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Published: 2/25/2013

Pythian Castle a monument to hard times

Architectural gem left to rot as downtown development takes off

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Pythian Castle, at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Ontario Street, was built in 1890 by a highly secretive organization called the Knights of Pythias.  The Pythian Castle, at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Ontario Street, was built in 1890 by a highly secretive organization called the Knights of Pythias.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Developers like David Ball are visionaries and dreamers. They are occasionally guilty of excessive optimism, but Mr. Ball — one of downtown Toledo’s most active developers — said he can’t remember a time in 30 years in which the central business district has had as much momentum.

New bars, restaurants, boutiques, and loft-style apartments flank Fifth Third Field and the Huntington Center. Those successes, along with historically low interest rates and affordable real estate, have quietly pulled Toledo out of its doldrums and made it one of the more attractive downtowns for investors between Michigan and Georgia, Mr. Ball said.

“Downtown’s doing fine,” he said. “Really, it is.”

That budding optimism, though, is not carried over to one of downtown’s most iconic structures, the 123-year-old Pythian Castle. For now at least, the castle appears destined to be one of the many vacant buildings that are vivid reminders of the city’s economic hardships.

“The story’s kind of a tragedy,” according to Mr. Ball, who said he has been eyeing the Pythian for most of his career and still dreams of building apartments on the upper floors there someday.

The one-of-a-kind castle on Jefferson Avenue and Ontario Street, built in 1890 by a highly secretive fraternal organization called the Knights of Pythias, is an architectural beauty steeped in lore. Rumors of it being haunted by ghosts at various times haven’t quelled the public’s admiration for it.

The much-beloved building hasn’t had tenants since the 1970s. It rots more as the years go by. Pieces of it have, at times, fallen off the exterior and posed safety risks to pedestrians. In 1986, the city blamed the mere weight of pigeons for causing a metal cornice and gutter to come loose six floors high.

Yet some locals have the same stubborn loyalty and affection toward it as they do an old pair of sneakers they’ll never give up.

Kathleen Kovacs, former executive director of Neighborhoods in Partnership, said in a 2004 interview that the Pythian is “one of those buildings I’d chain myself to if there was ever any threat to tear it down.”

Nine years later, the building is deemed too unsafe for firefighters to enter if it catches fire. There are no plans to tear it down, yet local officials fret over what might ultimately happen to it because of how landlocked it is by the Greyhound bus terminal and how expensive it has become to restore.

“The building is in very, very bad shape,” said Matt Sapara, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority vice president for facilities development. “It’s a tragedy. This is a part of Toledo we’ll never get back.”

The Pythian Castle still wows history buffs with its Gothic turrets that jut 185 feet into the downtown skyline. The building is seven years older than the existing Lucas County courthouse, and it offers one of the best views of the courthouse.

The Pythian has been seen for decades as a potential catalyst for more businesses. Developers have dreamed of restaurants and retail on the main floor, like some of downtown Chicago’s historic buildings.

But Mr. Ball said he can’t imagine how many millions of dollars would be needed to gut the Pythian’s interior and bring it up to code. “It would not be a small investment,” he said.

The Pythian has a Romanesque sandstone exterior, but also amazing interior features that include several balconies, sweeping staircases, a large auditorium, grand ballroom, and 30,000 square feet of floor space. The Pythian has a Romanesque sandstone exterior, but also amazing interior features that include several balconies, sweeping staircases, a large auditorium, grand ballroom, and 30,000 square feet of floor space.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Records show the current owner is nearly $30,000 behind on tax payments.

The biggest impediment may not be delinquent tax payments or the building’s sizable restoration costs. It may be the long-term lease held by its next-door neighbor, the Greyhound bus terminal, which occupies land the Pythian would need for parking.

Five years ago, the Lucas County Investment Corp. received a $750,000 state grant to relocate the bus terminal near the city’s train depot. Such mass transit marriages have been arranged for the convenience of travelers in other cities. Relocating Greyhound would have opened up possibilities for redeveloping the whole block where the Pythian sits, officials said.

But according to Mr. Sapara, the grant had to be returned because a New York company that owns the site where Greyhound exists wanted an unreasonable amount of money to break its long-term lease. Mr. Sapara, the LCIC director at the time, said that killed the relocation effort, keeping the Pythian’s greatest obstacle intact.

Records show the building is owned by Toledo’s Pythian Castle LLC, an Ohio limited liability corporation. Calls and emails to Stephen Keller, a Maumee attorney identified on a document as the corporation’s agent, were not returned.

The Pythian has a Romanesque sandstone exterior, but also amazing interior features that include several balconies, sweeping staircases, a large auditorium, a grand ballroom, and more than 30,000 square feet of floor space.

Ford Weber, LCIC president, said the Pythian has “the potential to be very catalytic” for other downtown redevelopment if it can be restored. “People might go out of their way just because of the uniqueness of the building,” Mr. Weber said.

The last two individuals who owned the Pythian, Brian Uram and Robert Shiffler, died in 2011 and 1997, respectively. The Lucas County Coroner’s Office determined suicide was the cause of both deaths.

In a 2004 interview, Mr. Uram said the two had worked in tandem trying to restore the building with more than $250,000 of improvements.

Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat, a former director of the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commission, said he knows Mr. Uram tried especially hard by upgrading some windows and making other improvements. Mr. Ball credited Mr. Uram for staving off additional water damage with a temporary replacement roof.

“He did a heck of a job,” Mr. Herwat said.

The project apparently proved to be too overwhelming, Mr. Ball and Mr. Herwat said.

So, for now, the Pythian sits as a monument to a series of unfortunate events, an architectural treasure in a city rife for redevelopment, landlocked and with a large tax liability.

The building’s been vacant since the 1970s. It landed on former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s so-called “dirty dozen” list of neglected buildings in the mid-1990s. But Mr. Finkbeiner said last week he did not want it torn down. He said he put it on the list as a wake-up call.

Former owner Ed Emery, a Sylvania man who has made several unsuccessful bids for public office, got the Pythian recognized as a landmark by the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, when he owned it.

Mr. Emery was the last owner who kept it at least partially occupied on a regular basis. He operated a 1970s-era youth center from it, with activities ranging from a rock opera to discussions about art, politics, and business. There were classes in philosophy, meditation, and French cooking. A music store, an art studio, and an antiques shop were among the offerings.

“I wish somebody would bring it back to life,” Mr. Emery said. “I still care about the building regardless what happened to it, because it is truly a treasure.”

The castle originally housed the J.W. Green Co., a retail and wholesale dealer in pianos and organs. A 1908 article described the building as “the finest building to be found anywhere entirely devoted to the uses of Pythianism.”

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, or 419-724-6079.



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