Why Ann Senefeld digs Cincinnati's history, and why you should too

Cincinnati is a place with deep roots and stories to tell. Its history is found, in part, in the stories of the buildings, but these stories don’t tell themselves.

That’s where Ann Senefeld comes in. Her Digging Cincinnati History business is uncovering the buried story of Cincinnati — it’s ancestors, its architects and its pioneers — as she pieces together the family trees of buildings across the city.

Every building has a story
Senefeld’s fascination with history started with an old farmhouse in Colerain Township, a place she called “home” as a child. She recalls how she first learned the story of the house.
“When I was in grade school, my sister was in high school at the time and she did a report on the history of the house,” she says. “So she and mom went to the Recorder’s office and the History Museum and other places just to find out the history. It was a lot harder back then — this was in the 1980s, before the Internet. But we did get to talk to some previous owners of the house, which was really neat.”

Her mother’s and sister’s research revealed the deep, rich history of their family home. The farmhouse structure traces back to at least 1869, and the land’s ownership can be traced back as far as the Symmes Purchase in the late 18th Century. 

Knowing the history of her home gave Senefeld a deeper appreciation for it specifically and for historic homes in general. As she aged out of her childhood home, she maintained interest in historic places and has always enjoyed driving through Cincinnati’s historic neighborhoods.

Eventually her personal interest went public.
While doing research on her own family tree, Senefeld stumbled on some interesting information about Cincinnati’s Gamble family of Procter & Gamble fame. At the time, a group of Cincinnati residents, historians and preservationists were working on a campaign to halt the demolition of a historically significant Gamble family home in Westwood, so she passed the information along. In addition to the Gamble family tree, Senefeld searched online and in public databases for photos, public records and property maps.
Her hope in sharing the information was to reveal a history that was significant enough to warrant preserving the property. Sadly, in a blow to the historic preservation community in Cincinnati, the Gamble house was demolished, but the fire had been lit for Senefeld.

She got connected online to the Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA) and started sharing information — sometimes unsolicited — about other properties they were trying to save.
Her contribution is understandably appreciated by the Cincinnati Preservation Association. But, even with her help, not every building can be saved. Senefeld reminisces about four significant properties in the urban core that have been lost recently: the Lytle mansion, a building at 1314 Vine St., three homes on Arch Street and a Merchant Marine Hospital in the East End.
Margo Warminski is the CPA Preservation Director and has seen the value of Senefeld’s research, even if it hasn’t saved every building.

“Ann provides an invaluable service by researching historic buildings that are in danger of demolition and helping us make the case for saving them,” she says. “She also ‘digs up’ histories of buildings that are being renovated or singled out for recognition. Her work is very thorough, using multiple sources, and her rates are reasonable.”
Senefeld’s connection to the CPA is what eventually brought her research into the public eye. After sharing photos from her blog of a tour she’d taken of a historic property, her Facebook page skyrocketed to nearly 7,000 followers. She didn’t set out for the publicity, though — she “digs” for the pure enjoyment of it. She likes the hunt.

“One of my previous bosses called me a ‘houndog,’” she says. “If there’s information to be found, I will hunt it down until we find it.”

Private investigator
Senefeld has an intuitive inclination toward research and history but, until recently, not the professional background.

She spent most of her adult life mothering her children and working as an administrative assistant. Then she took a leap toward legitimizing her research work and completed a Bachelor’s degree at Xavier University in May 2014 with a minor in history.

Senefeld graduated from college on the same day as her daughter, which was the happy culmination of 26 years of off-again, on-again college education.
She considers herself a “scientific historian.” She has a gift of finding and then pulling together various bits and pieces of historical information (property maps; deeds; ownership records; family trees; marriage, death and burial information) to create the story of a property or home. She likens it to a puzzle and estimates she’s pieced together the histories of at least 300 properties to date.

“I really like finding the details and making sure they match,” she says.
While much of Senefeld’s research is publicly available on her blog and Facebook page, she also offers consultation services. Much like a private investigator, she enjoys doing the footwork for people who don’t have the time for or the interest in searching themselves.

