Why We Save Old Buildings (Like the Dennison)

IMG_0046-1A lesson in what makes people stop and talk

The controversy over saving the Dennison Hotel has brought back a flood of memories to our own renovation project. Why would anyone want to save these old buildings?

Our 1870’s home on Race St in Over-the-Rhine had not been occupied in forty years. The house hardly appeared worth resuscitating. What would people say? That we were crazy?

However, in 2010, when we toured the home with John Hueber, Mark and I fell in love with a shell, a long shadow of what had once been grand and welcoming, and a footprint for the future.

That very night, I Googled 1419 Race Street. Other than the usual tax listings, only one other result appeared on the screen, based search results at that time.

I clicked the link that led a UC website for the DAAP program. Michael McLaughlin (M.A. Architecture) had written his thesis on Contemporary Preservation. The main subject of his thesis, penned in 2006, was 1419 Race Street.

At the time, Michael had accessed historical records that showed the home’s owners as Charles H. Mueller, a civil war veteran, and his family. Later, the home transitioned ownership to a few Italians (which made me more than proud). And sometime in the mid-90’s, the home was owned by a John Kalebain, bought from the city for a dollar, left empty for five years, then sold back to the city, for a presumed dollar. According to an anonymous blog post, someone was also shot in front of the home in the 90’s.

IMG_0647Mr. McLaughlin also documented with pictures, thankfully, because so much was lost in those four intervening years, from the time he researched 1419 to the time we bought.

I later found Michael the same way I found his thesis, through the Internet. I located him working at an architecture firm in Columbus. I told the the firm’s administrator, “I know this is weird, but tell him I bought the home that was the subject of his thesis.” The admin paused for a moment then transferred me.

When I revealed our story to Michael, he tried to sound interested. I asked him about accessing the home, “We really just pulled off some plywood, and had to make our way around a few drug addicts in the basement.”

He sounded less than impressed that we had purchased the home and renovated it. I asked him to visit sometime, but never heard from him since.

And therein lay the challenge. For Michael, and the likes of builders and developers, the home represented work or study. For us, this home was our life.

IMG_0083Long before the home’s completion, we made instant friends, inviting casual acquaintances to share in the restoration of our home. We welcomed mere strangers, I’m telling you, off the street, to tour the home.

Once renovated, we opened our home to Future Leaders for the first OTR Holiday Home tour, and were surprised to learn we didn’t welcome 200-300 guests over the weekend, but 700 tour participants who took a peek inside.

We used our home for fundraisers, meetings, and bourbon nights. All in the interest of getting to know our city, and introducing and connecting our contacts to one another and our neighborhood.

We save old buildings because old buildings have a story to tell. Because those stories lead to conversation which lead to connecting to one another on a deeper level which leads to healthy lives and healthier cities.

The story of 1419 began with Charles Mueller. He was like the Kevin Bacon in the six degrees of separation game.

Original Front DoorOur restoration led us to Anne Sennefeld of Digging Cincinnati, who filled us in on other owners of the home. The work also led us to preservationists and the Cincinnati Historical Society Library for research and locating photographs of the St Paulus German Evangelical Protestant Church (now Taft Ale House). The Muellers once owned an apothecary in 1868, where Nellie’s is now. We recently hosted the owners of the Taft Ale House, they too wanting a look inside and to know about the connection between our home and theirs.

Last summer, on a Segway ride through Spring Grove Cemetery (a must do for anyone who wants to learn how to ride a Segway and see more of Cincinnati history), we were passing through the backside of the cemetery, on a downhill glide when I spotted the Mueller gravesite.

FullSizeRender-6“Please can I go back,” I pleaded to the guide, who insisted we had to continue because dusk was setting in.

“Oh, OK,” I said and pouted the rest of the tour.

When I returned home, I searched the cemetery’s website and found the death certificates for a few of the Muellers.

Ironically, we had been in contact with Charles Mueller’s great grandchildren. One had visited the home, during our pre-construction house-warming. But she had also warned there were some dark secrets in the Mueller family and some preferred to stay away.

FullSizeRender-5While the parents died of more natural causes in 1915 and 1919, three of the children died of gunshot wounds, Oscar, age 69, died of homicide from a gunshot wound in 1938. The wound caused TB and he died at Christ Hospital, where Mark now works. Alma, age 55, died 1928, at her residence of suicide by gunshot, and Louis, age 73, in 1953, died by gunshot at the Metropole, now the 21C Hotel. Charles Herman Jr.’s cause death was also listed gunshot, at age 33, in 1911.

When people talk of the late 1990’s in Over-the-Rhine felt like the Wild West, they neglected to take into consideration these old facts.

