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Columbus Monthly: City Quotient: Preserving Hope at the Kelton House


Many lessons to be learned at the Kelton House Museum and Garden

The Kelton House on East Town Street is one of the city’s great house museums. I know it has a connection to the Underground Railroad, but what are some other facts about its history? That 1852 house at 586 East Town St. is a landmark for its place on the Underground Railroad, yes. It’s also a marvel of architecture, a memorial to the high-achieving family who lived there and a testament to preservation.

Fernando Cortez Kelton (no one knows why he had Hispanic first and middle names) was a Vermont-born merchant who came to Columbus in the 1830s and thrived as a dry goods wholesaler. He and wife Sophia (married in 1841) built their Italianate/Greek Revival house out in what was the country at the time. Ardent abolitionists, they sheltered escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad, including Martha Hartway, who lived there 10 years until her 1874 marriage in the front parlor. A Kelton son died in the Civil War in 1864, and in 1865 Fernando was a pallbearer when Abraham Lincoln’s body came through Columbus on its way to Illinois.

Fernando died the next year, and Sophia in 1888, but the house stayed in the family. It was last owned by Fernando and Sophia’s granddaughter Grace Bird Kelton, who trained in New York City and had an interior design firm in Columbus; she worked with Jacqueline Kennedy on restoration of the White House, along with other members of the American Institute of Interior Designers. Upon her death at 94 in 1975, Grace’s will left the house—with its original family furnishings—to the Columbus Foundation, to be used for educational purposes and stipulated that otherwise it should be demolished (because she feared its conversion to cheap apartments). The Junior League of Columbus, the non-profit women’s organization, took over management of the house and for more than four decades has made it a must-see museum and event venue.

I’ve heard the name James Poindexter here and there. Who was he? James Preston Poindexter (1819–1907) was a Baptist minister active in abolition, civil rights and politics. He identified as African-American, but also had white and Native American roots. Beginning his working life as a barber in his native Virginia, he moved to Columbus at the age of 12, where he continued barbering. In 1849 he was ordained as a minister and later served on Columbus City Council and on the board of Ohio University. Poindexter was memorialized in an East Side public housing project along North Champion Avenue, one of the country’s first, completed late in 1940 and named Poindexter Village. President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the project, and many former residents fondly recall the cohesiveness and welcoming character of a neighborhood that was a great place to grow up. Life in Poindexter was perhaps best memorialized in the work of one of its best-known residents, artist Aminah Robinson.