Soapdish: Bohemia Rises

Bohemia Rises

Although the global economy has, shall we say, been less than encouraging in recent months, downtown Cincinnati continues to see a relative resurgence as something of a nightlife and entertainment hub. That said, however, whether such new establishments will actually draw new patrons, as opposed to cannibalizing existing clientele, remains to be seen.  In any event, the buzz on the recently opened Bootsy's (as, um, produced by Jeff Ruby) continues to draw the crowds into its cross-pollination of funk, sushi, tapas and Paris-meets-Morocco nightclub decor.  Meanwhile, just up the street from the Bootsy's glass-enclosed lift, one-time notorious uber-dive bar the Phoenix Cafe ("25 Years of Age and Older Only!") is receiving a thorough delousing and apparent structural disemboweling.  The Phoenix was one of those last remaining vestiges of a somewhat quasi-Bowery/Skid Row aspect of downtown Cincinnati, most of which was eradicated with the construction of the Aronoff Center for the Arts and surrounding developments. In its heyday, the Phoenix was the number one seller in all the land of Kessler's smooth-as-silk whiskey, which, I guess, tells us something.  It also had the distinction of being the only bar in Cincinnati to remain continuously in operation since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. All crimson-eyed, lachrymose nostalgia aside, however, it was clear that the Phoenix's days were numbered as its liquor license neared termination in 2007. Truth be told, there was not a lot of romantic Bukowski-esque charm to the dive. It was pretty much a dump squatting rather unceremoniously in the glittering heart of urban renewal. 

Since its closure, the ubiquitous 3CDC has taken title to the Phoenix site and has brokered a deal with local barkeep impresarios Ben Klopp, Bob Deck and Dan Cronican (see, the Pavilion and aliveone in Mt. Adams, the Stand in Mt. Lookout, and Keystone in Covington) who are planning to open a new establishment on the site this Spring.  Described as a "big city bar," and dubbed the "Righteous Room," the total project cost is estimated at around $2 million, with an entertainment space on the first floor, as well as three residential units that they are developing in the floors above.  This is strictly a bar/lounge type establishment (no mediocre food or mediocre live bands), with a long bar along the wall, and the requisite jukebox playing a set list which will apparently read like a hybrid of those at the Stand and aliveone.  As an added bonus, the bar will feature a 700 square foot outdoor area in what was formerly a (no doubt cigar-smoke-filled) "back room" in the Phoenix.  Rather than looking at it as a patio space, they envision this as basically a room missing a roof, and will feature a glass-tiled bar and DJ booth as well as the requisite standing heat-lamps.

Meanwhile, a few blocks across town, the "MainStay RockBar," in the former Spy Club/Viper/Poison Room/Fathom digs at the corner of 5th and Plum, is tidying up and in the final stages of preparation, anticipating a grand opening within (hopefully) the next few weeks.  According to one of the folks in charge, J. Travis French, MainStay (not to be confused with the WalMart line of house wares by the same moniker), will be a straight up "rock-and-roll bar…no hip-hop, no country, no rap.  Just all rock-and-roll" (indeed, their mypace page, true to form, "serenaded" me with the dulcet tones of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap").  They will apparently be shooting for a mix of DJs and local bands in the 151 person capacity club.  The interior seems to evoke an upscale "up north lodge" style vibe-meets-Flintstones (but in a good way), with a lot of rock employed in a variety of ways, hence the "RockBar" name.  Moreover, the place has definitely been given a sizable dose of sprucing up since the DIY-ethos of the Poison Room/Fathom days.  French noted that most of the necessary regulatory hurdles are in place, and they are now just looking to knock off the few remaining items on the punch list before opening up.  

Unfortunately, however, one of French's cohorts Josh Heuser confirmed for me that the planned $1.7 million Boss Cox gastro-pub, planned for around the corner on 4th Street, is "down for the count," as financial backing fell apart as yet another casualty of the economic doldrums that are pretty much plaguing the globe.  Perhaps they could have generated better karma, taking a clue from the original George "Boss" Cox, and put their establishment in Cox's old stomping grounds of Over-the-Rhine. Although he only served in an elected capacity for two brief terms as a city councilman in the 1880s, Boss Cox went on to rule for 27 years as a "city boss" kingpin in the "Tammany Hall" mode.  Social kingmaker/butterfly that he was, Cox ruled the city and orchestrated his marionettes not from an oak-paneled office, but rather from a small round table, also known as a "stammtisch," located at Civil War vet Heinrich "Henry" Wielert's Cafe at 1408 Vine in Over-the-Rhine.  Wielert's Cafe, built around 1873, had a permanent reservation for the Boss at a small table along the northern wall of the main room, night after night (excluding Sundays, natch).  Wielert's was also one of the larger saloons on Vine standing out from the 135 (!) or so other watering holes that dotted the OTR stretch of the street in the 1890s.

The green building with the distinctive facade is currently under the control of the seemingly omnipresent 3CDC, having enjoyed an illustrious history, evolving, naturally, into a funeral home, a drug rehabilitation center and a church (a line of progression which, curiously enough, is not uncommon for numerous structures in OTR). In addition, as an added historical nugget-o-fun, it should be pointed out that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra also got its start in Wielert's elaborate beer garden behind the building, entertaining up to 1,500 thirsty music-loving patrons under moonlit skies.  Based on current information, while the actual Wielert's Cafe structure is under the control of 3CDC, the CSO's besotted beer garden birthplace remains rather ignominiously in the hands of a towing company.  

Shortly after Wielert's Prohibition-induced closing in 1919, Times-Star historian and Vine Street boulevardier Frank Grayson, in a circa 1924 column observed:

"The passing of Wielert's, that fine old moist institution was of such comparatively recent date that it is not yet a keen cause of lamentation by those who loved their Bohemia."

The next time someone wants to resurrect Boss Cox, perhaps, in a nod to history, it will be in a refurbished version of Wielert's. Get the CSO to play the backyard, and set aside a small round table along the north wall.  Lovers of Bohemia and those fine old moist institutions of yore will most assuredly rejoice. 

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Photography by Scott Beseler
Heinrich "Henry" Wielert's Cafe at 1408 Vine
The Phoenix
Mainstay interiors

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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