A twenty-acre study in Housing and Innovation
East Broad Street, going east “up the hill” from Alum Creek, had a strong appeal as a newly developing area. Beginning in the 1890’s, major land purchases included:
- 200-300 acres by the Columbus Land Association for the Bullitt Park Addition;
- 40 acres for Wolfe Park;
- 20 acres for the St. Charles Preparatory School campus;
- 40 acres acquired by Robert Jeffrey for his large country estate, Kelvedon (known today as Jeffrey Mansion and Jeffrey Park).
In the middle of these properties was a 20 acre block of undeveloped land with a rare Octagon house, built in 1855, situated on it.
Today, those 20 acres contain:
- The original 1855 Octagon home
- Sessions Village: 30 homes clustered in a French-Normandy design
- Lyonsgate: 18 homes in a Millennial Modern design
- Frank Lloyd Wright inspired: 3 homes on Clifton Ave (with a 4th at the corner of Broad and Meadow Park)
- As well as 3 classic Tudor homes fronting on East Broad Street.
- Bishop Square: 20 condominium homes in an “Old French” design
- The Meadow Park neighborhood: 12 homes, including the 4th Frank Lloyd Wright inspired home
The story begins with the Sessions’ Octagon house – generally thought to have been constructed in 1855 for Elizabeth Barr on property purchased from David Nelson, an early settler who operated a mill at Clifton Avenue and Nelson Road.
The house is the oldest residence in Bexley, and one of the oldest in all of Franklin County. What remains unknown is why the Octagon design was chosen for this house when newly built -versus a more typical traditional farm house or a country estate design.
The first known Octagon house built in America was designed and built by Thomas Jefferson on his personal country retreat, 70 miles from Monticello, called Poplar Forest.
Fifty feet in diameter, the house has classical proportions and reflects a British Palladian architectural style.
Jefferson was a big thinker, a scientist and a self-trained architect. No architectural detail or construction step missed his avid study and design input. All aspects of this house reflected Jefferson’s idealistic and innovative thinking and was undoubtedly a source of great joy for him – serving as a virtual, as well as an actual, escape from the endless issues associated with the birth of this new country.
Construction on Poplar Forest began in 1809 (the year Jefferson retired from public service) and was still being worked on when Jefferson died in 1826.
In 1848, Orson Squire Fowler – a phrenologist (a person who studied the shape of the human head, which, in the 19th century, was incorrectly believed to be a guide to a person’s character) and a writer on health and marital happiness – promoted Octagon houses. He stated that the octagon shape was more practical and provided 20% more space than a square building having the same length of external walls. He also alleged that the octagon shape would help cure sexual perversion – an amazing statement about the power of design!
Fowler’s book, The Octagon Mode of Building suggested that Octagon houses were “stronger, lighter and easier to heat”. Despite such promotion, the Octagon house never became popular.
The Sessions Octagon House
In 1880, the Columbus Octagon house and property were sold to Francis Sessions and his wife, Mary Johnson Sessions (daughter of Orange Johnson, one of Worthington’s earliest settlers). Francis Sessions was a banker, with Orange Johnson being one of his financial backers.
The Sessions Bank became the National Bank and Trust… eventually becoming Bank One. The Sessions Bank provided start-up capital for Joseph Jeffrey who founded The Jeffrey Manufacturing Company.
Francis and Mary Sessions had moved to the Octagon home from 478 East Broad Street, built in 1840 – which upon Francis’ death in 1892 became the site of the Columbus Museum of Art along with much of the family’s art collection.
The Sessions were avid patrons of the arts, and so we might imagine that they appreciated the uniqueness of the Octagon house – as well as its extensive grounds.
Bill Arter reports in Columbus Vignettes II that the house was trimmed with black walnut, and the kitchen was in the basement – connected to the main floor by a dumbwaiter.1
Francis died in 1892 and Mary continued to live in the house until her death, at the age of 92, in 1919.
1 Columbus Vignettes II by Bill Arter, 1967, Nida-Eckstein Printing, Inc. Columbus, Ohio
Sessions Village 1927-1932
Early property maps show a house on a sliver of ground north of the Sessions property owned by W. Duane Fulton, a local lawyer and Ohio Secretary of State from 1917-1919. After the death of Mary Sessions, Fulton assembled a group of investors to purchase her 17 acre property for his own use and for development. The investors included J. M. Rankin and prominent local attorney Webb Vorys.
W. Duane Fulton and his wife, Francis, moved into the Octagon house in 1920 – which was originally referred to as “the Sessions farmhouse” – and constructed the east and west additions and a garage.
The investors’ initial move was to create and sell three lots fronting on East Broad Street – preserving frontage for the Octagon house and a grand entrance into Sessions Village. Leslie LeVeque purchased the Broad Street lots (east of the Octagon house) that were then subdivided from the original 17 acres.
(Also at this time, the Cheek Brothers Addition, which becomes the Meadow Park neighborhood, was being developed. See more about this below.)
In 1976, the Columbus Chapter of the American Institute of Architects produced a major publication, Architecture Columbus2 – a compendium on both historic and modern architecture in the Columbus region. Sessions Village is comprehensively reviewed – including the original design manifesto and floor plans.
The publication credits Fulton with the vision to create a European village for the newly acquired property – influenced by Fulton’s travels overseas.
The easier and less financially risky plan would have been to simply develop more single family lots for sale versus increasing front end costs by constructing 11 to 12 fully built out homes. However, Fulton’s goal was to create a “unique-exclusive-isolated living environment” – and with his architect, Robert Roy Reeves, Sr., that is what he achieved.
The firm, Miller and Reeves, had already created a portfolio of impressive work – including private Bexley homes, Christ Lutheran Church and the Bexley Public Library – which all reflect a French-Normandy architectural style.
