While the Fairmount Park Conservancy has called the stately historic building of Ohio House its home in West Fairmount Park since 2021, the 147 year old house has a storied past.
Located in the Centennial District of West Fairmount Park, the Ohio House is the only remaining “state building” from Philadelphia’s Centennial International Exhibition, also known as the World’s Fair of 1876.
The building is called “Ohio House,” because it acted as the state exhibit for Ohio at the World’s Fair, showcasing sandstone mined from 21 quarries in the Buckeye State, which was then utilized for the building’s construction. The Gothic Revival-style structure was open intermittently after the Fair, and had been shuttered for decades before briefly reopening in 1976 for the Bicentennial celebration. It became the Centennial Cafe in 2007, then the Hungry Bear Cafe before closing in 2016.
The Ohio House sits within 700 acres originally identified by Frederick Law Olmsted as the location for the city’s first purpose-built urban park. Today, West Fairmount Park is home to anchor institutions that attract two million visitors each year. The park acts as a bridge, connecting the Philadelphia Zoo with the Please Touch Museum, Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, and Fairmount Park Horticultural Center.
The adaptive reuse of the Ohio House for the Conservancy’s new headquarters marked a pivotal return to the roots of Philadelphia’s parks and the organization’s identity. The Conservancy officially relocated to the Ohio House in summer 2021, which has since served as a hub for operations and internal and external meeting space. While the Conservancy’s mission is to serve all of the city’s parks, by committing to this location in the heart of West Park, our organization will be further entrenched and engaged in the surrounding West Philadelphia community.
In order to make Ohio House “home” to the Conservancy and its growing team, the building required major exterior and interior renovations to ensure the 3,500-square foot historic structure balanced modern needs and safety standards with historic preservation. The Conservancy’s skilled team of conservators fully restored all three porches, replaced two rotten floor structures, strengthened and patched the original brickwork on the chimneys, removed a three inch slab of concrete covering a large section of original flooring, and added partition walls that could be removed later, if needed, without damaging the house. Exterior work took about seven months and interior work required about six months.
“The completion of the Ohio House would not have been possible without the extraordinary support of our donors the Otto Haas Charitable Trust, Ballard Spahr, and the 1772 Foundation,” said Maura McCarthy, CEO of Fairmount Park Conservancy, “The Conservancy is grateful for their generous contributions to this project and the mission critical work that it supports.”
On May 22, 2023, the Conservancy was joined by funders, partners, key community leaders, and elected officials to celebrate the grand opening of the Conservancy’s headquarters at the newly renovated Ohio House and the establishment of the Center for Parks. Speakers included Mark Stewart, Chair of Ballard Spahr, and Alice Ballard, President of the Law Offices of Alice W. Ballard, who shared Ballard Spahr’s support of the Center for Parks and commemorated the naming dedication of Ohio House’s conference room – the newly named, Frederic L. Ballard, Jr. Conference Center – in memory and celebration of Rick Ballard, a civic and corporate leader and the son of Fairmount Park Conservancy co-founder, Ernesta Ballard. The Conservancy was also thrilled to unveil the Eicher Family Vestibule, in recognition of the generosity and leadership of the organization’s President and Chair, Carol Eicher. It is Carol’s hope that her gift inspires other individuals to dig deep in support of our parks and all that they do for the health and vitality of our region.
Since the Conservancy’s relocation in 2021, the Ohio House and its 3-acre footprint in West Fairmount Park have become our base for operations and an easy way for park users and volunteers to access the programming, volunteer days, and other events we offer. In a perfect example of activating this space for our work, earlier this year the Conservancy’s Volunteer Manager utilized Ohio House’s large conference room as a meeting space to lead a cohort of 10 future leaders through a six week Volunteer Leadership Program. The goal of the program was to educate and train these future leaders about different program areas led by the Conservancy, in order to develop the leaders’ skill sets and build capacity around these essential program areas.
Relocating the Conservancy’s office space from downtown Philadelphia to the Ohio House within West Fairmount Park has been extremely beneficial – physically drawing us into closer interaction with a large body of our work while also building a deeper sense of connectivity with the parks we steward and our institutional and community partnerships within the Centennial District. We are excited to continue our work to establish the Ohio House – the new Center for Parks – as a gateway to Fairmount Park and a public-facing hub for community events and volunteer days for hundreds of volunteer park stewardship groups and thousands of nearby neighbors.