Soapdish: Crosley, Pulitzer highlight local preservation victories

If there’s one thing sets Cincinnati apart from many of our peer cities, it is a well-stocked array of historic structures. The Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA) has been at the forefront of raising our region’s collective awareness of the value of those irreplaceable, venerated structures, and, to the extent humanly possible, ensuring that they are not relegated to the ash heap of history. Here are but a few of the past year’s most memorable victories.

Powel Crosley Jr.’s “Pinecroft” estate, our first honoree, will be open for tours Sat., May 12, as part of the CPA’s annual “Upstairs/Downstairs” Historic House Tour. Yes, that’s right, your Mother’s Day gift has pretty much just wrapped itself.

Located on 17 wooded acres in Mt. Airy, the 1928-era, 13,500-square-foot Pinecroft is a lasting legacy to the ubiquitous Cincinnati inventor and media tycoon. Crosley was a relentless entrepreneur and inventor, often dubbing his latest creations with a “gee whiz” style moniker straight out of a 1940’s radio broadcast—the “Roamio” (first car radio), the “Reado” (first fax machine) and the “Shelvador” (first refrigerator with shelves in the door). Replicas of retro Crosley radios and portable record players are still sold in stores today, and his Crosley automobiles (the first compact cars) are coveted by collectors. By virtue of his ownership of the Reds (first baseball game under the lights), and radio station WLW (first radio soap opera), he built WLW into a veritable, coast-to-coast media colossus, the most powerful station in the world between 1934 and 1939.

Naturally, a man of such titanic accomplishments would want a grande manse befitting his legacy. The sprawling Pinecroft estate is just such a monument. The venerable English manor home was designed by Dwight James Baum, a New York architect who worked primarily in New York and Sarasota. Baum was fresh off of designing Ca’ de’Zan in Sarasota, the stunning, waterfront mansion built for Mabel and John Ringling (of circus fame). Moving from one out-sized prohibition-era tycoon to the next, Baum found in Crosley a willing client.

Pinecroft was originally a mammoth, 280-acre estate, replete with a nine-hole golf course, stables, Olympic-sized swimming pool, polo field, vineyards, airstrip….all the typical accoutrements for the well-dressed mogul of the time. Now checking in at a modest 17 acres, the estate reverberates with the grandiose aspirations of its heyday. A tour reveals hidden doors, stained glass, Rookwood tiles, zinc kitchen sinks and several mammoth safes (one of which hides a booze cellar—this was Prohibition. after all).
Crosley died in 1961, and the estate later came under the ownership of neighboring Mercy Hospital, who proved to be a capable steward in the manor’s dormant years. As Mercy looked to transition its operations to a newly constructed hospital near the highway, they also sought to extricate themselves from the mansion-owning business.

Enter the Cincinnati Preservation Association.

Last Fall, Mercy transferred ownership of Pinecroft to the CPA. In addition, the CPA explored the possibility of generating revenue from the site in order to fund necessary maintenance and upgrades, and found a willing partner (among many eager candidates) in Funky’s Catering. In the past year, new commercial kitchens have been installed in the former garage, a permanent tent structure with a wooden floor has risen from the site of the former tennis court, and fresh paint and refinished floors have given new life to Pinecroft.

(Contact Pinecroft to book events. Visit the CPA for information on the Upstairs/Downstairs House Tour, and remember, tickets must be purchased in advance.)

Rauh House
Our second great preservation victory of the past 12 months is the Rauh House in Woodlawn, just outside of Wyoming. This modernist gem, completed in 1938, is one of the first “International Style” homes built in Ohio. Designed by pioneering modernist local architect John Becker (husband of Marilyn Rombauer Becker of “Joy of Cooking” fame), the 4,500-square-foot home was built for insurance executive Frederick and Harriet Rauh and their two children. The Rauh family lived there from 1938 until 1964, when it was sold to another family.

