Life in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America)

Senior Architect, David Tritt, reflects on his experience as a VISTA volunteer and the community building that was part of this experience.

When I was young and straight out of grad school I took on the challenge of volunteer service for a couple of years in AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), working as a staff member at community centers in both Chicago and Columbus, Ohio.  The job in Columbus was to fill the role of a full time community organizer at South Side Settlement House. It should be noted that I had zero experience in community organizing, but I learned a lot about it in a very short time.

In my experience, the challenges faced by most citizen neighborhood groups are around issues of housing, landlord-tenant relationships, medical care, and hunger. The basic needs of food, shelter, and health care are not being met. I tried to apply my architectural and planning background as best I could while working with professional social workers on each of these issues.  The job involved many challenges besides community organizing.  There were the day to day immediate needs, as well as long-term needs like providing heat and food.  

 A little background on this community that South Side Settlement served: there were three culturally divergent groups that made up this working-class neighborhood.  The oldest group, the original settlers, were eastern European immigrants arriving at the beginning of the 20thCentury.  Hence the establishment of the settlement house that I was assigned to for my VISTA service.  At the time of the first World War a steel industry developed just south of the area and many African American families moved up from southern states to obtain jobs in the mills. A similar influx arrived during the second World War as well, composed mostly of Appalachian white families from West Virginia to fill similar types of jobs.  The steel industry somewhat died though in the Sixties leaving a great deal of unemployment. As a result, the needs of the economically-challenged community were to be partially addressed by South Side Settlement through the neighborhood planning group, the Reeb-Hosack Area Planning Committee, to which I was assigned.

A historic montage of some of the housing, adjacent steel mill, and commercial strip in the Reeb-Hosack Neighborhood of Columbus at the time of my service with VISTA. Also shown, in the lower right corner, is the original South Side Settlement House building which has been demolished.

 As pictured in the photos, fine examples of early 20th Century housing were built in the area.  I feel that the structures reflect the solidity and stability of the families in the neighborhood. There were families that went back generations and I made many friends.  More photos of the area’s typical housing are below.

In terms of community organizing, when working in Columbus most of my time at South Side Settlement was spent in support of the Reeb-Hosack Area Planning Committee.  I worked with a professional MSW social worker, Marti Abel, in this regard. The committee was composed of long time neighborhood residents, including several ministers and other neighborhood leaders. Again, the idea was to come up with a simple policy plan and implement it.  The portion of the policy plan that was most pressing was housing, as well as providing a new and expanded community center for use by the South Side Settlement which was established in the early 20th Century. Funding for housing was scarce. We did however get a new facility built for the Settlement House.  One success!  Another victory was getting a community health clinic into the existing Settlement House, but other policy implementations lingered.

 Other VISTA volunteers at South Side Settlement contributed to other programs while I worked around planning, zoning, and architectural issues. Leslie Avyazian for example(now a very successful New York playwright) worked with teens and formed theater groups (which helped with educational needs such as literacy), and Debbie Thea established a very successful food co-op working with adults.  Miriam Flock (now a professor at Santa Clara University) established a weekly neighborhood newspaper, the South Side Express.

Other VISTA volunteers: Leslie Ayvazian and Miriam Flock.

As far as my work with the planning committee, it involved many neighborhood meetings, and as a part of this planning process seed money for construction of a new and expanded Settlement House became available through the United Way.  Funding for the Settlement House was primarily from the local Methodist Church, but the United Way contributed too. South Side Settlement was a very progressive organization involved in many social change initiatives.  So, in order to facilitate and expand social and political involvement, a new facility was an important item in the new policy plan we were developing. With a grant from the Ohio Arts Council I was able to make an 8mm movie of the architectural programming process for the new facility to be used in our fund raising effort (which turned out to be very successful).  One of the activities I filmed was asking kids from the neighborhood what a new settlement house could be by giving them boxes, fans, and plastic to make what they perceived to be interesting architecture, and to get their take on what the new building could be.  This was done in the gym of the existing settlement house and a still from the movie is below:

Also from the movie were programming sessions with adults and teens shown here:

Left to right: officers of the Reeb-Hosack planning committee, Reverend Patterson from the neighborhood, and other interested parties from other parts of Columbus. The furthest to the right is Dick Celeste’s younger brother and campaign manager. Celeste later became Governor of Ohio and then
Director of the Peace Corps.

I was asked by the board of directors to take a first pass at an architectural scheme incorporating the citizen input gathered to that point. There was a plot of land already owned by the Settlement House a block away from their existing facility for this new building to be constructed.  This scheme (Scheme #1) is shown below and was used in the fund raising effort:

New South Settlement House, Scheme 1.

At this point, I was 25 years old and had taken the architectural effort as far as I could on my own while working with the community.  So with the support of the board of directors and Barbara Stovall, the director of South Side Settlement (shown on next page),I put together a list of architectural firms for the board to interview. Barbara and the board settled upon Robert Mangurian and Craig Hodgetts of Studio WORKS, based in New York and Los Angeles.  

Barbara Stovall, South Side Settlement Director.

So at this point I went to New York to work on the project.  Because of hot summer weather in Manhattan, we ended up working in Centerbrook, Conn. instead. Pictured below is the resultant Scheme 2 that came out of that summer’s work at Studio WORKS offices:

Left to right: Craig Hodgetts, Robert Mangurian, Thane Roberts with Scheme 2 in Centerbrook, CT.

Scheme 2 was being completed with a bona fide architectural team using the community programming effort previously established in Columbus. Scheme 2 furthered the fund-raising effort, particularly after it was published in DOMUS magazine, as well as in Progressive Architecture magazine as a winner in its annual awards program. Both publications are seen here:

DOMUS magazine's spread for the Progressive Architecture Annual Design Awards (publicity for Scheme 2 in the fund raising effort).

As it turned out, a third scheme was needed because the fund raising program through the United Way, the Methodist Church, and the Board of Directors for Scheme #2 fell slightly, ever so slightly, short.  But not because of their effort, which was enthusiastic, professional, and thorough.  But time ran out, so the program of space had to be pared down through my first experience of “value engineering”. The new architectural scheme in response to the reduced program and budget was done by Studio WORKS in their new offices in Venice, California. It was developed quickly in order to get construction started with the Gardner Construction Company, who were ready to sign a contract.

At that point, I was enlisted to do the Construction Administration in Columbus, and I have to say it was a pleasure to work with Gardner.  Below is a photo of President Jack Lee, the Gardner rep, Barbara Stovall, and me at the contract signing:

Below is a photo of the Scheme #3 study model along with a photo of the same façade view under construction:

Various construction photos showing progress on the courtyard space:

Some final photos, including a shot of the cover of Progressive Architecture magazine which featured the final scheme:

The final construction scheme was featured in
Progressive Architecture magazine.

After over100 years of continuous operation serving the community, South Side Settlement was forced to close in 2011 due to lack of funding.  I am told that the city took over the property and demolished the building.  The following photos show the demise of South Side Settlement House. A park, South Side Settlement Heritage Park, opened in 2016 with basketball courts, a playground and a rain garden, has taken its place.  

I look back on the photos now and reflect on the time I spent there as a VISTA volunteer.  It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. There was so much more to the experience than what I have outlined here. For this was just one part of the VISTA projects and people that I knew at that time. I will never forget it!

Blog Post written by David Tritt, Senior Architect. Photos are from David's personal collection.

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