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Friendly and flourishing

Columbus, Ohio, has much to offer, including the locals

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- How friendly is the Buckeye State's biggest city? So friendly that we kept a log of such experiences during two fall trips. Our favorite was the coffeehouse customer who, after hearing my friend's query about finding a breakfast place, dashed out to the sidewalk to give him a recommendation and directions.

And meeting the locals is only half the fun. The state capital, with a population of more than 700,000, offers a lively arts scene, restaurants of all stripes, university attractions, parks, a world-class zoo and aquarium, and college and pro sports.

Over the years the city leveled downtown buildings to make room for skyscrapers and parking lots, yet three vintage theaters -- the Palace, Ohio, and Southern -- were spared and restored as cultural centers. The Palace primarily hosts touring productions while the Ohio counts the Columbus Symphony, BalletMet, and Columbus Jazz Orchestra among its marquee attractions. The Southern is home to the 27-year-old ProMusica Chamber Orchestra.

The only professional resident theater, Contemporary American Theatre Company, stages plays at Studio One in the Riffe Center, a downtown high-rise complex across from the State House.

Ohio State University provides performing spaces for other series. Opera Columbus presents four productions a year and sponsors the Irma M. Cooper Opera Columbus Vocal Competition at Weigel Hall. CityMusic uses Fawcett Center Auditorium for its fall and winter world music concerts. CityMusic also presents a chamber music series at the Elevator Brewery & Draught Haus in the Brewery District.

Capital University's Conservatory of Music is a rich resource for classical and jazz programs, most of them free. This fall the school completed installation of the Paul W. and Ella D. Hugus Memorial Pipe Organ in Mees Auditorium. As part of the yearlong celebration, there are concerts with guest organists, among them Alan Morrison and Douglas Cleveland. In April, Capital salutes the jazz department's 30th anniversary with a special edition of its annual Jazz Week Festival.

The college music majors and graduates influence the off-campus music scene, as they often stay in the city. That was the case with jazz drummer Jim Rupp, a Canton, Ohio, native who attended OSU in the mid-1970s and ended up settling here after he tired of touring with Maynard Ferguson, Tony Bennett, and the Woody Herman Big Band. ''It's a good town with good people," he said during a phone interview.

Twenty-four years ago, Rupp founded Columbus Pro Percussion, now one of the country's largest drum and percussion stores and repair service. He also tours with Herman and gigs at local nightspots, including the Columbus Music Hall. The Music Hall is housed in an 1896 firehouse that owner Becky Ogden, a retired music educator, converted to a jazz room. ''The vibe is great," said Rupp.

For visual arts, the Columbus Museum of Art is an antidote to all that's wrong with the world, even if one spends just an hour with paintings and sculpture. Through Jan. 8, the special exhibit is ''Renoir's Women."

The fall's big arts news at OSU was the reopening of the Wexner Center for the Arts. Closed for a three-year, $15.8 million restoration, the Peter Eisenman building opened in 1989 to much acclaim; it was the architect's first concept to be built.

The Wexner's glass and white lines are a lesson in geometry, space, and light, providing a bold place for contemporary art, video, dance, and multimedia ideas. As part of the renewal, the Wexner adopted a free-for-all admission policy. The inaugural exhibit, ''Part Object Part Sculpture," with 100 works, is up through Feb. 26. Throughout the year, there are dance and music concerts, video and film programs.

OSU's huge campus -- 1,755 acres and 50,000 students -- is a city within a city that offers a slew of public events and programs, among them Big Ten sports. On football game days, the OSU marching band performs free in St. John's Arena two hours before kickoff. In October, OSU dedicated the $20 million McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion, a gorgeous new diving and swimming facility that will host the Big Ten championship in February.

As for other neighborhoods to explore, the Short North, south of campus, and German Village, south of downtown, are must-stops. Short North, stretching along North High Street from Spruce Street to 5th Avenue, has witnessed an urban renaissance with restaurants, cafes, and art galleries transforming low-rise buildings that escaped the wrecking ball. A 16-page Short North Magazine provides maps of the galleries, shopping, dining, and nightspots, with the dining map listing 42 coffeehouses, cafes, and restaurants.

Short North's historic stop is North Market, circa 1876. Similar to Philadelphia's Reading Market but smaller, the welcoming vendors sell produce, cheese, seafood, baked goods, flowers, kitchenware, and takeout food for all tastes.

German Village, the city's pride of preservation, is a study in brick. Settled by immigrants in the early 19th century, it fell on hard times after World War I and the Depression. In the 1960s, local resident Frank Fetch's renovation of a few buildings started a trend. Today the 233-acre village is on the National Register of Historic Places, with more than 1,600 restored dwellings and buildings. German influences remain at restaurants, bakeries, and beer gardens. Schmidt's Restaurant und Sausage Haus is the place for homemade bratwursts, sausages, and their own brews. Did we mention how friendly the staff was even on a super-busy Saturday evening?

Contact Jan Shepherd, a Boston freelance writer, at

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