In addition to hiring Becker, the Rauhs also hired noted landscape architect A.D. Taylor to design the surrounding nine or so acres. Taylor also provided landscape designs for the Fleischman and Peterloon estates in Indian Hill, as well as such grand, Depression-era public projects such as Alms and Ault parks, and Mt. Echo.

Following its glory years, however, the home fell on hard times after being sold to subsequent speculators, who saw an opportunity to subdivide and profit on the real estate boom of the new millennium. Several lots were sold off, but as the Great Recession went into full effect, the Rauh House languished in increasingly decaying obscurity.  

Gina Anaple, who passed the home on her daily commute and witnessed the home’s deterioration, determined to save this (at the time) unknown landmark. Anaple and her husband Gary tracked down the Rauh descendants, writing pleas to save the home. Eventually, one of these preservation distress calls found its way to Emily Rauh Pulitzer, the daughter of Frederick and Harriet. Pulitzer, a graduate of Walnut Hills High School, lived in the home from age 5 to 24, and endured questions from friends and neighbors who likened its aesthetic appearance to that of a “gas station.” When Anaple first made contact with Pulitzer in January 2010, she warned that the property was threatened with extinction and being marketed as a “teardown.”

Emily Pulitzer clearly had an affection for the home, which had no small influence on her upbringing and appreciation for the arts. After graduating from Walnut Hills, Pulitzer graduates from Bryn Mawr with honors in Art History, followed by a Masters in Art History at Harvard as well as matriculating at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. After a stint at, among other places, the Cincinnati Art Museum, Pulitzer moved to St. Louis in 1964 to be curator of the St. Louis Art Museum. She built an impressive curriculum vitae over the course of her career, one which is still expanding. She is the widow of former St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor/publisher Joseph Pulitzer, Jr,, of Pulitzer Prize fame. Avid collectors, Joseph and Emily Pulitzer gave a gift of 31 major works of modern and contemporary art and $45 million to the Harvard Art Museum in 2008.

After receiving the letter from Anaple, Pulitzer sprang into action. In 2010, she created an entity which purchased the home and some of the property, and then later acquired the balance of the acreage via sheriff’s sale in April 2011. Extensive discussions began between Pulitzer and the CPA regarding the future of the home. In September 2011, both parties agreed to transfer the home and surrounding property to the CPA, with Pulitzer also funding a full, top-down/bottom-up restoration of the house and surrounding landscape to its original Becker and Taylor-designed glory. Once it is completed (estimated to be September/October 2012), the home will be open for some tours and events, and can then be sold by the CPA, with very strict restrictions (including that it remain a single-family home). Pulitzer actively follows the renovations and has visited the site on several occasions.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help
The preservationist’s job is never done, particularly when there is so much deserving of preservation. Although space limitations do not allow me to give this project the accolades it deserves, special mention should be made of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help church in Sedamsville, which for many years had been known as Our Lady of Perpetual Need. This 1888 Gothic Revival church, with a soaring 170-foot steeple, was in grave danger of falling victim to the wrecking ball as funds to restore it were few and far between. In the past five years or so, the most activity it ever saw was as a set-piece for ruins pornographers. The CPA recently secured a grant by the City of Cincinnati to stabilize the property. This is the first building on the west side to be repaired under the City’s Stabilization of Structures program, and it will certainly not be the last. As CPA Executive Director Paul Muller noted, “without a doubt this is huge…a major success.”

While there have also been some disappointments on the preservation battle field, one cannot help but think that Cincinnati is increasingly on the right side of the equation when it comes to the appropriate reverence and respect for our architectural heritage. Cities like Savannah and Charleston make a living off of architectural heritage tourism. With Cincinnati’s historic building stock, not just in Over the Rhine, but all around the region, there’s no reason we can’t be in the same conversation as Charleston and Savannah. Happy Preservation Month.

Soapdish Columnist Casey Coston is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Cincinnati Preservation Association

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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