Otterbein University’s “graceful green hollow” a source of sorrow in 1919.

The Campus Center dining hall at Otterbein University overlooks a large grassy mall on its northern side. Ever since my freshman year there, I’ve gazed out at that area and wondered why it was sunken. It held standing water after a rainstorm although the lay of that piece of land has had an adjustment in recent years which improved the drainage. A couple years ago while searching old microfilm issues of the Westerville Public Opinion for a project, I wondered no more. The answer was on the front page of the May 29, 1919, issue. And recently, while scanning old issues of the student newspaper Tan and Cardinal for the Otterbein Digital Commons, a similar article was published. So this blog is a combination of discoveries ranging from surprise luck to a sad jolt to an entertaining reflection on life by a humble millionaire…3 different stories that, surprisingly, all tie together.

The discovery of the construction year of a house a century or more old is pretty much reduced to luck when (1) street numbers have not been assigned which means a city directory, if there is one, is of little use, (2) there is no blurb in the local newspaper announcing so and so is building a new house, and (3) the county auditor’s records only go back to 1920. Such was the case with the house that is the subject of this blog.

Architects Joseph Warren Yost and Frank Lucius Packard formed a partnership in 1892 that lasted until 1899 when Yost relocated to New York City. At some point during that span (and very fortunately for historians), they published a promotional portfolio of their collective designs. Only three copies are known to exist, and they are housed at Columbia University, Kenyon College, and the Ohio History Connection. In the portfolio is a design for “Prof. W. J. Zuck”…Westerville O.”

William Johnston Zuck, Otterbein University Class of 1878, taught English at his alma mater from 1884 to 1903 and also served an additional role as secretary-treasurer of the institution. As described in my blog Architects Joseph Yost and Frank Packard: Westerville Legacy (linked below), their Westerville work included several projects during the 1890’s.  Among them were the redesign of Philomathean Hall at Otterbein, construction of the Christian Association Building at Otterbein, and construction of Vine Street School of which Zuck was chairman of the building’s dedication ceremony (Public Opinion 3/19/1896). Professor Zuck, as Otterbein secretary-treasurer and as secretary of the Westerville Board of Education, would have had a business association with the firm. Thus their selection as the architects of his house is a natural.

As described in my blog Otterbein student achieves highest score and becomes Westerville’s first mail carrier in 1912. (linked below), houses and buildings in town had no address numbers assigned until late in 1912. While I found a number of articles in the Public Opinion about people building new homes in the early 20th century, only a couple issues of the newspaper exist that were published earlier than that. The photo archives of the Westerville History Center & Museum at the Westerville Public Library include a house at 98 West Home Street that is described as having been built circa 1900, designed by Frank Packard, and owned by Frederick N. and Emma B. Thomas. Could this actually be the Zuck house, but sold to a later owner?

In bits and pieces over 3 years, the year of construction and location of the “Prof. W. J. Zuck” house were confirmed as follows. Of the Museum’s two archived photos, one clearly shows a house with an unpaved road along its side. The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map of 1913, available online, confirms the corner location. The Columbus Dispatch routinely reported on news in surrounding towns including Westerville. A word search of “Zuck” of the digitized Dispatch on the Columbus Public Library website led to a June 21, 1901, lucky surprise item that came before the Village Council: “A petition signed by W.J. Zuck and eight others, asking that Grove Street be extended north to the corporation line, was presented and referred to the street committee.” A year or so later while scanning old issues of the student publication Otterbein Aegis for the University’s Digital Commons, I came across these two conclusive lucky surprises. The May 1887 issue states “Prof. Zuck is building an elegant new house on the corner of Home and Grove streets.” The May 1903 issue states “Professor Zuck has had his house repainted, and also made some other improvements at his beautiful home, corner Home and Grove streets.” Finally it dawned on me that conclusive evidence might be just down the hall from the scanner in an Otterbein Archives file cabinet…and indeed it was. The file of Mary Burnham Thomas, Otterbein Class of 1928 and daughter of Frederick and Emma, contains a reference by Mary to growing up in a house on “the alley, which was an extension of Grove Street.” It also contains a reference that would become the title of this blog.

