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. email@example.com
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:
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.
So much of interest to me in this blog. Thanks again, Don Foster
LikeLiked by 1 person
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
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thanks for the comment, Janet!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Great speech by Mary Thomas! What an interesting and full life she lived!
Sent from my iPad
LikeLiked by 2 people