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Weird Columbus History: The Ohio Departments of State Building Explosion

“Build this building on the riverfront and no one in Ohio or in the nation, when in Columbus will ever ask, ‘Where is the state office building?’ All who enter Columbus will see- will know.”

These were accurate words back in 1929, as anyone who has ever looked at a riverfront photo of Downtown- or attended a laser show in the 1980s- would recognize the former Ohio Departments of State building, now known as the Ohio Judicial Center.

The 14-story, white marble building has been front and center of the riverfront skyline since 1932, one of the most prominent buildings constructed as part of the city’s effort to remake the banks of the Scioto. While it has become a landmark for Columbus, it almost didn’t survive its own construction.

The Thomas J. Moyer Judicial Center, as it it known today.

Neglect and Calamity Begin Rebirth

Long before the Scioto Mile, the Greenways or the Ohio Departments of State Building were ever conceived, the Scioto riverfront was a black eye in Columbus. There were no less than two dozen outlets that dumped the city’s untreated sewage directly into the river system between Clintonville and the South Side.

The Downtown portion of the Scioto had little development beyond mills, smoke-belching factories and ramshackle housing, all of which was occasionally damaged or swept away by flooding. The riverfront was a foul, unpleasant place to be, and the poor conditions were an endless complaint for residents and an embarrassment to city leaders.

The riverfront in 1916.

City leaders had been considering redeveloping the riverfront since at least 1908, but it wasn’t until the terrible flood of 1913 that finally gave the plan real momentum. Tasked with both a redevelopment plan and how to prevent another flood disaster, they quickly settled on a new civic center concept. The shanties and industrial buildings that hadn’t been taken in the flood would instead be demolished and replaced with parks, plazas and shiny city and state government buildings.

The outbreak of WWI largely ground those plans to a halt, however, and it wasn’t until 3 years after the war ended that the push for the civic center would gain steam again by way of another type of firefight.

In 1921, the old City Hall burned to the ground, and it became an urgent necessity to begin planning for another. In conjunction with those plans, work also finally began on converting the eastern banks of the river from dirt to a concrete “sea wall” to help manage future flooding.

By the following year, the Scioto had been widened through Downtown and more than 1.5 miles of the “sea wall” had been constructed down to Broad Street. The first specific buildings for the civic center had also been proposed- the new City Hall at West Broad and Scioto Street, a Masonic Temple at Gay and Scioto, and a new Central High School on the Scioto Peninsula.

By the late 1920s, most of those projects- along with a new police headquarters on Gay and an art museum on Broad- had either been completed or started construction. The eventual site for the Ohio Departments of State building was still proposed as “Victory Park” to commemorate World War I.

However, as civic center projects were completed and the riverfront improved, the State of Ohio soon began to consider the park site, along with about a dozen other locations, for a long-sought office building. State departments were scattered throughout Downtown in overcrowded, makeshift spaces, so they wanted a single, larger building in which to consolidate those offices. City leaders wanted the office building on the riverfront, knowing that such a project would be a great addition to the civic center concept. In its zeal to sell the plot of land to Ohio, the city created a list of arguments to entice the State to formally choose the site. Among those arguments was a claim that would prove both ironic and premature:
“Plenty of light and air is assured with practically no fire hazard.”

A 1922 map of the proposed riverfront civic center buildings.

After much political wrangling on both sides, the State purchased the park location in 1929 and work began on the new Ohio Departments of State building on Halloween, 1930.

Blast Rocks Downtown, Speculation Begins

Construction on the building progressed without major incident, aside from the occasional labor disagreement, and was nearly complete by the second week of April, 1932. Final inspections were planned and the building had been heavily cleaned of construction dust and debris. At 2:45PM on the afternoon of Thursday, April 14th, a violent explosion ripped through the lower levels of the central and southern parts of the building. Floors buckled, walls collapsed and chunks of marble façade and glass were blown into the street and river, injuring a construction crew working on Scioto Boulevard- now Civic Center Drive. The force of the blast expanded up through the building and up through elevator shafts, throwing elevator doors into hallways and piling plaster and broken marble a foot deep all the way up to the 10th floor.