Reeves titled his 1927 manifesto “Development of an Ideal”…. a “community within itself’2 to achieve “a longing for harmonious surroundings where the spirit may grow and the pettiness of the world forgotten in the sanctuary of a garden or a quiet peace of a chimney corner.” Reeve’s design vision was to create the “pervading atmosphere of an old French village”.
His many travels to France sharpened his appreciation, knowledge, and use of French design elements and key principles to follow:
- “Design buildings directly onto the street giving space to the back for an enclosed garden” (Carl Frye designed the gardens)
- “Design it as a whole”
- “Perfect the minutest details”
- “Adhere to one style”
The results of his work were spectacular in every way, creating a beautiful one-of-a-kind composition, an intricate mix of design features and materials that still amaze. Sessions Village is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
2 Architecture: Columbus, A Project of The Foundation of The Columbus Chapter of The American Institute of Architects, 1976
Sessions Village post-1932
Twelve attached single family homes were planned for the first phase, but by 1931, only ten were completed. No subdivision, no real estate venture, no dream – no matter how well executed – could survive the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
There would be no more Sessions Village lot sales until 1946 – fourteen years later. The strict adherence to the French country village would be relaxed – however, later homes built (from 1946 onward) were still coherent and compatible to the original concept – contributing to the overall sense of a village.
At the fork in Sessions Drive, and up the hill, larger lots provided for more traditional free-standing single-family homes (a concept that had been part of the original plan). Robert Reeves, Jr. was hired to succeed his father as the architect for Sessions Village – although houses in the later phase of development were also designed by other architects.
Sessions Village is a gated, self-governed community and has its own architectural design review process in order to preserve its distinctive character.
Developments adjacent to and north of Sessions Village
It is unknown what plans, if any, were in place to extend Sessions Drive northward – to utilize the remaining undeveloped “Sessions” 3.5 acres running parallel to Clifton Avenue. Certainly, the Depression precluded any reason to think about when (and if) that land would ever be used. The original design manifesto specifically opposed any kind of turnaround at the end of Sessions Drive to deter visitors, so any thinking about a through road would certainly have been discouraged.
Meadow Park Neighborhood and Bishop Square
Meadow Park, a subdivision nestled between St. Charles Preparatory School and Sessions Village, consisted of 13 single family lots on a cul-de-sac, including a 2.2 acre lot and house at its northern terminus. Bishop James Hartley, founder of St. Charles Preparatory School in 1923, lived in this house – which was owned by the Catholic Church.
In the early 1970’s, the Bishop Hartley property was acquired by local real estate agent, Whit Dillon, who was seeking to create a second multi-unit complex – but in a different form than Sessions Village – utilizing multiple condominiums vs. individual but attached homes. He called this complex Bishop Square.
Bishop Square was constructed in 1975, and contains 20 units in five buildings. The architectural style was originally termed as “Old French”, however, it has also been described as “Spanish Mediterranean”. Bishop Square is also a gated community, self-governed and has its own architectural review process.
Frank Lloyd Wright Inspired Homes
Noverre Musson, a prolific Columbus architect in the 1950’s and 1960’s, was known for his Mid-century Modern house designs. Receiving a Taliesin Fellowship, Musson studied under Frank Lloyd Wright from 1935-37. In 1965, Musson purchased a lot subdivided from the remaining northwestern edge of the undeveloped Sessions property, along Clifton Avenue. In 1965, he designed his own home, influenced by his time spent with Wright. (Musson’s Bexley house can be viewed at “This is the Ultimate Columbus Mid-Century Modern Dream House”, columbusnavigator.com)
Musson died in 1988, and local architect Joseph Kuspan purchased his house in 1998, lovingly restoring and preserving its amazing design features. Kuspan, in 2013, created a lot split next door and designed his own Mid-century Modern house. Besides the three Mid-century Modern houses along Clifton Avenue, a fourth example can be found at the northwest corner of Meadow Park and East Broad Street.
Constructed in 2011, the final piece of this twenty-acre study in housing is Lyonsgate, an 18 unit complex on 3.8 acres. Accessed from and fronting on Clifton Avenue, the development is similar to Sessions Village in that its form is attached single family homes clustered around two courtyard streets.
Developed by Larry Ruben, the individualized homes are large in size, following a modified Millennial Mansion architectural style. Like its neighbors, Lyonsgate is gated, self-governed and has its own architectural review process.
Clearly, the stars of this show are the Octagon house and Sessions Village. Duane Fulton can be fairly credited with creating and promoting the vision that led to the design and construction of Sessions Village, which in turn led to the impetus for additional, adjacent multi- home developments. It is unknown whether Fulton was a part of any of the other real estate ventures.
Approximately 80 homes now exist on our 20 acre housing “study area” arraying a rich composition of architectural styles and features. Although, Fulton gave birth to the vision, he did not live to see very much of its fruition, dying in 1928 at the age of 60. In turn, Fulton also didn’t experience the severe financial struggles that Sessions Village experienced during The Great Depression.
His wife, Francis, continued to live in the Octagon house until her death in 1940, but her family continued to own the house until 1946.
There is no better way to end this article than to quote Robert Roy Reeves from his Sessions Village design manifesto: “great adventure in building or buying a home emerges from the mists of dreams and becomes a possibility (which) often requires no mean struggle to free it from the dream state and to find expression in terms of wood and stone of our intentions and preferences which will make it really home.” 3
3Architecture: Columbus, A Project of The Foundation of The Columbus Chapter of The American Institute of Architects, 1976
Written by Lawrence Helman, Bexley Historical Society Trustee
Edited by Martina Campoamor, Bexley Historical Society Trustee
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