One of Columbus’s largest urban neighborhoods, just west of downtown, Hilltop has a checkered history that may surprise even some longtime residents of the city.
The land was originally owned by Lucas Sullivant, who founded Franklinton and left 1,600 acres of what is now the Hilltop to his two sons, William and Michael.
In its early days the area was known as Sullivant’s Hill.
The Great Flood of 1913 along the Scioto River nearly destroyed neighboring Franklinton and prompted people to move to higher ground on the hill, which flourished as a community through the first half of the 20th century.
The construction of several shopping malls in the area and suburban robbery in the 1950s and 1960s influenced Hilltop’s rapid decline. It was not until the 1980s that interest in the community was awakened.
Here are six things you might not know about the history of the Hilltop neighborhood of Columbus:
1. It Housed One of the Largest Civil War Camps in the North
One of the largest Union Army POW camps during the Civil War once stood on the hill.
Camp Chase, a 160-acre training camp for Ohio Volunteers for the Union Army was turned into a POW camp, housing thousands of Confederate soldiers captured during the Civil War.
At its peak, the camp held 9,423 prisoners in January 1865 before closing in July of that year.
Today, the cemetery –– a small two-acre plot built in 1863 –– is all that remains. Its entrance is at 2900 Sullivant Ave.
The Hilltop branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library sits on land that once housed sick prisoners, branch manager John Tetzloff said.
Although the vast majority of the camp was dismantled after the war and was lost to time, a memorial service has been held at the cemetery on the second Sunday in June every year since 1895. The service was first held by the former Union Col. William H. Knauss, and is now sponsored by the Hilltop Historical Society.
Local interest in the cemetery and its history has kept the memory of Camp Chase alive. In 2009, Recovery Act funds were used to repair headstones in the cemetery, and a local artist, Curtis Goldstein, painted a mural on Camp Chase in nearby Westgate Park.
2. It hosted the lesser-known Seven Wonders of the World
Columbus had its own seven wonders of the world, conveniently located next to each other in a hilltop mall.
The exhibit, called Walk O’ Wonders, opened in front of the Great Western Shoppers Mart parking lot in 1956 and was free to the public.
The exhibit featured mini-replicas of the Eiffel Tower, standing 22 feet tall; Niagara Falls, with 1 million gallons of water flowing daily; the Taj Mahal; the Sphynx and the Great Pyramids; the Parthenon; a 20-foot-tall Leaning Tower of Pisa; a Grand Canyon eight feet deep and 40 feet long; Carlsbad Caverns; and the Trevi Fountain.
The attraction, dreamed up by mall developer Don Casto at a cost of $250,000, occupied a 700-by-60-foot strip in the mall’s parking lot.
The exhibit, however, was frequently vandalized. Children were pouring soap powder into Niagara Falls and maintenance was difficult, according to The Dispatch records, which ultimately led to the exhibit’s demise.
Most of the wonders were razed and destroyed in the 1970s after several years of decline. The Eiffel Tower, however, remained intact and stood for another seven years at the center before finding a new home in a private residence in 1979.
Although the exhibit closed decades ago, the Walk O’ Wonders seems to have held a place in the hearts of many locals.
A June 1987 Dispatch column extolled the benefits of having the tourist attraction, mourned its loss, and argued for bringing the wonders back to Columbus, only indoors.
3. Jesse Owens lived on the hill when Ohio State wouldn’t let him live on campus
Jesse Owens, a black man who won four medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympics, lived on the hill while attending Ohio State University.
He lived in a house on South Oakley Avenue because the state of Ohio then did not allow black students to live in dormitories. His old house is on the West Highlands Art Walk.
Owens died in 1980 of lung cancer. He was 66 years old.
In 2001, the 10,000-seat Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium opened at Ohio State. It hosts track and field events, as well as lacrosse and soccer matches.
4. Jazz great Nancy Wilson calls Hilltop home
Nancy Wilson, a nationally known jazz singer who died in 2018 at the age of 81 after more than 50 years in the music industry, lived on the hill. She attended West High School.
Wilson has won three Grammy Awards for her work, which has also gone platinum, and has released over 60 albums.
Chillicothe-born Wilson began singing in church at a young age and was performing in local clubs by the age of 15. In 1956, she became a member of Rusty Bryant’s band in Columbus and left town three years later when she got a recording contract. with Capitol Records.
She then received an Emmy for her 1974-1975 television variety show and was known for her clear voice.
5. Michael Redd grew up there too
Michael Redd — an Ohio State University alumnus, former NBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist — grew up on the hill and attended Columbus West High School.
He played at Ohio State from 1998 to 2000.
In 2000, he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and became an NBA All-Star in 2004. He was also a five-time team MVP and won a gold medal in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics.
He was also inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame and the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.
Redd retired in 2013 and moved back to Columbus, where he is now an investor, philanthropist and businessman. He was the keynote speaker at an Ohio State graduation in August 2020.
6. The tallest building in the country – before the Pentagon – stood at the top of the hill
Built on the hill in 1877, Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital was the tallest building in the nation for more than 70 years until 1943 when the Pentagon was built.
The former hospital, which opened as Ohio Lunatic Asylum, was built where the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s Charles D. Shipley Building now stands at 1970 W Broad St., just inside the boundaries of Hilltop.
It was the first state-supported hospital in Ohio and has had many names over the years, including Columbus State Hospital and Ohio State Hospital for Insane.
The design was state-of-the-art, according to The Dispatch records, and featured an administration building with different departments on either side, with patients organized by gender and symptoms.
At the time, 90% of all psychiatric care in Columbus was offered on Hilltop. Hilltop Hospital grew over time and had up to 3,500 patients at its peak, with most having returned to the community.
After falling into disrepair in the 1980s, the building was demolished in 1991, according to The Dispatch records. Many did not want the historic building razed, in part because it was designed by a doctor.
This story is part of Dispatch’s Mobile Newsroom initiative. Visit our reporters at the Hilltop Branch Library of the Columbus Metropolitan Library and read their work at dispatch.com/mobilenewsroomwhere you can also subscribe to The Mobile Newsroom Newsletter.