After her work is done, she compiles the property’s story. She says her clients vary.

“I’ve had Realtors do them as closing gifts for buyers,” she says. “I also have people who will do them as birthday gifts or anniversary gifts for spouses, gifts for mom and dad at Christmas, sometimes it’s people looking to apply for historic grants and need the historic information to write a narrative of the property.”
Sometimes clients are simply owners curious what stories their building holds or family members hoping to find the history of long-gone relatives.
Urban Sites, the Over-the-Rhine based property development company, hires Senefeld to research the history of their buildings. Seth Maney, the company’s executive vice president, believes the stories she tells are a great asset to the city.
“Cincinnati is a city with an amazing story to tell,” he says. “There is a growing movement to celebrate and honor our history as the city experiences a rebirth. Ann does the hard work of finding the stories of specific buildings, people, streets and neighborhoods. Whether peculiar or mundane, Ann’s research pulls back the curtain on the Queen City. Digging Cincinnati History adds value by bringing our city’s many hidden histories to a large audience.”
Maney notes that Senefeld is also part of a campaign to create an Over-the-Rhine Museum. According to its Facebook page, this museum is poised to be a significant contribution to the ongoing story of Cincinnati’s urban core:

“The museum will be housed in an historic tenement building in OTR and will use the physical fabric of the building to tell the stories of OTR residents through time. This experiential, immersive museum will be based on the model of New York City’s award-winning Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The museum will seek to present visitors with a unique, hands-on encounter with the history of Cincinnati’s most intact historic neighborhood. The museum further seeks to engage the public in telling the stories of Over-the-Rhine through public programs and innovative research initiatives.”

Sharing the ‘how to’

Senefeld is a master of her craft, but she has no desire to monopolize the market. She finds so much pleasure in uncovering a building’s history that she also helps people find the information themselves.

She recently self-published a book, Finding Your Home's Ancestors: A Guide to Researching Properties in Hamilton County, Ohio, that provides tips for people doing their own research. She frequently offers tips and hints on her blog such as finding archived public photographs of historic buildings.
Her hope is that the history of these historic places will encourage more preservation, if preservation is possible, and help property owners care for their own homes. Citing the Gamble house demolition, Senefeld admits, “This is where I struggle as a historian and preservationist: Where do you drop the line at people’s personal rights versus saving history? Can you force someone to save their house? I just wish there were more stewards who, if and when they buy a historic house, would take a responsibility to take care of it.”
Are all historic properties worth saving? No, she doesn’t think so.

“I think it depends on its unique properties,” she says. “Is it (important because of) who lived there? Is it because of the style? And I think that at some point you have to look at the structure itself. Financially, is it worth bringing it back?

“I understand that there are reasons why people can’t restore. Would I rather they sell it to someone who can? Yeah, I would. But there are legal rights. You can do what you’d like to your property. I just wish loving people would buy it instead.”
Ironically, Senefeld doesn’t live in a historic home. She’s moved on from her old farmhouse, of course, but Colerain Township remains home.

She hopes to move into a historic home some day, after her children are grown and out of school. She lists Hyde Park, Pleasant Ridge and Norwood among her favorite Cincinnati neighborhoods. If possible, she’d love to restore a neglected property and bring it back to life. 
Her childhood home still stands today, holding strong on a plot of land just off of I-275. She’s contacted the new owners and knows they have made some changes to the home — removed porches, replaced the windows, etc. — but is pleased overall that they’re taking good care of it.
“I know that the new owner has an appreciation for the history of the house,” she says, “and he has two little boys who are going to grow up there.”

She’s happy to know that those boys are now two more branches on the farmhouse’s family tree.
The future of Cincinnati is built on the stories of its past, stories like that of her 19th Century farmhouse. Thanks to a little extra digging, those stories can now be told and past, present and future Cincinnatians can become a part of the much greater story throughout the Ohio River valley.
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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.