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Soapdish: What time-traveling neckties have to do with Cincinnati's cultural legacy

The former headquarters of Beau Brummell Tie, Inc. is located on McMillan, just east of Reading.

Across the street, the former Gruen Watch Company is now the nonprofit Lighthouse Youth Services.


A couple of weeks ago, I found myself sifting through a Northern Kentucky thrift store, looking for nothing in particular, other than whatever might catch my eye at that precise moment.
 
I plucked a geometrically patterned 1940s-style tie from the typical racks of dense, petroleum-based fabrics from the late 1980s. Albeit a bit damaged (thereby justifying its 50-cent price tag), this one stood out, with its narrower width and stylish design. Flipping it over, I noticed the Beau Brummell label, a name which — for me at least — combines two pet interests: Cincinnati's architectural history and vintage haberdashery and clothing.
 
Get the look: Tie, Beau Brummell (c. 1940), Goodwill, 50 cents.Beau Brummell, you see, was headquartered for the large majority of its existence in the 1921 Tudor Revival-style building located high atop McMillan Avenue, just east of Reading Road and west of I-71. Perched above the road, almost isolated, really, and easily missed by the automobiles whizzing past, this building, along with the Gruen Watch Company headquarters across the street, might resemble something of a mini-Bavarian style village to the casual observer.
 
Digging deeper, however, one discovers an interesting testament to Cincinnati’s skilled manufacturing history, not to mention a less ballyhooed, yet equally important, monument to historic preservation and adaptive reuse.
 
You might think a campus that manufactures watches and ties sounds a bit like a quaint Medieval guild village of sorts, and you would be right (as will be discussed infra), but it is also representative of Cincinnati’s rich "maker" history, a concept that many are seeking to revive today.

Cincinnati has a rich history in a diverse manufacturing base that has dabbled in the modern machine tool industry, the playing card industry, toy making and so much more. In 1909, Cincinnati had the world’s largest "playing card plant, trunk factory, compressed yeast factory, iron tube and pipe works, printing ink establishment, harness and saddlery works, theatrical publishing house, women’s shoe factory, desk and office furniture plant and the Middle West’s biggest piano factory." (On a side note: We need to start calling this region the "Middle West" again.)
 
Unlike, say, our neighbor in the Middle West to the north, Detroit, which tended to put almost all of its manufacturing eggs in a single basket (e.g. automobile), Cincinnati tended to encompass a broad industrial spectrum. Even consumer products behemoth Procter & Gamble churns out a wide variety of products for a variety of market segments.
 
But this column is less about the behemoths and more about the tie and watch makers that peppered our industrial landscape, and, more specifically, the landscape at the top of what was historically known as "Nanny Goat Hill."
 
That said, like so much in this city, there is a P&G connection to the Beau Brummell building. Its distinctive tower, built in 1921 to store water for the sprinkler systems, originally served as the offices for Procter & Collier, P&G’s "captive" advertising firm. It was here that the Ivory Soap slogan "so pure it floats" was conceived.

Described as "Early Tudor," the structure is rife with half timbers, fieldstone and stucco. The building was sold to Beau Brummell in 1936, whereupon the company wove its hilltop aerie locale into its advertising campaigns, noting that its products were manufactured "in a landscaped retreat high on a hilltop... [and] with the inspiration of these beautiful, modern daylight studios... Beau Brummell stylists create America’s smartest neckwear for men."
 
(For the uninitiated, the actual Beau Brummell — no relation to the company other than in inspiration — was something of a ruffled, ascot-wearing English “dandy" of the Regency era, who is credited as the inventor of the original men’s suit.)
 
The non-ascot-wearing Beau Brummell Company was established around 1920, and moved to the McMillan hilltop in 1936. Among its slogans, no doubt channeling the former Ivory Soap ad men tenants, was the catchy, "As Beau Brummell ties go... so goes fashion."
 
