Behind a locked chain link fence along George Washington Boulevard, down a steep dirt road and around a grassy corner sits an aging, musty and squirrel-filled piece of Akron history.
The John W. Heisman Lodge — or "John eis an odg" because several letters have fallen off the welcoming sign — has been largely forgotten because of its semi-hidden location in Akron's Ellet neighborhood.
The two-story stone building, once used as a city park shelter and later as an event space for the University of Akron because of its proximity to the former Rubber Bowl, has sat abandoned for years and has fallen into deep disrepair, as evidenced by the moldy smell and at least one varmint scurrying around in the attic.
But now there's hope that the facility may get a new life.
The university, which has owned the property since 1989, has agreed to give the building back to the city, providing some optimism that the 5,150-square-foot facility will be filled with activity once more. Akron has no immediate plans for the structure and will land bank the property.
“The Heisman Lodge was a wonderful facility and we were pleased to have the opportunity to use it for gatherings over the years, especially as related to Zips football," UA Vice President of Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer Nathan Mortimer said. "But, since we stopped using the Rubber Bowl for games in 2008, and the university has since acquired other meeting options on campus such as the updated Student Union and Quaker Square, the location of the lodge has made it less desirable for campus use.”
The shelter was constructed in late 1934 as part of former Akron Municipal Airport manager B.E. "Shorty" Fulton's vision to create a recreational area adjacent to the airport.
The Rubber Bowl, located just a short walk through the woods, was under construction at the time. Fulton decided to add a skating rink, bobsled run, ski runs, ski jumps and toboggan chutes there. The shelter, with its four fireplaces, would serve as a warm respite for the skaters, skiers, sledders and tobogganers.
''We'll make this the greatest municipally operated winter sports center in this part of the United States,'' Fulton said at the time.
Derby Downs, the hill for the All-American Soap Box Derby, came along in 1936. Back then, people were allowed to sled the derby hill and crash into hay piles at the bottom put there to stop. The lodge can be seen from the derby property.
The winter sports ended in the early 1940s.
The shelter — then known as Shorty's Mansion — sat vacant for decades and fell victim to vandalism.
Akron sold the building to the university for $1 in the late 1980s. The UA board of trustees agreed to remodel it for about $150,000 and opted to name it the John W. Heisman Lodge to honor the legendary football player who coached football and baseball for two seasons at Buchtel College, the precursor to the University of Akron, in the 1890s.
The Heisman Trophy, given each year to the nation's top collegiate football player, is named after him.
In 2000, the Beacon Journal reported that the lodge was the only tangible reminder of Heisman's tenure in Akron. The university has since erected an 8-foot, 750-pound bronze statue of Heisman outside InfoCision Stadium.
UA used the Heisman Lodge mainly for pre- and post-game football activities. A concrete path winds its way through the woods from the lodge to the former stadium, which has been partly demolished.
It also served as a community gathering spot for organizations such as the Soap Box Derby and Leadership Akron. But once Infocision Stadium opened in 2009 and UA later agreed to sell the Rubber Bowl to a private company, there was no need for a lodge located about six miles away from campus. The university estimates that the building hasn't been used since 2013.
UA Executive Director of Physical Facilities David Musser recently provided a tour of the lodge for the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com.
As he approached the main entrance, the longtime university employee estimated that he hadn't been inside the building for 22 years. The front door wouldn't open from the outside, no matter how hard Musser struck it with his shoulder.
Inside, the building is largely vacant. There are some tables and chairs. A plaque on the wall recognizes the "John W. Heisman Lodge List of Contributors" who donated money for the remodeling project.
There is a heavy musty odor. The ceiling on the second floor is pocketed with water stains, indicating that repairs are needed for the roof. There's also a hole where an animal likely has poked its head through.
Each floor has two fireplaces, one on each end of the building. The bottom floor is tiled, while the second floor appears to be stamped concrete. The bathrooms are in the basement.
There is a large, semi-circular stone patio outside that looks upon Derby Downs. The lodge and racetrack were once separated by a chain link fence, but the rusty fence has been knocked over, meaning anyone can access the lodge from the Soap Box Derby property.
It's clear the building will need some significant renovations if it is to be used again.
“The Heisman Lodge was a place where many celebrations took place," Mortimer said. "We are happy it was part of the University of Akron story.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.