History Repeats Itself: Why we tear down 150-year-old buildings in historic districts

 
Cincinnati is a city that seems to pride itself on its rich history and historic structures. Well, only to a certain point. 
 
It seems that we generally want to say “Yay preservation!” unless it gets in the way of our big important plans. Then the conversation turns abruptly to “It simply won’t work.”

In such a system and climate, a well-prepared developer can pretty much make any case he or she wants in order to demolish a historic building that doesn’t fit within his or her carefully constructed plans.
 
I witnessed this phenomenon recently in the skirmish over the demolition of 721 Main St., a six-story Greek Revival/Italianate structure believed to date back to approximately 1855. As usual, developers came to the Historic Conservation Board (HCB) meeting with a finely honed drill team of qualified architects, engineers and real estate experts armed with Powerpoint presentations designed to make the case that their snazzy new $50-million condo tower won’t work unless the building comes down.
 
They were met by an earnest group of concerned citizens who believe that these buildings are worth saving, which is all well and good but isn’t going to be enough to rebut a presumption favoring demolition, even (ironically enough) in a historic district. The opponents were supported by a well-reasoned analysis and opinion by HCB staff recommending against demolition approval.
 
Sitting in the back row and taking copious notes were Tim Burke and Fran Barrett, attorneys for the owners of the Dennison Hotel, an 1892 Samuel Hannaford-designed structure across the street, who are planning their own demolition request to be heard by HCB on April 18. Barrett, it should be noted, was counsel to Greenacres Foundation when it demolished the Gamble House and to Stough Group in its attempted demolition of the Davis Furniture Building in Over-the-Rhine. The Dennison was purchased by the Columbia Oldsmobile Company in 2013, an entity affiliated with the Joseph Auto Group, which owns the surface parking lots directly behind it.
 
At the end of the day, in a fifth floor sweat lodge of a conference room seemingly designed to wear everyone down via heat stroke, the largely recently appointed board made the (arguably) illegal move to retreat to “executive session,” then emerged, with no comment, to approve the demolition of the pre-Civil War “skyscraper” at 721 Main St.
 
The problem here isn’t necessarily that Cincinnatians don’t care about historic buildings, but that passion only takes you so far. The developer will present multiple arguments as to why his or her plans won’t work in this particular building: “the ceilings are too low,” “the support columns are spaced too close together,” etc. The developer will tell you that he or she is a preservationist, that they’ve restored buildings before.
 
What we should really be doing is re-thinking the process, however, to make the plans fit the building as opposed to the reverse-engineering employed to meet a predetermined and convenient conclusion (i.e., demolish the building). The burden of proof needs to be higher and stricter.
 
After all, Eighth and Main is in the middle of the East Manufacturing and Historic District, with most buildings dating from 1870 to 1920. If we can’t save one of the oldest buildings in an alleged “historic” district, than that designation is pretty much meaningless.
 
Now, literally across the street, we have another historic structure, the Dennison Hotel, sitting squarely within the demolition bullseye. Known for its catchy ghost sign ratio of “105 rooms to 60 baths,” the Dennison and the Metropole were the last of the single room occupancy hotels downtown servicing primarily low-income clients with few places left to turn. Rates ran from $30 a day to $80-$110 per week.
 
The building now known as the Dennison Hotel was originally constructed as an iron and steel works for the G.B. Schulte Company in 1892. Hotel operations began some time around 1933 after Schulte’s carriage-dependent business went the way of the buggy whip.
 
The Dennison name actually has a long history in our city’s hospitality history. The predecessor of the Dennison Hotel was located at Fifth and Main on what was then the outskirts of the city and stood at that site beginning around 1822, moving to its current location in 1932. As detailed in the 1943 WPA Guide to Cincinnati, an old ledger from a spelling-challenged innkeeper recorded the most colorful comings and goings of the hotel residents and staff:
 
Settled acct. With cook paid her $1 a week;
2 men with munkey began bord Monday;
1 bottle beer 6 1/2¢;
2 glasses whiskey 6 1/2¢;
Young man and hors $1.00;
Mister Fallis, Cheeseburrow, 36 ¼ gallan whiskey at 28¢. 10.22.
 