It was at Beau Brummell that a young necktie peddler by the name of Ralph Lauren (née Lifshitz) got his first start in 1967, selling his own designs out of the Brummell showroom at the Empire State Building.
 
The company reached peak sales in 1971 when, according to a Cincinnati Magazine article, ties were steadily increasing in width, swelling uncontrollably from a neat 3.25" to a whopping 5" slab of polyester cleaving straight down the torso.
 
East elevation of the aptly (if clumsily) named Time HillNotwithstanding the creeping tackiness in necktie fashions across the street, the Gruen Watch Company building to the immediate south occupies an even more storied and longstanding tradition on the former Nanny Goat Hill. In 1916, looking to escape the grime and congestion of its basin facilities in Cincinnati, the Gruen family staked its claim high on this hilltop "retreat," as it were. Swiss-born patriarch Dietrich Gruen, along with sons Fred and George, dubbed their new locale "Time Hill," apparently eschewing the catchy slogans emanating from across the street at the Procter & Collier advertising offices.
 
The offices and factory itself were inspired not by Swiss chalets, as many have assumed, but rather by the Medieval guild halls that Fred had seen in Belgium.The building was designed by architects Guy Burroughs and John Henri Deekin, and constructed at a 1916 cost of approximately $50,000. Full of interior architectural detailing such as Rookwood tiles, the Gruens sought to apply the arts and crafts aesthetic to industry, and the studios represented that vision. Gruen paid special attention to the landscaping detail, with carefully planted trees and shrubs, and an artificial waterfall that cascaded down the rocks in front.
 
Once the company was established, Gruen's advertising and marketing stressed location over anything else. Old advertisements constantly showcase the picturesque pseudo-Medieval guild hall and Renaissance-era craftsmen going about their quotidian watchmaking duties. The campus was clearly a source of pride for the Gruen Company, and rightfully so. In the 1940s, the Gruen company became one of the nation’s largest producers of watches — 1,500 to 2,000 a day — with plants both here and in Switzerland. (The movements were made in a Swiss facility, whereas the watches were assembled and serviced at Time Hill.) The company also maintained a watchmaking school here in Cincinnati.
 
Unfortunately, the Gruen Company peaked in the 1950s, ultimately departing Cincinnati in 1958 for its New York offices and filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1976.

The Beau Brummell Company similarly saw its business decline in the 1970s, and, after being acquired by a New York conglomerate, closed down its McMillan operations in 1982.
 
Both the Beau Brummell and Gruen Watch buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and are considered sterling examples of the “City Beautiful Movement,” with their quasi-Elizabethan stylings and (at the time) semi-suburban location, as well as using architecture to express the values of the corporation.
 
Fortunately for us, the buildings did not fall into disrepair and decay, which could have easily happened. Instead they were repurposed, with much of the exterior integrity maintained. (One notable exception being an extremely unfortunate, low-slung 1980s addition on the east side of the Gruen building that all but destroyed the picture postcard “storybook village” that Time Hill had fought so hard to create.)
 
Nevertheless, despite the challenges, these unique buildings are still in use today. Lighthouse Youth Services provides a variety of services for homeless youth and young adults from the former Gruen Company building, while the national nonprofit Union Institute & University offers bachelor and doctoral degrees in the old Beau Brummell headquarters across the street.

Union Institute, which was founded in 1964, acquired and renovated the building in 1989 and then later acquired and renovated its southern neighbor at a sheriff’s sale in 1998. They currently have five academic centers in Ohio, Florida, California and Vermont.
 
It would be easy to wrap this column up in a corny bow and proclaim, in faux-stentorian tones, that, “While no longer manufacturing the fine neckwear and watches of their storied past, these two buildings are now molding and manufacturing our youth and young adults into the makers of the future.” But in fact, there could be some truth to that sentiment. And while this will, undoubtedly, be the last time I use that old hackneyed crutch of finding a vintage tie at Goodwill as the inspiration for a column, it is certainly a story worth telling.
 

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.
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