A taste of Cincinnati’s architectural history

Tucked away on the third-floor skywalk of Cincinnati’s Main Public Library is a climate-controlled room that is used primarily for displaying local, historical artifacts.


From now through April 28th, the library’s Joseph S. Stern, Jr. Cincinnati Room will be serving up a taste of local architectural heritage, through a feast of historic photographs.


Many of the images date from the period between the Civil War and World War I (1865-1917). Local history librarian and exhibit curator Chris Smith explains that this was a significant period both for American city growth and the medium of photography.


“We were building so many beautiful buildings,” says Smith, “and it coincided with the time that cameras became much more readily available to the average person.”


The exhibit features early photographs of present-day iconic landmarks — Music Hall, Union Terminal, the Roebling Bridge, and the Tyler-Davidson Fountain — as well as images of many other structures that became notable in their day, whether or not they were preserved over time.


This includes government and commercial buildings, residences, and places of worship, all built primarily in the 19th century and extending from the city’s central basin to its surrounding hills, early suburbs, and beyond.


The newest building on display is Union Terminal, built in 1933. The oldest is the 1782 Waite-Smith house, originally constructed in Connecticut.


There are buildings harkening back to the old Third Street financial district; the city’s five historic inclines; the stately mansions of Clifton, Avondale, and Walnut Hills; the looming Crosley radio factory in Camp Washington; and the majestic Albee movie palace where the Westin Hotel is now located, just to name a few.


Last but not least, there is “the oldest-known panoramic shot anywhere on earth,” Smith says.


This carefully preserved “Daguerreotype View of Cincinnati” is a sweeping vista of the Queen City in 1848. Taken from the Kentucky side, it manages to capture a total of thirty-two riverboats within its two-mile span. You can count them.


You can also compare the historic 1848 vista with the city’s modern-day, full-color riverfront and skyline, which has far more bridges and far fewer boats.


“It was the first photograph that Europeans saw of an American city,” Smith adds. The 1848 panorama traveled to London in 1851 for the very first World’s Fair. “And it won first prize for technology and for photography.”


Smith says that whether you are an ardent history buff — as he is — or simply among the casually curious, the exhibit is meant to be of interest to anyone.


It is, indeed, a fun, off-the-beaten path opportunity to browse a city’s architectural past. And to more fully appreciate the legacy of certain architects, styles, influences, and innovations that have shaped and built our current environment.

Read more articles by Sarah Dupee.

Sarah Dupee is a freelance writer, teacher, translator, and musician with a background in French and Francophone Studies.
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