Hannaford's legacy lives on in passionate Cincinnati architectural community

Riding the #78 bus heading downtown via Vine Street, young Betty Ann Smiddy from College Hill studies certain buildings with fascination. She is not an architect by trade or a student of it, just a young girl admiring buildings that evoke inspiration and curiosity, like good design should.

That was decades ago; fast forward to today. Smiddy can still be found studying the 19th-century work of Samuel Hannaford, Cincinnati's best-known architect whose iconic designs include Music Hall, City Hall, Elsinore Arch and the Cincinnati Observatory, among many other landmark structures that still define much of our urban landscape.

“We didn’t have a car, so I rode the bus everywhere growing up,” says Smiddy. “There were certain buildings when I saw them, to me they felt friendly, like I wanted to know more about them. They really engaged me as a child when I looked at them.”

Samuel Hannaford's Memorial Hall in OTR (Photo: Josh Purnell)

In search of Hannaford’s legacy, Smiddy contacted one of the architect’s relatives, which provided the opportunity to ask questions, study old letters, lists, notes — anything to learn more and understand the scope of Hannaford’s work.

“When I got older, I started looking, ‘What is there about Samuel Hannaford?’ And there really wasn’t anything,” says Smiddy. “I wanted to know more. Okay, he was an architect, but what was he like as a person?”

What Smiddy discovered was Hannaford’s life in the context of a major influx of German immigrants in the mid-1800s.

“When he was an architect, Cincinnati was experiencing its greatest period of growth,” says Smiddy. “With a German population, they wanted buildings that reminded them of home, like Old St. George Church. They wanted buildings that looked substantial. To them, the most important thing in the world was to have a piece of land with a house on it because they couldn’t do that at home.”

Hannaford was progressive in his process, considering aspects of design that weren’t always clear cut. He strived to build structures that could last multiple centuries. That often called for innovation and problem-solving unheard of for the era: Hannaford experimented with flame-retardant materials and proposed coal abatement to the city when resulting dust began covering local buildings.

“He did what he could to keep things in good shape, low maintenance and safe — he also was very involved with the idea of ventilation,” Smiddy says. “He used materials that for their time were as easy to take care of as possible.”

A legacy lives on

Much of Hannaford’s work was defined by his progressive thought, sustainable design and attention to detail. And although he died in 1911, many current local architects and designers are still familiar with his techniques and ideas for sourcing quality materials and constructing sustainably.

Cincinnati-based architecture and design firm Drawing Dept was founded in 2005. For the Drawing Dept team, design means digging deep into the context of a structure — beyond the programmatic needs of a building — and learning all about a client before any technical decisions are even considered.

Drawing Dept architectural firm in Oakley (Photo: Josh Purnell)

“There’s a deeper layer and architectural history that’s beyond just the physical fabric of the city,” says Rob Busch, founding partner of the Drawing Dept. “When we practice architecture, things like knowing that someone can handcraft tiles, like Rookwood Pottery — not only do we tap into them to fulfill a vision, but it actually influences the way we think, and that was probably true in 1880 and I think it’s just as true now.”

The same goes for wood, concrete or any other building material. “We have incredible wood-making and casework-making places in the city — world-class people that build cabinetry. We tap into those resources. We have a craft industry that has survived here for 120-140 years that still influences the way we make things, the way we think about things.”

But the firm rejects the idea that a modern-day architect is a single “master builder.” To them, design is more collaborative and requires careful consideration about each aspect of a job and who is right for it.

“I’ve heard Rob say, ‘The guy who digs the ditch, that guy is an expert at digging ditches. We need to talk to that guy, because he knows something we don’t know,'” says Ron Novak, another founding member of the firm.

Busch echoes this notion: “The best projects we do are highly collaborative, really drawing on other people’s strengths. If we can get the best out of other people, we’ll get good projects. It’s not going to happen by us dictating it on paper.”

Drawing Dept staff draws inspiration from within as well. They might approach a client with three or four ideas generated by different people in the office, so everything isn’t coming from the top down.

“As soon we don’t use our team, we’ve failed,” Novak says. “Everyone has different emotional attachments, history, baggage, scavenging, memories, knowledge, skills. They’ll see a space differently and challenge other team members so we turn over every stone.”

Focusing on both residential and commercial design, Drawing Dept received six awards at this year's Cincinnati Design Awards, and has worked on buildings and businesses such as Sartre OTR, Please Cincinnati, Revel Urban Winery and Brown Bear Bakery.

“All of those folks, we touched by getting into their lives, learning what is important to them," says Novak. “With Brown Bear Bakery, the first question we asked was, ‘Why do you love to bake?’” 

Busch and Novak joke that this is actually “the lost art of listening,” and that approaching each project with this mentality allows them to discover necessary details that inspire design and bring feeling to a neighborhood or place. “You get excited about a project or what a client does, and you instantly sort of go into create mode,” Busch says. “You have to intentionally slow yourself down and make sure you’re bringing them along and that you’re really hearing from them.”

Revel Urban Winery in OTR (Photo: Drawing Dept)

Creating a blueprint for future design

Naturally, architectural desires, expectations and limitations have changed since Hannaford's time. But great architects and designers have always found new ways to approach projects and solve problems. For Hannaford, that meant using materials to deter fires in an era when flammability was especially problematic, or responding to the desire for buildings that reminded German immigrants of home.

For Drawing Dept, innovation means listening, collaborating and constantly looking forward.

“We rarely say things in the office like ‘typically’ or ‘we always,'” Busch explains. “Not that we don’t learn from our mistakes or learn from history, but I think it’s thin to try to make some link like, ‘There was good architecture then and there’s good architecture now.’”

For aficionados like Smiddy, whether she's looking at a classic Hannaford design or a new creation from a firm like Drawing Dept, thoughtful architecture and design always solves problems, evokes emotion and tells a story. “The buildings are the touchstones of the history of a community,” she says.

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Read more articles by Kyle Stone.

Kyle is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati. When he isn't writing, he's making music, riding his bike and taking photos of his adventures.