OF SIGNATURES AND LEGACIES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE PROPERTY AT THE NORTHWESTERN CORNER OF GOODALE PARK, in the “Short North” district of Columbus, Ohio has, over the past 117 years, served as private residence, office building, daycare center, fraternal lodge for commercial travelers, nursery school, and alcoholics’ recovery center. Incredibly, every one of these uses has been housed by the very same structure, a bizarre relic of the golden age of robber barons locally known as “the Circus House”.
And with good reason.
By 1895, Peter Sells was one of the founders of the nationally famous “Sells Brothers Quadruple Alliance, Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus”, and so was, in terms of the nineteenth century’s pre-mass-media entertainment scene, a very rich man, and eager to be seen as such. Engaging one of the nineteenth century’s hottest architects, Frank Packard (creator of many of Columbus’ iconic structures, both public and private), Sells ordered up a mishmash of styles he and his wife Mary has seen during a recent trip to California, with elements of Moorish, High Gothic Victorian, Mission Revival and other flavors melding into a sprawling, three-story mansion that eventually swelled to 7,414 square feet, hosting twelve rooms, four bedrooms, five full bathrooms, and two half-baths. And there was more: the Sells’ servants’ quarters, a carriage house erected just to the west of the main house, weighed in at an additional 1,656 square feet, larger than most large private residences of the time.
For the photographer, the Circus House is more than a bit…daunting. Capturing the strange curvatures of its twin turrets, its swooping, multi-angled roof, its jutting twin chimneys or its scalloped brick trim (suggesting, some say, the bottom fringes of the roof of a circus tent), all in a single frame, is nearly impossible. For one thing, circling the structure, one finds that it looks completely different every ten feet you walk. This seems to dictate the use of a “crowd it in there” optic like a wide-angle lens, which further exaggerates the wild bends and turns of the thing, making features like the huge porte-corchiere loom even larger than they appear in reality.
Finally I decided to be at peace with the inherent distortion of a wide lens, as if it were somehow appropriate to this bigger-than-life space. Like any true circus, the Sells house has many things going on at once, often more than even the average three-ring managerie. Architecture as a kind of personalized signature, long after its namesakes have faded into history, creates a visual legacy that photographers use to chart who we were, or more precisely, who we hoped to be.