Headlining the May 29, 1919, issue of the Public Opinion (mentioned in the opening paragraph of this blog) is this tragic announcement: “Boy Is Drowned In Pond in Gravel Pit…GLOOM OVER UNIVERSITY.” Arthur Spessard, the only son of Professor and Mrs. Arthur Ray Spessard, had slipped into a water-filled pit that was being excavated for gravel to be used in the construction of a new science building for Otterbein. Playmate and neighbor Glen Grant Grabill, Jr., himself the son of an Otterbein professor, attempted to save him. Arthur’s body was carried next door to the Thomas (Zuck) house. Mary would have been 13 years old at that time. When I retrieved her file from the Otterbein Archives, I wondered if it might contain information about this tragic accident. Indeed it did…in a typed autobiography Mary read when she was guest of honor at the 1977 annual meeting of the Westerville Otterbein Women’s Club.  Here is what she said:

“It was a joy for me to be introduced by Agnes Buchert Hoover. I grew up in a house which stood more or less where the east end of the Campus Center is now. During many of those years Agnes and her family lived across the alley, which was an extension of Grove Street, in a house belonging to the Clements family, to whom they were related. She and I share many memories of this particular place, most of them happy, some tinged with sadness……Sometimes I stand by the windows here in the Campus Center and look out at the graceful green hollow to the north. Much further back than I can remember it was dug out as a gravel pit. During my early childhood it was wildly overgrown, and there was a ramshackle building where someone lived. It was mysterious and scary, and I was forbidden to go there. Later on the area was cleared, and some gravel excavated for the construction of McFadden Science Hall. This left a deep pit on the east side which filled up with water. In it the eight-year old son of one of the music professors fell and was drowned on a day which Agnes and I will never forget.”

Young Arthur Spessard is buried in an unmarked grave at Otterbein Cemetery. There is no mention of him in the obituaries of his parents who retired to their native Maryland and are buried there. A second son, Dwight R., was born to the Spessards the same year Arthur died. He and his wife Agnes are buried at Denison University Cemetery. There is no mention of Arthur in his brother’s obituary either. The Public Opinion article of the drowning has been provided to the City of Westerville which owns the cemetery. Perhaps the City could erect a marker naming those buried in unmarked graves. Or perhaps Otterbein could place a memorial boulder with bronze tablet behind the Campus Center…and name the grassy open space Arthur Spessard Memorial Commons. “Possessed of a lovable disposition and little traits that made him loved by all who knew him” (The Tan and Cardinal 6/2/1919), Arthur is lost to history.

In 1908, the Thomas family purchased the Professor Zuck house at 98 West Home Street and moved to Westerville. Mary, age 2 at that time, would spend the rest of her life within steps of Otterbein University. Her later residence at 80 West College Avenue was just two doors from Clippinger Hall and next door to the parsonage of Church of the Master United Methodist. She and her mother Emma purchased and donated the land on which the parsonage was constructed in 1937. Mary’s reflections (more an autobiography) at the end of this blog are 10 pages in length which might be a bit much for some readers. If that’s the case, at least read the humorous short first page. 😊 A stock market wizard as described to me by a friend, she left her estate of $6.3 million to Otterbein at her passing in 1999…after having donated her house to Otterbein in 1979. The endowed Thomas Academic Excellence Series annually provides a book to each first-year student which is then studied by the entire first-year class. It also funds bringing the author to campus.

Published 7/16/2021. Don Foster, Otterbein Class of 1973.

