Paris is so lovely this time of year. Or at least this little slice of Paris, tucked away on a wooded lot in suburban Columbus.
“There she is,” said Steve Skilken, 72, president of realty company Joseph Skilken & Co., gesturing to the 22-foot-tall, wrought-iron Eiffel Tower replica on one of his properties.
The tower sort of blends in with the tree line, its criss-crossing metal beams mimicking the barren branches when silhouetted against the sunset. But it is distinctly Parisian, even at 1/48th of the size of the original.
This Eiffel Tower isn’t just an ornamental decoration of a local Francophile. It’s the last remaining artifact of the Walk O’ Wonders, a bygone landmark of Columbus’ Hilltop created by Skilken’s father and local development moguls.
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-foot-by-60-foot strip in the parking lot of Great Western Shopping Center. What began as a way to draw shoppers to the new strip mall became 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 that was 40 feet long and 8 feet deep; a miniature desert landscape featuring the Great Pyramids and Sphinx; and a functioning Niagara Falls that pumped 1 million gallons of water daily. And, of course, there was the Eiffel Tower.
The exhibit was developed by Don Casto Sr. and Don Casto Jr.,owners of the Columbus development firm Casto. It was designed by Skilken’s father, Joe, and constructed by local artist Ivan Pusecker.
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Don Casto Sr. is widely credited with developing the nation’s first shopping centers 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 Columbus’ West Side.
The Castos were initially interested in the property that later became Westland Mall, but when that fell through, they settled on a property owned by Skilken’s uncle at 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 J.C. Penney and Gray Drug Store already had committed to it. So to convince those businesses to relocate to Great Western, the Castos threw an elaborate party for all the tenants.
As the event went on and the partygoers continued to imbibe, 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 on moving to Great Western.
Don Casto III, who is currently a partner at CASTO, said the tale from that evening is “probably apocryphal” at this point, but the Walk O’ Wonders was a prime example of his grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“He was a great believer in the value of promotion,” Casto said. “I have no idea where the idea came from. He was well-traveled. But he really believed that if you had something this magnificent that people would come.”
Most of the miniatures were made of cement and plaster, except for the Eiffel Tower. They were meticulously crafted to look as similar to the real sites as possible.
The project was a massive financial undertaking, Skilken said. The Walk O’ Wonders cost as much to build as Great Western itself – about $250,000 in total – so its success was crucial to the shopping center.
Walk O’Wonders became a way to see the world
It didn’t take long though for the Walk O’ Wonders to become a landmark of its own.
When Great Western Shopping Center officially opened for business in 1955, the Walk O’ Wonders alone drew hundreds of visitors, Skilken said.
It wasn’t just an attraction to entice shoppers. 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.
Casto, who was around 8 years old at the time, said he remembers buses full of school children regularly visiting the exhibit so students could see these replica world wonders.
“Most schoolkids wouldn’t have a chance to see sites 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 the Glick Furniture located at Great Western, and she often would walk around the parking lot with her father while they waited for her mom to finish with customers.
“For everybody who grew up on the Hilltop, it was something else,” Hoffman said.
But for all its splendor, the Walk O’ Wonders also was a security liability for Great Western.
Skilken said fraternity brothers from Ohio State University often would sneak in at night to take drunken photos next to the Sphinx. Kids would dump soap into Niagara Falls, causing the pipes to clog and bubbles to spill into the other exhibits.
The Walk O’ Wonders survived for more than a decade before a majority of the attraction was bulldozed sometime during the 1970s, according to a 2010 Dispatch article. But the Eiffel Tower remained there for several more years. It was eventually removed when the parking lot was resurfaced in 1979.
By then, Skilken said, his father had died and he was running the family business. Skilken asked Don Casto Jr. if he could take the Eiffel Tower. He agreed, so they moved it out of the parking lot on a flatbed truck.
Although the Walk O’ Wonders is mostly remembered at this point only by those who saw it themselves and the relatives of its creators, Skilken said the exhibit was an important cultural landmark at the time for the city and the neighborhood.
And for the few who occasionally wonder if that Eiffel Tower is still around and call Skilken up to ask, he gives a fitting response: “Oui, oui.”
This story is part of the Dispatch’s Mobile Newsroom initiative. Visit our reporters at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Whitehall branch library and read their work at dispatch.com/mobilenewsroom, where you also can sign up for The Mobile Newsroom newsletter.
Sheridan Hendrix is a higher education reporter at the Columbus Dispatch. You can reach her at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter at @sheridan120. Sign up for her Mobile Newsroom newsletter here, and her education newsletter here.