On a dark Wednesday evening in mid-November, members of the Walnut Hills Historical Society
trickled into a repurposed church building on William Howard Taft between Stanton Avenue and Hemlock Street.
The members introduced themselves and got right down to the “business” of conducting a historical society meeting, starting with a conversation about the history of the building itself.
One organizing member, Sue Plummer, presented the group with research starting in the early 1880s, when the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Epiphany constructed the building. Her research continued through two congregations, Stanton Avenue Church of the Nazarene (1938-1970) and New Sardis Baptist Church (1971-2006) that later occupied the space.
Nowadays, the building exists as a music studio known as The Monastery
, operated by husband-and-wife owners Ric and Karen Hordinski. Ric was a founding member of the band Over the Rhine; he left in 1995 to focus on solo guitar work. The couple bought it from New Sardis in 2006 when the congregation disbanded. Ric explained to the gathered historical society members that when he first entered, the building was like a time capsule, with sermon notes, a pair of reading glasses still perched on the pulpit and unfiled bills on the desk in the office.
These time capsules are gold mines for the historical society, which formed only two years ago as an ad hoc section of the Walnut Hills Area Council
, devoted to uncovering, preserving and sharing the history of the neighborhood.
A first foothold, Walnut Hills continues to connect diverse residents
Plummer, who has worked in Walnut Hills since 2008 and moved to the neighborhood in May, has been involved with the historical society since the beginning.
“I think (longtime Walnut Hills resident and advocate) Gary Dangel was the one that told me about the first meeting," Plummer said. "He and I showed up and it was this big, long meeting — I had to leave because we’d been there for a good two hours, I think, and people were still talking. I think they were just excited about all the possibilities, and that’s kind of how I got pulled in.”
That meeting back in February 2014 was initiated by longtime Harriet Beecher Stowe House
volunteer Barbara Furr, who for several years had been thinking about organizing a historical society in Walnut Hills.
Bulletin board at a recent historical society meeting shows historic photos from Walnut Hills Church of the Advent.
For Plummer and many others, it was a perfect opportunity to delve deeper into the neighborhood. “For me, it’s another vehicle to put me in touch with a variety of my neighbors, because that’s one thing I get very excited about with Walnut Hills — how diverse it’s always been,” she said.
In many ways, the neighborhood’s story is a unique one in Cincinnati. Connected to the city’s basin by one of the earliest streetcar lines and built on the legacies of the Kempers — a founding family who built the First Presbyterian Church of Walnut Hills in 1819 — as well as the abolitionist-leaning Lane Seminary
, Walnut Hills was one of the first, densest and most diverse of Cincinnati’s hilltop neighborhoods.
“This was one of the more significant African-American, middle-class communities," Plummer said. "One of the first African-American business districts in the city, it was a refuge; there were Underground Railroad way stations here, which really set a precedent.”
It did indeed set a precedent. To help pay its bills, Lane Seminary began leasing plots of land to African Americans in the 1840s — a period in Cincinnati’s history, lasting all the way through the 1960s, when almost no one in the city, outside of the slums in the West End, would rent or sell real estate to African Americans.
Subsequently, Walnut Hills became the proverbial “Gold Coast” for the city’s African-American community, as activist and former mayor Ted Berry once described. Lincoln Avenue was a haven for white-collar African American workers and middle-class families. The community boasted a robust black business district with establishments like Sherman’s Flower Shop and Miss Daisy’s Beauty Salon and Spa (purportedly the nation’s first African American-owned spa). On Chapel Street, the Manse Hotel housed the local NAACP chapter and hosted notable visitors of the day, including James Brown.
The neighborhood even became the site of Washington Terrace, Joseph Schmidlapp’s attempt to provide dignified working-class housing for African Americans.
These places appeared in the "Negro Motorist Green Book
," a national guide published from the 1930s to the 1960s that helped African American travelers find safe hotels and welcoming restaurants in America's segregated landscape. Cincinnati's "Green Book" listings are clustered in the West End and Walnut Hills, reflecting the importance of the neighborhood to the city's African-American community in the mid-1900s.
“I think this is where a lot of the movers and shakers were,” Plummer said. “This was a pretty special place.”
Historical society works to raise visibility, ride tide of development
Part of the historical society’s mission is relying on historical archives and surviving residential accounts to investigate these stories and perpetuate the rich history of Walnut Hills. In early October, the group appeared at the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation
-sponsored Street Food Festival, offering residents the chance to share memories via a retro photo booth.
In March, collaborating with surviving members of the family that owned McDevitt’s Menswear, the historical society hosted a walking tour called “Walk McMillan with the McDevitts,”
an event that was designed to transport people back to the heyday of Peeble’s Corner — historically one of the city’s most significant shopping districts outside of downtown.
Attendees gather outside Paramount Building for March's "Walk McMillan with the McDevvitts."
The tour ran from Fireside Pizza, which occupies the city’s oldest standing firehouse, to McDevitt’s shop in the Paramount Building on the corner of Gilbert and McMillan, then on to the Brew House neighborhood pub.
“We met Patrick McDevitt, and it was actually his idea,” Plummer said. “He thought it could be a really easy fundraiser, and it coincided well with the WHRF having just acquired the Paramount Building.”
Attendees got a chance to go inside the old menswear shop in the Paramount Building and hear from people who had worked there before it closed in 1970.
One idea slowly gaining momentum is the compilation of a comprehensive neighborhood oral history project. A partnership with the local raconteurs at Cincy Stories has made it more feasible.
After the tour, it became clear that the historical society needed more volunteers. The group decided to begin holding meetings at different venues around the neighborhood, including First Baptist Church on Park Avenue, Church of the Advent on Kemper Lane and The Monastery.
Each meeting has allowed these spaces to add their own piece to Walnut Hills' history that the society is compiling.
“I think with every meeting we get a little more help,” Plummer said, listing the new residents and volunteers they have met over the past three months. “I think it’s going to be a slow build, but that’s OK.”
One idea slowly gaining momentum is the compilation of a comprehensive neighborhood oral history project. For a long time, the historical society didn’t feel ready for a project of that scale, but a partnership with the local raconteurs at Cincy Stories
has made it more feasible. To date, the group has held two public oral history workshops and has begun using smartphone apps and low-cost microphones to facilitate resident-led interviews.
“(Cincy Stories) can teach us some basics of interviewing,” Plummer said. “It will also give the neighborhood a sense that they can contribute. That’s a really important part of this whole thing; it’s not just us saying, ‘Here is the history,’ but, ‘You can help us gather this history, there’s a really important role you can play.’”
Part of that role will be in seeing how lessons from Walnut Hills’ past will shape its future. Plummer points to the neighborhood’s story in the second half of the 20th century to highlight the modern questions it raises.
“In terms of suburbanization, this neighborhood is a prime example of the loss of population to the suburbs,” she said. “Part of this neighborhood was wiped out to make room for a highway, making it a drive-through neighborhood rather than a drive-to neighborhood. That’s important (in comparison to the current) renewal, revitalization efforts and the ‘ugly gentrification monster.’ Is that what’s going to happen to us? Are we going to be like Over-the-Rhine? How do we do that? How do we do it equitably and hold onto our population, and hold onto our diverse mix?”
Click below for an audio "walking tour" of Walnut Hills with historian Kathryne Gardette, one of the neighborhood’s most visible and actively involved residents.
On The Ground in Walnut Hills is underwritten by Place Matters partners LISC and United Way and the neighborhood nonprofit Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation who are collectively working together for community transformation. Additional support for data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center.