The death certificate search results were not what I expected. But the family had perhaps been hit with mental health challenges, and depression or futility was pervasive. Luckily, the Italians as tailors and mechanics came along and lifted that burden, or so I believed.

We save old buildings for the same reason we tell stories. Because, at the core, we learn from them.

Today’s new buzzword in marketing and events is storytelling. Despite the word being co-opted, storytelling is a powerful medium. Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time to remember, before writing them down became the norm.

Ancient Greeks and Romans distinguished between two types of memory: the ‘natural’ memory and the ‘artificial’ memory. The former is inborn, and is the one that everyone uses without thinking. The artificial memory, the art of memory or mnemonics, in contrast has to be developed through practicing of a variety of techniques.

Front Door FinishedWe don’t need buildings to become artificial memories, preserved only in bronze markers hung to a post or relegated to the annals and algorithms of the Internet.

Our buildings should represent our natural memory and our natural disposition to save what is innate, what is a part of us, what will survive long past us.

Our home’s appearance is much like any other Italianate style homes. But once a visitor steps across the threshold, and listens to my husband tell the story of 1419, they immediately fall in love with and connect to a certain place and time. They imagine the era, when an entire family plus 11 lodgers lived in a building now occupied by two, but occasionally seven. Guests use our home as placeholder, as proxy for the many buildings yet to be saved. We are humbled to be the caregivers for only the time that history allows.

I bring this up, as the demolition of the historic Dennison Hotel is scheduled for a hearing before the Historic Preservation Board. The Dennison is a piece of Cincinnati, of us, designed by Samuel Hannaford, one of Cincinnati’s most prominent architects (Music Hall, City Hall, The Phoenix). It was built in the 1892’s, in what was the industrial/warehouse district of downtown. The building’s last occupants were listed as SRO, single room only, with affordable housing rates, until it was closed (Photo credit below to Phil Armstrong).

Screen+Shot+2016-03-13+at+1.13.54+PMPlans and ownership of the hotel have shifted over time, but in 2011, “The Model Group and, with help from 3CDC and the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, said the building would get a renovation to 63 studio apartments, but continue to serve as low income housing. Entitled the Ironworks Apartments, Talbert House was to provide supportive services for the residents and a storefront cafe for a place for residents to gain job experience. (Cincinnati Business Courier).

However, those plans fell through and the CMHA application was pulled, leaving that piece of the puzzle suspect.

Then the building was transferred from 3CDC to a subsidiary then sold to the ownership of the Columbia Automobile group (the Joseph family), with plans for demolition.

There is controversy on whether the restoration of the building by its owner would cause economic hardship.

How should we define hardship? The average homeowner does not undertake the purchase of a historical building without some understanding of the financial outlay to renovate. Shouldn’t we expect the same from developers? Shouldn’t we deny the purchase of historical properties without confirmed intent to save the building? Shouldn’t our policies include the opportunity for other developers to say, let me have a crack at it, before we decide to tear it down.

(Read more here and decide for yourself –  Contribute to the legal fees or show up at the board meeting, April 18.)

You can stand on our stoop any  Saturday and count into the dozens the number of people who stop. Passersby snap photos for weddings, proms, and Instagram contests using our home and garden as backdrop.

FullSizeRender-5In the end, we found out what people would say. Because the simple fact is, people from the West Side, from Hyde Park, from Mason, from Germany, all stopped. They talked. To us, to one another, to others passing on the sidewalk. People conversed. The design, the historical interest of the old building caused mere strangers to slow down and actually speak to one another. They wanted to hear the story, they wanted to be close to the story. They wanted to be in the story.

How often does that happen in front of a parking lot or corporate headquarters that is only imagined?


2 thoughts on “Why We Save Old Buildings (Like the Dennison)

  1. Ellen Austin-Li April 11, 2016 / 9:53 pm

    What a fascinating story! I love how you acted the sleuth to gather the history behind 1419 Race. Of course my inclination is towards historical preservation as well, so you know where I stand on that issue. I do know of one family that owned an historic building (in Clifton) who chose a demo rather than renovation b/c of cost. They faced a great deal of community vitriol over their decision, which seemed unfair when they were the long-time owners and couldn’t afford maintenance any longer. Hope the Dennison Hotel remains. This city has already lost a lot of great buildings.

  2. Annette Januzzi Wick April 12, 2016 / 11:25 am

    Thanks Ellen – I get it the concept of hardship, if someone is a long-time owner, though I don’t know how to legislate that. But it appears these owners have set their sights on redevelopment for a long-time, with 3cdc taking a hit on the sale price even, which is disappointing to me, because they have always worked towards the betterment of the community, in my mind….

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