George Rose, a concrete finisher, described the scene inside:

“I was one of eight men working in a room on the main floor, near the center of the building. Three minutes before the explosion occurred, I left the room. While at the other end of the building, I heard a sudden explosion, which came without warning. The walls of the building began to collapse, and I thought I would surely be buried under falling concrete. I ran, horrified, toward the end of the building, almost choked with dust, and wondered if I would get out alive.
I ran back down the corridor and found the room in which I had been working blown off the face of the earth.”

All available police and fire units were called to the scene, and were soon pulling the injured and dead from the wreckage. Rose survived, but others did not. 53 people were injured and 10 people were ultimately killed, many of which were Depression migrants drawn to the city for work.

The twisted interior after the explosion.

By Friday, rumors were running rampant throughout the city of the possible cause. Initial thoughts that the explosion had been the result of a gas rupture from ongoing construction activities quickly gave way to the theory that it had not been an accident at all. Evidence, much of which was circumstantial, piled up in support of terrorism.

In the days leading up to the disaster, 300 pounds of dynamite had been stolen from a storehouse at the Hercules company, a subsidiary of Dupont, in London, Madison County. It was thought that the theft was connected to a sabotage plot related to the aforementioned labor issues. An infamous national labor protester and dynamite expert was thought to be involved in the plot, as it was reported that he had been in the Columbus area in the days leading up the disaster. The quantity of stolen dynamite had been more than enough to cause the level of destruction seen in the building, which was thought to be equivalent to a minimum of 100 pounds of TNT.

View of the damaged exterior facing the Scioto River.

Additional evidence of sabotage came from surviving witnesses, as they reported a “sickeningly sweet odor” that permeated the air after the explosion, a common smell with nitroglycerin. Furthermore, at least 3 people observed a suspicious man running from the north side of the building immediately after the explosion. At first, the witnesses assumed he was running from the explosion itself, but as they watched, he approached a car parked nearby and began yanking the partially downed driver’s side window back and forth violently until it shattered. He then unlocked the door, jumped inside, quickly got the car running and drove away in a hurry. Still other witnesses claimed to have seen at least two suspicious men in the vicinity of the building and hurrying away around the time of the explosion. One of them was later identified by a witness as the labor agitator and explosives expert. The witness reportedly overheard a conversation of the two men right after the event that included this bit:

“Well, they did a pretty neat job of it, didn’t they?”
“Just like I told them to!”

When a large group of architects, engineers, civic leaders, criminal investigators and secret service agents walked through the building on Friday morning, they too argued that the evidence seemed to point away from a gas or dust ignition. Governor George White stated that if the explosion had been caused by a buildup of sewer gas, the manhole covers along the boulevard would’ve blown off. Inspection of a gas line that had been installed the day before found no damage to the pipe.

Inspecting the damage.

New Theories, More Confusion

By Saturday, however, the tone of the debate began to rapidly change. Experts from Dupont surveyed the damage and quickly ruled out high explosives. Their reasoning was that if the explosion had been caused by dynamite or nitroglycerin, windows would have been shattered a block away and the source point would’ve been more defined, with most debris blown out instead of being left behind. Additionally, they postured that the sub-basement- where the explosion supposedly occurred- would’ve had its supporting columns fractured, but they were instead relatively unscathed. Left with no conspiracy and no explanation, officials returned to the gas leak theory, but could still not explain how a buildup of gas had both entered the building and gone undetected by workers prior to ignition.

One of the last victims to succumb to their injuries, Theodore Neb, was a superintendent for a construction company working on the building. Before his death at Grant Hospital on Saturday night, he gave an interview in which he stated that he had been directly above the site of the sub-basement explosion. He theorized that a group of small holes that had been drilled into the basement floor in order to install a door had allowed gas to seep into the space under the building. Another theory was that rising water in the Scioto had somehow forced methane gas into the sub-basement.

