DMSAS architectural staff member Iva Saller. Iva received her MArch from The University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture in 2010 and joined the firm in 2011.