Soapdish: Step in time along hillside treks

Dating back to Cincinnati’s boomtown origins, denizens of the downtown basin inevitably longed for an easy escape from the unrelenting crowds, grime and grit which formed an inescapable thread in the urban tapestry. In many respects, that longing for an easy escape is as common now as it was then. Fortunately, one of the easiest for those living in the19th Century remains readily available to those in the 21st—the Cincinnati hillside steps.

Cincinnati has some 400 sets of hillside stairways ascending (or descending, as the case may be) through all parts of the city, winding their way up and down the hillsides for all sorts of reasons. Some are more travelled than others; some have, unfortunately, been closed. Together, however, they comprise one of those cliché’d “hidden gems” that we here at Soapbox are more than happy to spotlight. Moreover, some of the best of them are easily accessible to those in and around downtown, providing easy access to Clifton, Eden Park and Mt. Adams.

While often offering up a well-earned reward of jaw-dropping views for the weary hiker, the hillside steps are also an integral part of our city's transportation system and provide a pedestrian-friendly connection to some remote areas of the city. In order to preserve and maintain the steps, the City of Cincinnati has developed the City Hillside Step Information System as a means of maintaining an inventory of each set of steps and also to track inspection and repair information. 

While I have no doubt that everyone has a favorite trek or two to share out of those some 400 options, what follows is a highly unscientific and subjective sampling of one humble columnist’s favorite hillside adventures.

We begin our expedition with the Ohio Avenue steps in Over the Rhine. Located near Findlay Market at the base of Ohio on McMicken, the first segment of the steps is visible just east of St. Philippus Church (1890). St. Philippus, originally a German Protestant church which only adopted English in 1921, is readily distinguishable by the ominous, golden finger pointing heavenward at the top of its steeple. Taking a cue from the glistening, omnipotent finger, we reverently head up the steps towards Clifton.

After crossing Clifton Avenue, the path up the hill follows lower Ohio Avenue. The steps pick up again at the northern terminus of Ohio, at Van Lear Alley, where an odd assemblage of hillside houses in some respects looks like the “land that time forgot.” At the top of these steps, turn left and follow the next set of steps to Bellevue Park, once a hillside incline stop and home of the entertainment pavilion known as the “Bellevue House.” While the Bellevue House predictably succumbed to the fate of similar hilltop venues (1901—fire, natch), the park now offers up one of the city’s more impressive views of OTR and downtown’s skyline. In addition, the mid-century modernist pavilion, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Carl Freund, is more than worth the hike.

Our next excursion begins on Gilbert Avenue, at the 1883 era Elsinore Arch designed by Samuel Hannaford. The Arch, originally intended to conceal a valve house for the Eden Park reservoir, was modeled after Hamlet’s Elsinore Castle, where everyone’s favorite insomnia-plagued prince stalked the grounds and discussed weighty issues of the day with the ghost of his father. Shakespearean history aside, the steps offer a tranquil and idyllic pathway to Eden Park, one on which you are more likely to pass a deer than a fellow pedestrian.

The steps conclude across the street from the Seasongood Pavilion near the entrance to the Cincinnati Art Museum. From here, our fearless hillside hiker is offered the altogether equally palatable options of cultural enrichment at the museum, further communing with nature in Eden Park, or, perhaps, a brief repast in nearby Mt. Adams.

For purposes of this column, let’s choose the latter, as this will afford us ready access to our final descent.

Following St. Gregory through the commercial hub of Mt. Adams, turn left at Pavilion, towards the river, and then right on Guido. Here you will find the Church of the Immaculata, particularly timely given that Good Friday fast approacheth (April 6). Also referred to as the “Church of the Steps,” the recently reconstructed steps and plaza offer sweeping vistas in all directions--downtown, Kentucky and beyond. Of course, this being the season and all, many people identify these steps with the annual Good Friday pilgrimage to the top, a tradition that began in the 1860s and continues today. Aside and apart from seasonal pilgrims, the steps are enjoyable year round, regardless of your beliefs, and offer a somewhat circuitous pathway to Sawyer Point.

The Mt. Adams steps have several segments. First, there is the initial descent from the church to St. Gregory. Turning left toward the river, you will spy an oddly Moorish-modernist house on the hillside, where a neighboring hillside park marks the next stage of the journey. Continuing downward on these steps, you will cross over Columbia Parkway and find yourself in one of the great little unknown parks of Cincinnati.

It is also, for the most part, a great little unknown story.

Located at the lower entrance to the Mt. Adams steps, the “Good Friday Arch,” constructed around 1853, was once the entrance to the Riverview Playground on Martin Place (now Adams Place). The imposing, Classical-style limestone arch was built as part of the Cincinnati Water Works Third Street Reservoir. This property later became a city park and playground in 1915. The stairway leading up to Mt. Adams and various secondary pathways were removed at an unknown date, and in 1973, much of Riverview Park was removed for the construction of I-71. All that remained were the arch, an elliptical plaza and a series of steps and stone walls.

In 1989, the city approved the temporary dismantling and storage of the entire plaza -- walls, step and arch -- to be reinstalled along Martin Street at a future, unknown date. The then-developer of the neighboring Adams Landing condo project intended to build a second, companion structure, after which the plaza and arch would be reinstalled.
Alas, the developer encountered difficulties, the second building was never constructed, and the arch, Arc of the Covenant-like, languished in warehouse storage for the next 19 years. Fortunately, the arch was gone but not forgotten, and in 2004 the city concluded that the indefinite storage of an enormous arch and limestone plaza was neither desirable nor particularly cost-effective.  

As part of the city’s $1.5 million “Mt. Adams Pedestrian Path” project, the Department of Transportation & Engineering dusted off the old limestone and set about reconstructing the plaza. Around the same time, the City’s Department of Transportation & Engineering was evaluating the replacement of the somewhat eroding stairway leading from St. Gregory Street to Immaculata Church in Mt. Adams. This project was then expanded to include the “Good Friday Arch” as well as other features in order to re-connect the path to Mt. Adams neighborhoods by a series of hillside steps and landscaped walkways.

Today, the arch and plaza are an amazing testament to the City’s foresight in not simply relegating the limestone blocks to the ash heap of history. Additionally the story provides a nice denouement to our little foray on just a few of our city’s many steps, and the history and discoveries that lie therein.  

As noted at the outset, this was but a subjective sampling of the 400+ different adventures available on our fair city’s hillside steps. Who knows what other hidden history is out there? Go for a hike and find out. And post your favorite steps via Facebook comments below.

Take a hike:
Also, for those interested, please see Spring in Our Steps, “a consortium of committed Cincinnati residents, who feel that forgotten pedestrian spaces can become some of the city's best assets. The group initiates community-oriented projects in Cincinnati's alleyways, on its hillside steps, as well as on its most neglected sidewalks, to recreate clean and useable spaces exercises our pride in the community.”

Thank you to Adrienne Cowden, formerly the City’s Interim Urban Conservator, for information with regard to the reconstruction of the Good Friday Arch and plaza.

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.