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Location, natural resources, and transportation routes have always played important roles in shaping Ohio’s history and its architecture. Long before Europeans arrived, the earliest inhabitants of present-day Ohio left their mark on the landscape. The prehistoric cultures of the Fort Ancient, Adena, and Hopewell constructed mounds and earthworks, some of which are believed to have been linked by long-vanished roads with earthen walls. The sacred or ceremonial monumental earthen architecture, built to precise geometrical and astronomical specifications, provide valuable insight into the cosmology, religious ceremonies, and belief systems of these ancient American Indian cultures

“Where exactly is Ohio?,” Pulitzer-prize winning Ohio author Louis Bromfield asked. His answer describes the state’s settlement: “It is the farthest west of the east, and the farthest east of the west, the farthest north of the south and the farthest south of the north, and it is probably the richest area of its size in the world.” The area bounded by Pennsylvania on the east, the Ohio River on the south, the Mississippi River on the west, and Canada to the north, was established in 1787 as part of the Northwest Territory. In 1803, Ohio was the first state carved out of the Northwest Territory, which also included what would become the states of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Early Ohio reflected a variety of cultural settlement patterns and religious beliefs, and, through the public land survey, a checkerboard pattern of roads, lots, and farms that still defines the Ohio countryside. This orderly division of land eventually formed eighty-eight counties, which were further subdivided into townships and sections. Land was set aside in each county for schools and a county courthouse that was prominently centered on or overlooking a town square, establishing the governmental and commercial center of the county.

Ohio's nineteenth-century architecture reflects the settlement patterns of the Northwest Territory and a state founded by migrants from the east coast as well as immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Wales, and Eastern European countries. Ohio’s settlers brought their building traditions with them. In south central Ohio, many settlers came from Virginia, Kentucky, and Maryland; as a result, early buildings reflect an upland south and Virginia influence—expressed in classical details and detached or semi-detached dependencies. A prevalent house type in this area features a gable roof and two-story, one-room-deep plan, often with a rear ell. Settlers in northeast Ohio were largely from New England and New York. Early northeast Ohio buildings look much like those of New England, with delicate features of the Federal style or the simpler, more robust details of the Greek Revival. New England town plans were transplanted into village greens and centrally located town squares in many Ohio communities. In addition to these influences, master builders working throughout the state often utilized pattern books and builders’ guides such as Asher Benjamin’s The American Builder’s Companionand Minard Lafever’s The Modern Builder’s Guide. The construction of the National Road through central Ohio brought Pennsylvania Germans and, with them, stone houses, inns, taverns, and pike towns. The National Road, later U.S. 40, passed through Zanesville, Columbus, and Springfield. Zane’s Trace, another early road, cut diagonally across the southeastern corner of the state. These early roads opened the state for westward migration and economic growth.

Ohio’s strategic location between Lake Erie and the Ohio River made it the gateway to the west for early settlers and later this location proved profitable as Ohio’s manufactured goods and farm products were closer than those of any eastern states to the emerging western markets. Cincinnati, the “Queen City of the West,” developed as an early-nineteenth-century trade and cultural center. Between 1820 and 1850, many Ohio communities made the transition from pioneer settlement to agricultural and industrial towns. This period began with the building of the nearly 1,000-mile canal system and ended with the coming of the railroads. The canals—the Ohio and Erie on the eastern side of the state and the Miami on the western side—stimulated both agricultural and industrial development by linking Lake Erie and the Ohio River. But it would be the railroads that would project Ohio into the top ranks of industrial states. Ohio’s location was centered in the expanding system of railroad lines connecting New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore with Chicago, St. Louis, and the expanding west.

From the end of the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century, Ohio was one of the most powerful and diverse economic centers in the United States, and a chief player in America's industrial growth. At the turn of the twentieth century there was scarcely a growing industry in the country in which Ohio did not have a major interest. By 1930, Ohio was the fourth most populous state in the country, with urban centers from Cincinnati on the Ohio River to the Lake Erie port of Cleveland giving testimony to the state's industrial prominence. This industrial growth changed the face of Ohio by means of immigration and urbanization, creating a number of large industrial cities: Toledo (glass-making), Dayton (cash registers), Akron (rubber tires), Cincinnati (soap, aircraft, radios, transit cars), and Cleveland (iron and steel, automobiles, trucks, sewing machines, and electric lighting equipment). While many states have only a few major industrial centers, Ohio boasts a long list of smaller cities that added to the state’s industrial output: Youngstown and Steubenville (steel production), Springfield (agricultural machinery, printing), Mansfield (appliances), Middletown and Portsmouth (steel), Zanesville (clay products), Lima (locomotives), and Chillicothe (paper). Industrialization shaped Ohio’s late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century built environment with technological improvements and new materials, factories, skyscrapers, cultural institutions, urban civic centers, large and impressive homes of industrialists, and planned residential suburbs for workers as well as the wealthy.

Mid-twentieth century Ohio was defined by the postwar production of consumer goods, tremendous expansion in suburban neighborhoods, and the construction of the interstate highway system and the Ohio turnpike. After World War II, Ohio continued to grow and remained a national leader in manufacturing and industry. Ohioans made up 5.3 percent of the nation’s population and produced six percent of the Gross National Product—fourth nationwide. These goods, shipped via roads, rails, river, lake, and air, continued Ohio’s importance as a major distribution center. This continued economic strength found modern architectural expression ranging from International Style modernist corporate headquarters to Wrightian houses and geodesic domes.

The 1970s brought dramatic and lasting change to Ohio. Protests over the Civil Rights and anti-war movements escalated into urban racial tension and riots, and culminated with the fatal shootings of four students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. High labor costs, obsolete factories, competition from foreign imports, and reduction in the state’s natural resources and energy sources caused many industries to leave the state, resulting in loss of jobs and urban decay. Ohio’s post-industrial economy is driven by technology-based service industries and smaller specialty companies. In the twenty-first century, the places that once produced tires, automobiles, and farm implements are coming back as success stories of urban rejuvenation utilizing historic preservation incentives to create housing and commercial spaces. Museums and other institutions designed by prominent international architects place contemporary Ohio architecture in the forefront of design and innovation, from the early experimental work of Peter Eisenman in Columbus and Cincinnati to recent buildings by Kazuyo Sejima in Toledo and Farshid Moussavi in Cleveland.

Still today as throughout its history, Ohio’s diversity and balance between urban and rural, industry and agriculture, northern and southern, eastern and western, not only make it a national test market and political swing state, but a state rich in architectural quality and character.


Knepper, George W. Ohio and Its People. 3rd ed. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2003.

Roos, Frank J., Jr. “Ohio: Architectural Cross-Road.”Journal of The Society of Architectural Historians 12, no. 2 (May 1953): 3-8.

Roseboom, Eugene H., and Francis P. Weisenburger. A History of Ohio.Edited and illustrated by James H. Rodabaugh. Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1996.

Writers’ Program of the Works Progress Administration in the State of Ohio. The Ohio Guide.Sponsored by the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

Writing Credits

Barbara Powers

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