Eiffel tower

The Eiffel Tower replicates all that remains of Columbus Walk O’ Wonders

Paris is so beautiful at this time of year. Or at least this little slice of Paris, nestled in a wooded lot in suburban Columbus.

“She’s there,” said Steve Skilken, 72, president of real estate firm Joseph Skilken & Co., pointing to the 22-foot-tall wrought-iron Eiffel Tower replica on one of his properties.

The tower somehow blends into the line of the trees, its criss-crossing metal beams mimicking barren branches as they silhouette against the setting sun. But it’s distinctly Parisian, even at 1/48th the size of the original.

This Eiffel Tower is not just an ornamental decoration of a local Francophile. It is the last remaining artifact of the Walk O’ Wonders, a bygone monument from the top of Columbus created by Skilken’s father and local development tycoons.

From the 1950s, the Great Western Shopping Center on the Hilltop housed the Walk O' Wonders, detailed replicas of some of the wonders of the world.  All were eventually destroyed when the exhibit closed, except for one: a 22-foot-tall wrought-iron replica of the Eiffel Tower that now stands on suburban Columbus property owned by Steve Skilken.  His daughter, Blake, 18, stands with the replica in February.

A piece of Hilltop history at the Great Western Shopping Center

Opened in 1955, the Walk O’ Wonders was an outdoor exhibit that occupied a 700-by-60-foot strip in the parking lot of the Great Western Shopping Center. What started as a way to lure shoppers to the new mall has become a roadside attraction for residents and travelers alike.

The Walk O’ Wonders had seven attractions, including a 20-foot-tall Leaning Tower of Pisa; a Grand Canyon 40 feet long and 8 feet deep; a miniature desert landscape with the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx; and working Niagara Falls that pumped 1 million gallons of water a day. And, of course, there was the Eiffel Tower.

The exhibit was developed by Don Casto Sr. and Don Casto Jr., owners of the Columbus Casto development company. It was designed by Skilken’s father, Joe, and built by local artist Ivan Pusecker.

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Don Casto Sr. is widely credited with developing the nation’s first shopping malls with the Bank Block in Grandview Heights and Town & Country in Whitehall. He and he and his son wanted to create a similar retail experience on the West Side of Columbus.

The Castos were initially interested in the property that later became Westland Mall, but when that fell through they settled on property owned by Skilken’s uncle on the corner of West Broad Street and Wilson Road, Skilken said .

The only problem, Skilken said, was that the Westland site was a slightly better property and anchor tenants like JC Penney and Gray Drug Store had already committed to it. So to convince these businesses to move to Great Western, the Castos threw an elaborate party for all the tenants.

As the event continued and revelers continued to soak in, according to Skilken, a potential tenant asked Don Casto Sr. why he should choose Great Western over Westland. He replied, “Because we’re going to have the Seven Wonders of the World in the parking lot.” And that was enough for some of the Westland tenants to agree that night to move to Great Western.

Don Casto III, who is currently partnering with CASTO, said the story of that evening was “probably apocryphal” at this point, but the Walk O’ Wonders was a prime example of his grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit. dad.

“He believed strongly in the value of promotion,” Casto said. “I have no idea where the idea came from. He had traveled a lot. But he really believed that if you had something that magnificent, people would come.”

Most of the miniatures were made of cement and plaster, with the exception of the Eiffel Tower. They have been meticulously designed to resemble the real sites as closely as possible.

The project was a massive financial undertaking, Skilken said. The Walk O’ Wonders cost as much to build as Great Western itself – around $250,000 in total – so its success was crucial to the mall.

Walk O’Wonders has become a way of seeing the world

It didn’t take long for the Walk O’ Wonders to become a landmark in its own right.

When the Great Western Shopping Center officially opened in 1955, the Walk O’ Wonders alone drew hundreds of visitors, Skilken said.

It was not just an attraction to attract buyers. The Walk O’ Wonders became a way for people to see the world without leaving Columbus. Air travel to Europe was still relatively new, Skilken said, and not everyone could afford such luxurious trips.

This ad from the March 14, 1956 edition of The Columbus Dispatch highlights the 22-foot Eiffel Tower replica that was installed at the Great Western Shopping Center in the 1950s.

Casto, who was about 8 years old at the time, said he remembered buses full of school children regularly visiting the exhibit so students could see these replicas of the wonders of the world.

“Most school kids wouldn’t get a chance to see sights like this themselves,” he said.

Linda Hoffman, a 74-year-old Hilltop resident and member of the Hilltop Historical Society, remembers the Walk O’ Wonders well. Her mother worked at Glick Furniture located in Great Western, and she often walked around the parking lot with her father waiting for her mother to finish with customers.

“For anyone growing up on the hill, it was something else,” Hoffman said.

But for all its splendor, the Walk O’ Wonders was also a security concern for Great Western.

Skilken said the Ohio State University fraternity brothers would often sneak out at night to take drunken photos next to the Sphinx. Children were pouring soap into Niagara Falls, causing pipes to clog and bubbles to spill into other exhibits.

The Walk O’ Wonders survived for more than a decade before the majority of the attraction was bulldozed in the 1970s, according to a 2010 Dispatch article. But the Eiffel Tower remained there for several more years. It was finally removed when the parking lot was redone in 1979.

Steve Skilken, chairman of Joseph Skilken & Co., stands next to a 22-foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower in a June 1987 Dispatch file photograph.

By then, Skilken said, his father had passed away and he was running the family business. Skilken asked Don Casto Jr. if he could take the Eiffel Tower. He agreed, so they moved him out of the parking lot on a flatbed truck.

Although the Walk O’ Wonders is primarily remembered at this point only by those who saw it themselves and those close to its creators, Skilken said the exhibit was an important cultural landmark at the time for the city ​​and neighborhood.

And for the few people who sometimes wonder if the Eiffel Tower is still there and call Skilken to ask, he gives an appropriate answer: “Yes, yes.”

This story is part of Dispatch’s Mobile Newsroom initiative. Visit our reporters at the Whitehall Branch Library of the Columbus Metropolitan Library and read their work at dispatch.com/mobilenewsroom, where you can also sign up for The Mobile Newsroom newsletter.

Sheridan Hendrix is ​​a higher education reporter at the Columbus Dispatch. You can reach her at shendrix@dispatch.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @sheridan120. Sign up for its Mobile Newsroom newsletter here and for its education newsletter here.