$19 million renovation breathes new life into historic Arcade, adds housing units and enhances downtown Newark business district

Story by The Reporting Project team
Photos by Andrew Theophilus

Like a team of doctors and nurses who work feverishly to save a patient on the brink of death, the crew of craftsmen and women reviving the historic Arcade in downtown Newark walk with their heads high and smiles on their faces.

Even at the end of a hard day on the job.

“They are so proud of the work they are doing here,” said Project Manager Blake Swick, of Robertson Construction in Heath, the main contractor on the job.

The plaster dust on their hard hats and century-old grime on their boots are evidence of their tedious, strenuous work. They’re digging into the ceiling, walls and floors to shore up and restore a century-old, glass-topped shopping center that had fallen into such disrepair that some in town might have wondered if it could be saved.

But as they pack up at the end of each day, the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, drywallers, glaziers, painters and others leave knowing that they are preserving history. They are preparing a place for commerce and celebrations as soon as this October, when they are scheduled to complete a $19 million renovation of what was a revolutionary enclosed shopping mall when it opened east of the courthouse in 1911 at 33 N. 3rd St.

“And clearly our community really loves this building,” said Megan Ernest, administrative manager for Newark Development Partners, the nonprofit that bought the building in 2019. “We've actually received $12 million in pledges from our community, which is the majority of our funding for the project.”

Blake Swick, the project manager from Robertson Construction, is one of many working to bring the historic Arcade in Newark, Ohio back to life.

Blake Swick, the project manager from Robertson Construction, is one of many working to bring the historic Arcade in Newark, Ohio back to life.

The exterior of the Arcade's entrance on North 3rd Street. Credit: Alan Miller

The exterior of the Arcade's entrance on North 3rd Street. Credit: Alan Miller

It’s not only a landmark in downtown, but it also holds a lot of fond memories for the people of Licking County.

At its inception, The Arcade became the beating heart of downtown Newark. As originally built, it had 23 storefronts, but at its peak, 30 businesses operated there. Children came to play in the fountain at the center of the enclosed alleyway, and rumors have circulated about a speakeasy on the second floor and poker parties in the basement. Dances were a weekly occurrence, and an orchestra would serenade shoppers during their visits.

The original facade of the Arcade. Credit: Newark Development Partners

The original facade of the Arcade. Credit: Newark Development Partners

“If you think of the malls from the 1980s and 1990s, they were popular hangouts,” Ernest said. “That's where everybody went to shop and hang out. That was the arcade back in the 1900s up until probably the 1950s or 1960s” when the automobile and suburban shopping centers drew shoppers away from downtowns across the country.

The much larger Arcade in Cleveland was the first indoor shopping center in the U.S., dating to May of 1890, and it underwent a $60 million restoration in 2001 to return it to its original grandeur, according to Theclevelandarcade.com.  During a 52-year period starting in 1876, eight arcades were built in Ohio with glass roofs. Of the eight, four remain – two in Cleveland, one each in Dayton and Newark. 

The restoration of Newark’s Arcade is happening just a few doors north of another significant historic preservation project in downtown Newark to restore the former Home Building Association banking office now known as the Sullivan Building. The “Old Home” building is one of eight “jewel box” buildings designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan. That $14 million project will wrap up in 2025, and the building will become home to the Explore Licking County tourism office.

Nearby businesses have been affected by the construction projects to varying degrees.

The parking lot behind Buckeye Winery, located next door to The Arcade at 25 N. 3rd St., has been occupied by construction equipment and materials. Despite the temporary inconvenience, the project will be worth the wait, said winery manager Zack Hughes.

“We’re really hoping it will bring a lot of foot traffic,” he said. “Buckeye Winery is excited to see it open again.”

Mariposa Mexican Cuisine, located a few doors southeast of the Arcade, has not felt the same impact from the construction. Front of house manager Jessica Borland echoed Hughes’ sentiments regarding the positive impact that The Arcade’s reopening could have on other downtown establishments.

