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Soapdish: What lies beneath


In Moses King’s 1880 pint-sized tome entitled King’s Pocket Book of Cincinnati, the author depicted Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood as follows:
It is a famous place of resort at all times, but especially on Sunday, for those who love excitement and beer.  There is no Sabbath in Over-the-Rhine.  Nearly all the business-houses are kept open seven days in the week, and many saloons all night.
“Excitement and beer”?  No wonder the area was always hopping (all heathens aside).

As many loyal readers are no doubt well aware, the city of Cincinnati is a veritable treasure trove of historic buildings and architectural gems.  Over-the-Rhine has been one of the main focus points (along with Fountain Square and the Banks) of the non-profit Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, more popularly referred to by its acronymic shorthand of “3CDC”.  The surviving structural density in the neighborhood consists in large part of a bevy of jaw-droppingly beautiful Italianate structures (943 in all) which date back to the exciting, 19th Century suds-loving days of Moses King.  Moreover, it’s no surprise that Phase I of the streetcar line proposes to loop through the heart of Over-the-Rhine on its way to and from the Central Business District and the Banks project along the river.  Clearly, this area is a focal point for redevelopment in the city’s urban core.  

In the past three years alone, the indefatigable 3CDC has invested the not insignificant sum of $70 million (at least) in Over-the-Rhine, including $58 million from private sources (all but $2 million from the Cincinnati Equity Fund and the Cincinnati New Market Fund).  That investment is clearly paying dividends. Aside and apart from the economic development (which is indeed impressive), one of the most important stabilizing effects of this investment is a drop in crime in Over-the-Rhine south of Liberty Street.  Between 2004 and 2007, reported crime in that area dropped nearly 25%.  For the first five months of 2008 for which information is available, reported crimes were down an additional 5.5% when compared to the same period of time in 2007.

Walking up Vine from Central Parkway, not far from the path of the streetcar route, you will pass through the rapidly evolving Gateway Quarter.  The success of its rehabbed condos and new retail shops has been well documented, while the ongoing buzz of construction activity continues unabated both on Vine and nearby Republic Street.  To its credit, 3CDC owns or controls approximately 152 buildings and 165 vacant parcels in Over-the-Rhine, acquiring, cleaning out and securing the structures in order to facilitate development.  In a tidy lunchtime exercise in urban spelunking, I recently had the opportunity to visit but one of these structures, the 1855 era Italianate Revival classic known as Cosmopolitan Hall (1313 Vine Street).

Cosmopolitan Hall, which most recently saw a tour of duty as the Warehouse nightclub (closed in 2004), is a particularly deceiving building when viewed solely from the outside.  A mammoth structure on the interior, stretching from Vine to Republic, it’s estimated to have a total of around 27,000 square feet (including sub-basements).  Beautiful and original Palladian-like arched windows grace the four-story facade, evidencing the height of the spacious rooms inside the impressive structure.  The building was originally constructed in 1855 as a beer garden and dance hall, following in the footsteps of a brewery which originally existed on the site.  From 1878 to 1882 it was called the “Tivoli Beer Garden.”  In the 1880s, it became a popular dance hall for immigrant Germans, Hungarians and Slavs, and, in the 1890s, was renamed Cosmopolitan Hall.  Over the decades, it careened among various uses, including a Prohibition-era speakeasy (no surprise there), an indoor golf complex, insurance offices, a lighting retailer, and a wallpaper store.  In the 1990s, the movie A Rage in Harlem filmed scenes on the stunning, spring-loaded second floor dance hall.

Walking into the old Warehouse nightclub space, painted in basic “club black” with the lint-enhancing glow of purplish black lights still flickering, it’s hard to imagine the building as it was in its heyday.  Once you ascend the grand center staircase to the second floor music hall, however, the whole place opens up.  The huge room, elevated stage, 25 foot ceilings with windows encircling the top elevation is a stunner, albeit in a somewhat dilapidated state.  The rooms fronting Vine, with the high ceilings, original windows and abundant light are like something out of a movie set (“shoot your album cover here”).  Although some water damage is evident, 3CDC, in their mission to secure the building, has been working diligently to shore up any intrusions of unwelcome moisture (the roof was being worked on as we were there).  From the huge rear windows on the 4th floor, one can gaze across a Dickensian scene of scattered uneven chimney stacks and varying rooftops to see the soaring apex of Music Hall.  Stunning, really.

It’s not just the upstairs, however. The real killer assets at Cosmopolitan Hall are the two vast sub-level basements.  The first level down features some rathskellar-like stone alcoves and looks like it may have housed some of the old bowling alleys that existed during livelier times.  Also an odd assortment of incredibly heavy and inert machinery and archaic equipment remains scattered about (3CDC sub-contractors apparently filled up untold numbers of dumpsters with rubbish last year while cleaning out the building).  Hiking west toward the rear of the first basement level, we reach the Republic Street end, where a long ladder (next to a non-functioning freight elevator) awaits.  Descending down to the second sub-level, our expedition arrives at an amazing, 4,400 square foot, two-chambered vault running the length of the building.  Twenty foot, barrel-vaulted stone ceilings arch overhead, while a trail of minor rubble and debris fans out in front of us.

The mind reels with possibilities, although the magnitude and non-traditional floor plan of the building presents a daunting challenge.  The lower level stone chambers cry out for some type of brewpub (“hello Christian Moerlein”), while the upstairs dance hall seems custom-fitted for a performance hall/concert space a la House of Blues.  With their natural light and high ceilings, the front rooms would make incredibly hip offices or studios, and it seems apparent that some sort of mixed use is inevitable, given the sheer size of the building.  

Let’s hope that 3CDC is successful in finding a use for this stunning structure, a quintessential “hidden gem” in a neighborhood chock full of them.  By stabilizing and securing these historic assets, “excitement and beer” is most certainly poised to make a comeback on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine (even on Sundays!).  Incidentally, any urban spelunkers looking for a tour of Over the(underground) Rhine should check out the upcoming Bockfest activities March 7 and 8.  The Over-the-Rhine Foundation and the Brewery District are leading tours of the abandoned subway as well as the old breweries (including sub-basements and tunnels).  Excitement and (for the brewery tour) beer will be provided.  Go to www.Bockfest.com for more information, as two of the subway tours have already sold out, and a third was recently added.

Photography by Scott Beseler
All photos taken on tour of Cosmopolitan Hall courtesy of 3CDC

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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