Changing face of Uptown Athens
reflects campus influence

Two views from the southeast corner of Court and
Union streets - 1944 (top) and 1996 (bottom).

Photos: (top) courtesy: James Anastas and (bottom) Evan Eile

By Emily Caldwell

A giant blue neon tooth hovers in a second-floor window on South Court Street, advertising the presence of the only dentist's office on Athens' main Uptown street.

The upstairs business is reminiscent of the era when Court Street was the heart of a centralized business district serving all of Athens County. Though lawyers are still aplenty in the Uptown area, many other kinds of professional offices and various retail and service outlets have migrated to peripheral streets over the years. In their place are signs, now more than ever, of a small city influenced by the comparatively big university resting at the edge of its downtown business district.

Those tracking Court Street's history tend to agree that the 1960s and '70s marked a big shift in merchants' focus. Bars, never hard to find Uptown, were even more prevalent in the 1970s. "There were a lot of them, and they were always crowded, every night of the week," says Sandra Sleight-Brennan, BGS '73, an assistant professor of telecommunications who experienced Uptown Athens at the height of Ohio University's enrollment and activism, and when the legal drinking age was only 18.

The bar crowds are still there on weekends, in addition to those lining up daily to make copies at Kinko's or to buy a burger at Wendy's. But some of those bars and dozens of service businesses and professional offices have given way to student apartments, specialty shops, bagels, pizza and cappuccino on the Court Street of the mid-1990s.

Though the street has a distinctive Ohio University flavor, some details of Court Street remain a testament to historic Athens. Three-fourths of the length of the street is still lined in brick. And many of the buildings - those that survived the fires that have destroyed banks, hotels and businesses - date back more than a century. The assortment of buildings looks almost like a movie set, with the uneven rooftops creating a bumpy edge across the horizon.

James Anastas, '47, can take in that view of Court Street, framed by nearby hills, anytime he pleases from the patio of his Rock Riffle Road home. It seems particularly appropriate that Anastas has such a view.

"I'm a Court Street person," he says. He owned the old Rainbow Restaurant in the late 1950s, selling homemade candy and dairy products in what is now a Revco drug store, and he's a retired senior vice president of Bank One based at the corner of Court and Washington streets. Until recently, he also was co-owner of the Nelson Building, home of Debi's Hallmark Shop.

Anastas still frequents the central business area. He goes to the bank and barber Uptown, and buys any clothes he needs at Baron Men's Shop on South Court Street. He also meets a group of friends for coffee every morning in the basement of Burger King, the former site of Katherine Figg's dress shop. The group moved to Burger King upon the closing of Woolworth and its coffee shop in 1993.

Though he is nostalgic about Court Street's past, Anastas doesn't begrudge Ohio University's influence on the Uptown area. A Medal of Merit winner in 1975 and founder of the Green and White Club, Anastas is a major university supporter. His vivid memories are recorded in scrapbooks and bags full of old photos of the Court Street he once knew and loved.

"The magic to me of it was that it was all sole ownership," he says. "You received special treatment. It served the populace. It was the hub - the nucleus. Now it's more like a student service center."

Ironically, long before merchants lined the street to tend to community and, later, student needs, the university played a major role in Uptown's creation. According to Thomas Hoover's The History of Ohio University, the first OU Board of Trustees named Court Street in 1806.

An 1875 atlas of the county boasts sketches of stately homes that had been built along Court Street, owned by generals and judges and other early wealthy residents. The First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Court and Washington streets dates back to 1809, but went through two renovations and then was replaced with the current structure in 1902. The First National Bank, now the site of Bank One, opened in 1863.

Recalling his lifetime home, Tad Grover, BSAGR '50, can walk a Court Street shuffle in his mind that's entirely different from the popular current-day shuffle of Uptown bars.

Grover, retired president of Bank One and now a university trustee, can recite just about every Court Street building's history over the past 50 years.

Some of the standouts: the Buckeye Cafeteria, in the left side of the Worstell Building, now home to Buffalo Wings and Rings. "It was a very popular place in its day," Grover says of the Buckeye. The Hotel Berry, opened in 1893, stood grandly on the site of the Secure Parking Lot; in the early 1970s, the hotel was used as an OU residence hall and housed the university's film program. The hotel was demolished in the mid-1970s. In recent years, that lot has become the site for the senior class' annual Springfest.

Across the street is 5ive on Court, a mini-mall that now houses an enlarged Kinko's, food, clothing and computer stores, and the city's third textbook shop. The building has a history as a department store, first Altman's and then Marting's. The Kinko's at the corner of Union and Court streets has been replaced by Perk's, a gourmet coffee house complete with couches and chess games.

There was a time when four movie theaters peppered the Uptown landscape; now, only the three-screen Athena survives, revived after a fire in the late 1980s. Across the street, the old Varsity Cinema's marquee now reads "Taco Bell." Cornwell Jewelers, dating back to the 1800s, still stands at 10 S. Court St. Another Uptown regular, Carsey's barbershop, long housed next to the Greenery, just recently uprooted and moved across the street.

Drug stores, dress and hat shops, family restaurants, utility company offices, hardware stores, grocers who delivered, furniture stores and even car dealerships were among the businesses along both sides of Court Street at one time.

Grover attributes Court Street's evolution largely to the growth of Ohio University. "As the university grew, the needs and demands of the students changed," he says. "At one time, you saw a real cross-section of the county on Court Street: farmers, doctors, lawyers - they were all Downtown. Most professional people have left the street now, and most residents tend to shop elsewhere."

Sleight-Brennan, who left Athens and returned in 1977, believes Court Street looks more prosperous now than ever, and notes that the 1980s "Dresden look" resulting from the burned-out buildings is a thing of the past.

The street continues to serve as the site for the annual Halloween gathering, which has evolved from a mid-1970s street takeover into an event organized by the Athens Clean and Safe Halloween Committee, complete with bands, food buggies and officially blocked-off city streets.

After watching Court Street change for almost 20 years, Sleight-Brennan says it's "not the melting pot it used to be. But that's not to say it doesn't have the same charm. It's just not quite as small a town as it used to be."

Emily Caldwell, BSJ '88, is assistant editor of periodicals in the Office of University News Services and Periodicals.

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