In Columbus, Ohio, discovering the charms of German Village


The Book Loft in German Villagein Columbus, Ohio, is a crazy quilt of 32 rooms filled with books, CDs, stationery and more. (Zofia Smardz/The Washington Post)
December 5, 2013

“But doesn’t it sort of remind you of Georgetown?” I insist. “Don’t you think it looks a little like Greenwich Village in New York?”

I think it does, but “no,” replies my husband, very firmly. (Or should I say stubbornly?) “I think it looks like German Village in Columbus, Ohio.”

Well. Talk about a hard nut. But you know, maybe he’s right. This place is different.

If you go: German Village

We’re walking down one of the many tree-shaded, brick-lined streets of, yes, German Village in Columbus, Ohio. To either side of us, neat brick bungalows — a grander Federal or Victorian occasionally elbowing in among them — present their tidy facades and immaculate front yards to our admiring gaze.

Here and there, a lintel sports some carved curlicues, a chimney flaunts a little fancy brickwork, a porch leads to gleamingly ornate wooden doors. But for the most part, there’s not all that much gingerbread around. So why do I feel as if we’ve stepped straight into Hansel-and-Gretel land?

Could it be those droopy evergreens that hug up against so many of the cottages? You know, the kind that cast weird shadows and look as if they’re about to wrap their branchy arms about you. Scary forest trees.

Or maybe — whoa, look at this! A wooden post rises out of one yard and looks googly-eyed at me. Yes, googly-eyed. There’s a fanciful face carved into it. The face of an old man, with a long, flowing beard that ends in some sort of spout or something that hangs over a wooden trough. Hmm. It’s a pump? A well? Who knows? It’s one of those kooky, kitschy woodsy things you’d find in some Teutonic theme park.

Which, I confess, is what I thought German Village was when I first overheard the father of the bride describing it to my husband at the Dayton wedding we’ve recently been to. Okay, I didn’t actually hear the description per se. But I heard the words “German Village,” and pop! Visions of Disney World’s Epcot Center and dirndl-clad dancers danced into my head. Can you blame me?

My husband set me straight later as we contemplated where to overnight on the drive back to Washington. “It’s just a neighborhood in Columbus,” he said, whereupon I exclaimed, “Let’s go there!” I mean, I was a German major in college. How could I not stop in German Village? But my husband didn’t like the Google Maps street view of the area. “It looks boring,” he said. He wanted to stay in downtown Columbus, where there’d be more action, he thought.

Well. Guess who won? And guess who’s glad that I did? We’re both loving our time in this 233-acre historic enclave in Columbus’s south end that, in the 19th century, was the bustling home of mostly working-class German immigrants, with thriving breweries and beer gardens and businesses, and German churches and schools and cultural organizations.

But then came World War I — and suddenly all things German weren’t such good things to trumpet anymore, if you know what I mean. And after WWII? Forget about it. Meanwhile, Prohibition killed the breweries. The neighborhood went downhill, and from there it’s the typical urban tale, just like in, ahem, Georgetown or Greenwich Village.

The area went to seed, the city demolished a big swath of it, and then some hardy pioneer — in this case, a city employee named Frank Fetch — moved in and vowed to restore and preserve the past. And voila — it’s now the most desirable neighborhood in town. Sound familiar?

So familiar, and yet my husband and I can’t figure out how we’d never heard of this great place before (typical East Coasters, I guess). It’s enchanting. Right from the top and our B&B, the German Village Guest House. It’s like our own private cottage. There’s no one around to let us in, just a lockbox that opens into a cozy, beautifully refurbished space fitted out with snazzy contemporary decor. We’re all alone until 10:30 that night, when another couple walk in and disappear straight into their bedroom. We enjoy our wine in the living room undisturbed. (If only I’d realized then about the outdoor fireplace — darn it all.) And they’re gone at the crack of dawn, so breakfast is just a tête-à-tête, too.

But right now we’re on our usual we’ve-been-driving-and-want-to-relax mission: finding a martini for my husband. This takes us over to the main strip of South Third Street, where I spy a sign. No, not for martinis. The Book Loft, it says. Aha! Could this be the bookstore that the bride had urged us to see? “It’s amazing,” she’d said. “It has all these rooms and goes on forever.”

And it’s open daily till 11 p.m.! So after a lovely martini, and then a lovely dinner, we head back up Third Street and into the terraced courtyard beside the store, complete with wrought iron benches and little seating areas — so inviting — and up to the entrance, where, wow! I immediately hit the gold mine at a sale table. A stack of Advent calendars (of course — it’s German Village; I can just imagine it here at Christmas) calls out to me. I can’t resist, natch, and snatch up a half-dozen. Love this place already.

Indoors, it’s a crazy quilt of cramped and overstuffed rooms, 32 of ’em, packed with bargain books and posters and CDs and DVDs. We wander around, up and down narrow staircases, and an hour later we’re not sure whether we’ve gone through all the rooms or just doubled back through the same ones over and over. Not to grind the Hansel-and-Gretel cliche into the ground, but bread crumbs really would have helped.

Late the next morning, we head over to Schmidt’s Sausage Haus on Kossuth Street. This is the village’s signature restaurant and super-popular tourist draw. We, however, have come only to pick up some cream puffs for the road. This is what the place is best known for, we have it on good authority from the mother of the bride. Although, those fresh sausages in the deli case look pretty amazing. The cream puffs, nonetheless — the filling is at least 3 inches high — are to die for, since you asked.

My husband’s face has taken on that longing look he gets in restaurants around mealtime (well, anytime, really), so I offer to buy him lunch here at Schmidt’s, but he declines because he wants to hit the road. Alas for him, I have other ideas. At the German Village Society headquarters in the old Moose Lodge meeting house, we pick up a walking tour map and set off on a quickie cellphone-narrated look at a few highlights of the ’hood.

There’s the old schoolhouse that now houses a senior citizens’ craft shop, and graceful St. Mary’s Church, dedicated in 1868. A pair of modest brewers’ houses contrasts with a grander merchant’s home just up the street. My favorite stop is Schwartz Castle, with its weird back story of local businessman Frederick Schwartz. Jilted by the German fiancee he’d built the grand manor for, he went, um, a little crazy, constructing secret passageways in the house and supposedly five levels of basements. Also, he developed some odd personal habits, like jogging barefoot year-round and sunbathing nude on the turret roof. In the 1800s.

At restful, verdant Schiller Park, I take a look at the statue, cast in Germany and erected here in 1891, of the eponymous poet. Making my way back to the car through a huge throng of Canada geese feeding around the pond (one brazen fellow comes right up to me, searching for a handout, no doubt), I find my husband staring at some imposing homes across the street.

One sports a For Sale sign, so I make him look it up on his iPhone. The price makes our eyes bulge — $850,000! But this is Columbus, Ohio, we exclaim.

And then I think, no, it’s German Village. And at last, my husband agrees. With prices like that, it does remind him of Georgetown.

Zofia Smardz is deputy editor of The Post's Travel section. She joined Travel after eight years editing provocative opinion articles in the Sunday Outlook section.
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