State house architect honored

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Messenger photo by Sandi Latimer

Mark Passerrello, dressed as a dapper Nathan Kelley in mid 19th century attire, talked about the work of the architect best known for his work on the Ohio Statehouse. Passerrello addressed an audience at First Saturday at Green Lawn as cemetery volunteers recognized a person buried there who had an impact on life in central Ohio.

The Ohio Statehouse, which stands majestically at the center of Columbus, got off to a shaky start.

“But it is still structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing and still functional,” said historian Mark Passerrello, who often portrays Nathan Kelley, an architect who worked on the building in the mid 19th century.

Passerrello portrayed Kelley on July 5 at First Saturday at Green Lawn, a program that recognizes people buried at Green Lawn Cemetery who had an impact on life in central Ohio.

Ohio’s capital city had a start different from many of its counterparts. It sprung up after the state legislature decided to locate the capital in a more central location. It had been in Chillicothe twice and once in Zanesville.

“Everything was located in a small brick building at the corner of High and State streets downtown,” Passerrello said. “The House, the Senate, the courts and all the state government offices.”

The building soon became overcrowded and people called it “rat rabble,” referring to the outside appearance, not what was going on inside, the historian said.

To work toward a new building, the state decided on a contest for a design, Passerrello said.

Kelley, a young man from southwest Ohio who was just starting his career and a family, did not enter the contest.

Three entries were chosen and the state wanted to incorporate features from all three into one design.

“It was sort of design by committee,” Passerrello said.

By 1839 the foundation and cornerstone were in place. Work was suspended at that time because the state was reluctant to spend money. Also, some felt the capital should be in another city.

“For seven years, Capitol Square was a cow pasture with livestock grazing,” he said.

Two designers from Cincinnati then picked up the work, but didn’t get far before the state’s demands for quick work and tight budgets caused frustrations.

That’s when Kelley came in with two draftsmen and started work. He wanted to get the plans from the Cincinnati men, but they refused to provide them.

“They were their designs and they weren’t going to give them up,” Passerrello said.

Most of the work was completed in 1857 and the state threw a party in celebration.

“Everyone had been following the construction,” Passerrello said. “If you lived in Franklin County, you had to buy a ticket for $10 to go to the party. But if you were from any other county, you were a guest and didn’t have to pay.”

Passerrello said it drew such a large crowd that Gov. Salmon P. Chase had a hard time getting through the crowd to speak.

“He was supposed to speak at seven o’clock and he didn’t make it through the crowd until nine,” the historian related.

The House chamber was set up for the speakers and the Senate chamber housed the band and food.

“People danced and ate all night. They had to because there were no available hotel rooms. They were all filled,” Passerrello said.

At that time the Statehouse had 70 rooms. The rotunda wasn’t finished and neither were the Supreme Court chambers.

Kelley wasn’t around to see the building finished. He was removed from the job “because what I wanted to do was much too expensive,” Passerrello said while in the character of Kelley. “I envisioned a large mural in the rotunda depicting the settling of the state and a statue of George Washington.”

The work was completed in 1861, including the cupola on top and the landscaping. Construction huts that had sat around the building for two decades were finally gone.

Kelley didn’t want a flat cupola; he wanted a round dome.

“But a Roman dome doesn’t fit well on a Greek building,” Passerrello said, again in the voice of Kelley.

Passerrello took on the task of researching Kelley when he worked at the Statehouse and would dress the part for tour groups.

“For a long time, he was just a name and a date,” he said of Kelley.

His research led him to Kelley’s professional life more than his personal life. The Kelley family is Scottish and he was named for his grandfather Nathan. He joked that throughout several generations, the Kelley family chose names from a small pool – usually Nathan and John.

“But I had two brothers, Thomas Jefferson Kelley and George Washington Kelley,” he said.

The architect Nathan Kelley grew up in Warren County, married and fathered four children, two of whom died before reaching adulthood. He learned about architecture by watching his farmer father.

“If he wanted a building, he built it. He didn’t have an architect to consult.”

Kelley, born in 1808, died in 1871 after being paralyzed for a year and a half. One of his sons died not long afterwards of spinal meningitis.

“We were a poor family,” Passerrello said of Kelley who also designed the some asylums, the building that is now the Columbus Club, and the Hayden bank building that sits across the street from the Statehouse.

Kelley’s widow Melinda and surviving child returned to Warren County where she lived out her life and is buried there. Several members of the Kelley family are buried at Green Lawn but have no markers.

First Saturday is presented each month by the Green Lawn Volunteers. The next program, Aug. 2, celebrates the 160th anniversary of the establishment of the cemetery. Volunteers will share information about the founding of the cemetery that has grown to 360 acres, the second largest in Ohio. More than 150,000 people are buried there.

One of those is former baseball player and manager Billy Southworth who is being enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame on Sunday, July 27. Green Lawn will have its own program to honor Southworth at 2 p.m. that day.

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