After sitting through the HCB meeting, I felt like meeting two men and a munkey for two glasses of whiskey and a “cheeseburrow” [sic]. Moreover, the decision to approve the demolition is made all the more maddening because these buildings are adjacent to a veritable sea of surface parking lots.
 
The developers will tell you they’ll encounter a $10.7 million shortfall in order to renovate the existing building, $1.2 million if you factor in possible historic tax credits. Without expert testimony and highly compensated analyses, opponents have little basis to combat that evidence.
 
So what do you do? Impassioned testimony on the value of preserving historic architecture, while all well and good, is apparently no match for a well-paid team of professionals. And while the HCB staff recommendations can certainly try to balance the scales, if the Board ignores their recommendation (as in this case), there is little recourse for the building.
 
Nobody is looking to tie the hands of developers hoping to capitalize on our city’s urban resurgence and shortage of housing in the downtown core. But simply giving lip service to historic preservation is insufficient. A stand has to be made, or else the process is simply a sham.
 
In the 1980s, when a decade of new downtown construction revitalized the bland office tower market with more bland office towers, concerns were raised. Local architects, planners and commentators worried that a number of large International-style towers were erasing the character and charm of Cincinnati’s downtown. Preservationists feared that the city’s remaining historic buildings would share a fate similar to those such as the Albee Theater and Gibson and Sinton hotels.
 
As noted in the Bicentennial Guide to Cincinnati in 1988, “They were also worried that smaller nineteenth century commercial buildings along Fourth, Main and Vine Streets would be demolished to provide new office space and parking.”
 
As a result, City Council designated certain local historic districts, “often against the will of property owners and developers who felt that construction of new high rises would be more profitable than adapting older buildings for more modest reuse.” This was echoed at the HCB hearing by Danny Klingler, Director of OTR A.D.O.P.T., as he made the salient point that “the applicant may not be able to overcome the (financial) deficit in this case, but that’s not the key legal question. ... It’s whether the building can be reused by someone."
 
Klingler pointed out that the Main Street building currently has an operating, functional tenant, Donato’s Pizzeria. This argument was insufficient, however, to sway the Board.
 
Here we are now, some 30 years after putting the historic district protections into place, and 721 Main (and undoubtedly the Dennison Hotel) have come full circle. The construction of a new 16-story highrise would be more profitable than adapting the 1855 historic structure for “a more modest reuse,” as the developers said. Sadly, that seems to have become a winning argument.
 
Whatever protections we thought were in place with a local historic district have eroded and faded over time. We’re better than that, Cincinnati.
 
One of the primary catalysts for this project is the new streetcar line running up Main Street. But, as several speakers noted at the HCB meeting, the streetcar should be a reason to bring these buildings back to life, not to demolish them.
 
There are plenty of blighted surface parking lots all over downtown just aching for a flashy new condo tower. But 1855 warehouses? Not so much.
 
If any semblance of historic preservation and protection can be defeated by a few Powerpoints and an economic feasibility analysis, then there really is no protection.
 
The Dennison Hotel will serve as a crucible for what could become the dark ages for historic preservation in Cincinnati. Behind the Dennison sits a city block of surface parking lots, yet its owners are claiming that they have “big plans” for the site, no doubt just as they did before clearing buildings for the sea of surface parking lot blight that it overlooks.
 
Cincinnati’s downtown and Over-the-Rhine have seen an economic resurgence in large part because of its historic architecture. People want to live, work and play in walkable historic urban districts. It’s one of the resources we have that sets us apart from and puts us ahead of peer cities.
 
Yet we’re prepared to allow the demolition of two historic protected buildings across the street from each other in a core historic district.
 
Demand better, Cincinnati. And feel free to do so at the April 18 hearing about the Dennison demolition
 

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.
Signup for Email Alerts