Either way, it was expected that clearing the basement of debris would reveal hidden clues to the causes, but disagreements on responsibility would hold up the start of cleanup for weeks. On Sunday, April 17th , the state attorney general was authorized to begin an official probe into the cause of the disaster, as well as to determine what party or parties might be on the hook for the estimated $1 million (about $30 million today) in damage.

On April 27th, however, the sabotage theory reared up again as a pair of men, Edward Wallace and Frank Wilson, were apprehended in Chicago. Both men lived in Columbus and were wanted there on charges of vehicle theft. When they were interviewed, Wallace allegedly immediately said, “We know what you want. You want to question us about the blowing up of the state building in Columbus,” later saying they had been in town on the day of the explosion, but saying they knew nothing about it.

Detectives examined the stolen car they were caught in, and found that it contained, among other things, dynamite and welding tools. When questioned further, Wallace admitted that he had been working in the basement of the Ohio Departments of State building the day before the explosion as part of a construction crew that had installed the sewer system beneath the building. By the time Columbus detectives began the extradition trip back to Columbus, the two men had further admitted to blowing up safes in a Grove City post office, heightening suspicions that they had been involved in a possible bombing of the state building.

Three days later, however, both Wilson and Wallace had largely been eliminated by giving the alibi that they had been attending a baseball game at Neil Park on the day of the explosion, and investigators seemed satisfied with that explanation. At this point, state and local investigators admitted to being “baffled” as to the cause of the explosion, and concluded that they would have to wait for more evidence to be revealed when the building was cleared of debris.

Cleanup of the building finally commenced on May 9th, beginning on the top floor and gradually progressing downward. This meant that the sub-basement, where it was assumed the most crucial clues to the explosion were located, would be very last. Since practically the entire south part of the building had to be reconstructed, it was estimated that the building wouldn’t be ready to open again for up to six months.

Official Cause

After all the terrorism suspicion, witness interviews and theories tossed about, the final cause of the explosion turned out to be pretty mundane after all: gas.
On June 13th, almost 2 months to the day after the disaster and weeks of investigations, Attorney General Gilbert Bettman reported that the official cause was an accidental buildup of gas related to a leaking main of the Columbus Gas & Fuel Company. Despite rather unceremoniously dumping most of the established claims and evidence gathered prior to the report, the announcement was not entirely unexpected, as a break had been found in the line that ran along the west side of the building.

Investigators looking into the incident on behalf of CG&C had reported the break right after the explosion but disputed that the line was the cause of the blast. Their reasoning was that the explosion itself caused the hole when debris had hit it and not the other way around. It was curious logic, but reasoning they claimed was supported by the fact that there had been no fire with the explosion, a typical consequence of a gas rupture. CG&C’s reasoning was likely attempting to shift blame away from themselves, as the state was already drawing up a suit against the company to collect damages. Ohio was hardly flush with cash during the height of the Great Depression, and needed a way to pay for the reconstruction of the building.

The final, unanimous report was submitted on June 28th. It confirmed that the explosion was caused by “gas accumulating under the lower part of the structure” and that the investigators “found no crater or other evidence of high explosives.” The report reiterated that much of the damage was not structural, as it would have been had there been TNT or some other explosive substance used. The gas main itself had been improperly installed with a lack of a required double-pipe structure in case of leaks. The Columbus Gas & Fuel Company was accused of negligence. The report further stated that if the sub-basement, which only extended to the center of the building, had continued under the entire structure, the damage and casualties would’ve been far more disastrous.

Subsequently, CG&C was sued by Ohio and at least 7 surviving victims, of which most were settled.

The building’s reconstruction ended in early March 1933, and state departments began moving in a few weeks later.

A 1933 postcard of the building, looking south.