Shades of Grayscale: historic brewery revives to showcase local culture, spirits

Beyond Findlay Market, Main Street, the Gateway Quarter and Pendleton sits a still relatively untouched parcel of Over-the-Rhine. Rich with brewery buildings and residential lots, the streets north of Liberty have not yet taken their turn in the neighborhood's redevelopment spotlight.

Until now. 

Plans for a new performing arts center signal not only a growing interest in the brewery district, but a growing belief in the stability and reach of OTR's comeback.

And in the process, two level-headed entrepreneurs, founders of Grayscale Cincinnati, have become an integral part of building the city’s newest cultural epicenter.

Their work is focused on the 60,000-square-foot Jackson Brewery building, which has sat dormant nearly two decades. It’s perched on the northern tip of Elm Street, just across from the proposed streetcar’s last stop. 

Scott Hand and Dominic Marino, Fairfield High School alums who moved back to Cincinnati from Chicago not so very long ago, are working with the building’s owner, Fred Berger, to transform the massive space into something they’ve never seen anywhere else. 

The plans for the first floor of the Grayscale Performing Arts Center include two performance spaces, a lobby and bar open to the general public, and a craft alcohol maker, ideally a local brewer, distiller or vintner, with a tasting room. And that’s just the first phase, which the business partners hope to open by Bockfest 2014.

Like the immigrants who preceded them in the neighborhood, Hand and Marino have dreams to pursue. Hand, 32, is a DAAP-educated architect and former band member/accordian collector who spent seven-plus years designing new theaters in old spaces in Chicago. Marino, 29, is a genre-defying trombonist and CCM professor who has played in “every music venue in town.”

The pair reconnected when they both lived in the Oak Park neighborhood of Chicago. Marino was studying at DePaul; Hand was already working with top acousticians on projects like redesigning the upstairs room at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Together, they envisioned a new space for artisans of varied types in their home city—part performance venue, part beverage lab and bar.

They found themselves back in Cincinnati—Hand in Hyde Park and Marino in Oakley—and they kept talking. And Hand kept looking. When he stumbled across the Jackson Brewery building last year, he knew he’d found the right spot.

“It’s a pretty fantastic building,” Hand says. “It fits into a lot of the different things we were looking for when we started.”

Though built as a brewery, the Jackson building has lived several lives, including a run making root beer during Prohibition. Owners tried to start brewing again after 1933, but business faltered by the early 1940s. Hand has pieced together this much of the building’s history after that: the Gibson Wine Company used it for distribution, as did a metal blast company, hence the faded painting on the Mohawk Street façade. After that, A to Z Restaurant Supply occupied the space until the early 1990s. 

What remained when he and Marino toured the building last year were endless stacks of refuse and random storage items—from abandoned cars to kitchen sinks—as well as spaces already divided in ways that suited the pair’s plans. 

Those plans call for a 192-seat live theater that can be converted into a cinema. It will share a backstage and loading area with a live music venue designed to accommodate about 300 people.

“They are all going to share a main lobby space, bar and tasting room,” says Hand, whose architecture firm is working on the interior renovations.

“There’s a big need for something that’s focused on premium acoustics and not a bar or a restaurant,” says Marino, who serves as Grayscale’s president. “We can keep those two ideas separate.”

He sees Grayscale as a complement to a small bar venue like MOTR and larger spaces Northern Kentucky, where smaller acts can get lost. Local musicians agree that Grayscale will fill an important niche.

“It’s a big deal for Cincinnati,” says Jeff Mellott, drummer for “Us, Today” and “Sassafraz,” both of which were nominated for Cincinnati Entertainment Awards in 2012. “A lot of the venues in this town tend to get defined by certain styles. I feel like you can expect anything from this space.”

Mellott sat alongside Marino one year at CCM; the next year the trombonist was his teacher. “With Dominic, his tastes are so wide,” Mellott says. “I know the variety in that venue is going to be better than any other place in town.”

Grayscale’s fans aren’t limited to musicians, though. Neighbors have also taken note.

“They’ve got a vision,” says Bryant Goulding, vice president of marketing for Rhinegeist, the Elm Street brewery that is also located north of Liberty Street and set to open by the end of the year. He moved to Cincinnati from San Francisco, where he worked with craft brewers before bringing his talents to Over-the-Rhine. 

Hand and Marino recently invited him to tour the former Jackson Brewery space. “It brings an interesting variety to the neighborhood,” Goulding says of the venture. “There is very little art this far north.”

He’s admittedly a fan of the brewery district landscape and how Grayscale fits into it. “The way it sits up on the hill is absolutely fantastic,” Goulding says. “There are so many parts of Cincinnati that take you to another place; and that’s one of them.”

Goulding sees potential in the streets around Rhinegeist, where the skeletons of former breweries are finding new life. “It’s a blank canvas in a way, yet that canvas was created over 100 years ago,” he says. “There’s something really special about this neighborhood.” 

Still, potential can fade without funding, which is why Hand and Marino are happy to be partnering with Berger, the building’s owner and a supporter of their plans. He is investing in repairs to the shell of the building, including ongoing tuck-pointing, while Hand and Marino are coordinating the interior renovations for the first floor. Long-term plans include renovating the building's second full floor, as well as its partial third floor, partial attic and two partial basements, filling them with offices, a recording studio, a restaurant and studio spaces. 

Hand, who serves as secretary of Grayscale, estimates interior renovations to the first floor to cost about $700,000, with about the same amount, or a bit more, needed for the exterior. He and Marino are funding their portion with investments, loans and a soon-to-launch Kickstarter campaign designed to raise funds mostly for sound and lighting equipment.

“We came back here to our hometown to do something for the city that we think the city needs,” Marino says. “We are passionate about it, and we just can’t wait.”

Do you know more about the Jackson Brewery building’s history? Please share it in the section below.

Elissa Yancey is managing editor of and an educator associate professor of Journalism at the University of Cincinnati. Follow her on Twitter.

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