Professor William Johnston Zuck house at 98 W. Home St. Built 1897. Designed by Yost & Packard below. N. Grove St. is in the foreground. The road extended as a dead-end alley on the left side of the house.
A page from Yost & Packard’s circa 1898 promotional publication Portfolio of Architectural Realities. “Prof. W. J. Zuck…..Westerville, O” is about one-third of the way down in the column on the right.
Middle name is misspelled below. It’s Johnston.
After the 1902/03 academic year, Zuck left Otterbein to become college pastor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA. After that, he directed the work of the Anti-Saloon League in northwest PA from 1908-1911. Later, he pastored in Columbus. In an address to Columbus Presbyterian ministers, he was quoted in the Westerville Public Opinion of 3/23/1916 as saying: “As a teaching institution the Sunday school is a monumental farce. The Bible should be read without interpretation in all the public schools.” I’ve added this to the blog simply because it’s not common to find published quotes from long ago.
I wonder what Zuck said about women in the workplace. Perhaps he was way ahead of his time. This is from The Otterbein Review of 3/18/1912.
Caricature from the 1903 Otterbein yearbook, Sibyl. Must have liked pickles.
It is often impossible to find the construction year of an early build. While scanning copies of the Otterbein Aegis for the Otterbein Digital Commons, I came across this shocking surprise in the “Locals” column (below) of the the May 1897 issue. Many thanks to a student publication, of all publications, for being the confirmation source!!
The Columbus Dispatch of 6/21/1902 above…a hint that the Zuck house may be on Grove Street and beside an alley or unpaved road. Confirmation below, from the May 1903 issue of the Otterbein Aegis, that the house is indeed at the corner of Home and Grove Streets.
Circled in red: the Zuck house and the gravel pit beside it that is now the “graceful green hollow.”
Zuck house is in front of #3 above.
Above article is from The Tan and Cardinal of 3/24/1919. Note the reference to the gravel pit.
Westerville Public Opinion 5/29/1919.
Somewhere in Otterbein Cemetery lies 8-year-old Arthur Ray Spessard, Jr…separated from his parents in Maryland and his brother in Granville. In my opinion, those in unmarked graves should be memorialized on a work-in-progress marker roster as they become confirmed vs hold off until some point into the future, if ever.
Professor Spessard, father of young Arthur.
The obituary is from the Summer 1954 issue of Otterbein Towers.
Born later in the same year his brother Arthur died, Dwight Spessard (Otterbein Class of 1941) and his wife Agnes Daily Spessard (Otterbein Class of 1940) are buried at
Denison University Cemetery in Granville, OH.
Dr. William Johnston and Jessie Zent Zuck are entombed in the mausoleum at Otterbein Cemetery.
Westerville Public Opinion 8/7/1941.
Otterbein purchased the Zuck house in 1935. It became the first location of Lambda Gamma Epsilon Fraternity which was founded in 1948. That was a total surprise to me…a member of this organization. I thought the first house was where the Otterbein library stands today.
The site is now the east parking lot of the Campus Center.
Above: May 1963 issue of Otterbein Towers. Mayne Hall is under construction and the Zuck house, now Lambda Gamma Epsilon Fraternity, is soon to be demolished to make way for the new Campus Center. Mary Thomas mentions her childhood friend Agnes Buchert Hoover in her speech. Agnes lived in the house on the left.
Otterbein Towers, July 1964.
Otterbein Towers, May 1963. The back side of the Zuck house above. Lambda Gamma Epsilon Fraternity is also known as “Kings” Fraternity.
The Campus Center was built in front of the gravel pit.
A young Mary Thomas above on her Gocycle made by the Hance Manufacturing Company of Westerville.
In a speech given to the Westerville Otterbein Women’s Club, Mary commented about her childhood years living across the street from Otterbein University’s Cochran Hall which housed women. Several months after this blog was published, the above postcard showed up on Ebay. What a great unexpected find…both her childhood home and Cochran in the picture. This postcard was published by Westerville resident Dorsey W. Short, a postcard manufacturer.
The Gocycle was first manufactured in 1912. It’s popularity took off and a single shipment could contain as many as 10,000 per the 3/13/1913 issue of the Westerville Public Opinion. These were novelty items given away by large newspapers to gain subscriptions, bakeries gave them for returned bread wrappers, etc.
While Gocycles are no longer made, Hance is still in business in Westerville.
Otterbein Aegis, March 1914.
Mary Burnham Thomas senior yearbook picture.
Otterbein Sibyl of 1928.
Otterbein Towers, Winter 2001.
The above medal is from the collection of the Westerville History Center & Museum located at the Westerville Public Library. The Thomas family lived just a few doors from a house suspected of being a Yost & Packard design. This medal was won on that property which merits a blog of its own to be published soon:
“Craze” Brings National Tourney to Westerville in 1934

Blog update 12/2022: The above blog became a reality and was published on 12/26/2021. The house is still suspected of being a Yost & Packard. But what still remains buried in the backyard today is what is stunning about this property at 32 W. Home St. In 2023, it may become a private boarding house for Otterbein students. Here is the link:

“The graceful green hollow” as seen by Mary Burnham Thomas.

Mary Thomas 1977 delightful speech and autobiography. If 10 pages is too much, at least check the humor of the first page. 🙂 Thanks to Stephen Grinch, Otterbein University Archivist, for providing this document.


  1. Sara Elberfeld Deever says:

    So much of interest to me in this blog. Thanks again, Don Foster

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Janet Flagler says:

    What a riveting story! Sad that little Arthur was placed in an unmarked grave and forgotten by his family. Some sort of memorial at the Otterbein cemetery would be a good idea. Are there many other unmarked graves there?

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the comment, Janet!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Janet Flagler says:

    Great speech by Mary Thomas! What an interesting and full life she lived!

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 2 people

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