“To be honest, (the construction) hasn’t really bothered us,” she said. “I think that it’s gonna bring more people down here, so I think that it’s gonna increase our business here.”

Kim Saxour, who has headed Gallery of Dreams at 37 N. 3rd St. for 14 years, said her business has been down during the Arcade renovation.

“It’s affecting us horribly. The contractors that work on it park out front,” Saxour said. “The construction has been a mess out front. They have the sidewalk closed off continually, off and on. If (potential customers) don’t see parking, a lot of people will just simply not stop, unfortunately.”

Saxour said she thinks that, when complete this fall, the renewed Arcade will help Gallery of Dreams generate business.

A rendering of what will be the restored Arcade. Credit: Northpoint Ohio Architecture

A rendering of what will be the restored Arcade. Credit: Northpoint Ohio Architecture

The Arcade restoration project includes a couple of connected buildings that date to the 1880s, which adds character to the complex and complications to the restoration process.

“A lot of what we do when we’re restoring buildings is trying to understand how they originally went together, seeing if that makes sense to bring back. … In this case, the elevator that was added in the 1980s kind of went down through the main arcade, ruining the sightlines of it, ” said Melinda Shah, vice president of Schooley Caldwell in Columbus and an architect who specializes in historic preservation.

In addition to the retail space being restored on the first floor, The Arcade complex will include 19 apartments on the second and third floors. They will be studio and one-bedroom units. 

Mixed use development has already shown success in Newark. The downtown area boasts 80 residential units on the upper floors of mostly Victorian-era commercial buildings ringing Newark’s Courthouse Square and stretching into some side streets near the courthouse.

“By the end of the year, we’ll have well over 100,” Ernest said.

Shah said that one of the most challenging aspects of this project has been strategically re-engineering the parts of the building that had seen structural modification and were potentially deficient by modern standards.

As a result, for example, they have used 21 tons of structural steel to date for a project they originally estimated would require five tons of steel.

Much of the work that is so important to updating an old building for safety and convenience has been done, and most of it will never be seen by the public. They’ll see the many sheets of new glass in the ceiling over the main corridor, and the freshly painted steel that holds it in place. But they won’t see the structural steel in the floors and walls, or the new plumbing and wiring.

“As much of a mess as it looks like now, we have made so much progress,” Shah said, noting that construction began in 2021.

Happily, she said, it no longer has the distinction of being home to the oldest continuously operating fire-suppression sprinkler system in the country – which had become so unreliable that the building was on a constant fire watch.

Longtime Licking County residents who remember a fountain at the center of the Arcade will not find that feature in the renovated building. Its low berm was deemed a trip hazard, and the shallow pool was considered too much of a dangerous temptation for small children.

What comes next is all that will make it beautiful – and look like a building from 1911 but with all the comforts and features of a modern building.

Because downtown Newark is on the National Register of Historic Places, the owners pursued state and federal tax credits to help with the restoration. That also means the restoration must follow federal historic preservation guidelines to ensure that the historic character of the building is maintained.

As a result, Shah said the priority is to retain and fix up original elements of the building, and “when it’s not possible to restore, we replace it. … It will function like a modern building but look like an old building.”  

Ernest said Newark Development Partners have letters of intent for all of the commercial units and a waiting list of businesses that would like to locate there. She was quick to note that two former tenants, a strip club and a bar, will not be returning.

She anticipates special events and, perhaps, an indoor farmer’s market during the winter when the farmer’s market isn’t operating in the outdoor Canal Market District south of the courthouse.

And Ernest said there will be a celebration of The Arcade and the preservation of local history.

“Oh, yes,” she said with a smile. “We’re going to have a party.”

These journalists from The Reporting Project contributed to this story: Emmet Anderson, Caliyah Bennett, Torria Catrone, Brin Glass, Noah Fishman, Annie Kennedy, Julia Lerner, Alan Miller, Jack Nimesheim, and Andrew Theophilus.

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