Cincinnati Preservation Association's next season of advocacy and investment under Beth Johnson

Buildings are made of more than sticks and bricks. They are embodiments of the time in which they are designed and built. As the years pass, they become a link to history and artifacts left by the people of the past.

So, what happens when we forget a building’s story or the part it played in the stories of the people who lived or worked within its walls? What happens when a historic building is neglected or left vacant for too long or when its owner doesn’t understand or value its importance to the community?

In those cases, a building needs an advocate. The Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA) is a nonprofit membership organization that advocates for historic infrastructure across the region. Its stated mission is to be a “resource and catalyst for the preservation of historic cultural resources such as architecturally significant buildings, archaeological sites, historic public art and monuments and landscapes.”

The organization works quietly and efficiently around Cincinnati, advocating for buildings and community assets that are at risk of being forgotten or destroyed. It has influence among heavy-hitting partners like the City of Cincinnati, the Hamilton County land bank, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And it’s one of the organizations that’s fighting to preserve the remaining artifacts of Cincinnati’s history.

The nonprofit has partnered to help protect some of Cincinnati’s most significant cultural heritage sites, places like the King Records studio in Evanston and the Shaker village in Whitewater. The Terrace Plaza Hotel downtown is one of their current advocacy concerns. But not everyone shares their commitment to preservation. CPA board president Clark Sole says that preservationists can be easily misunderstood.

“We’re often viewed as obstructionists,” he explains, incompatible with development and progress.

The truth, he says, is that preservation “contributes to the health of the community.” On a fundamental level, the CPA believes that historic preservation is more about people and communities than it is about buildings. It’s about sharing stories and keeping history alive in tangible ways.

Success upon success, with a new leader

After seven years on the Board of Directors, Sole has recently transitioned to the role of President. As such, he’s now responsible for directing a 25-ish member Board and its various committees. He’s also the primary liaison between the Board and CPA staff.

Like many of CPA’s other members and volunteers, Clark Sole has no professional experience or expertise in architecture or preservation. He got involved with CPA simply because he loved buildings and their history and wanted to help protect them. He didn’t truly understand the extent of CPA’s almost sixty years of advocacy until he became a member of the organization.

The Cincinnati Preservation Association’s new Executive Director has a different story.

Even before applying for the job at CPA, Beth Johnson was already a household name among preservationists and building enthusiasts in Cincinnati. For the past 6 years, she has worked as the City of Cincinnati’s Urban Conservator, managing the historic preservation office for the city. Before that, she worked for the City of Covington as a Preservation and Planning Specialist.

Her education is in urban planning and historic preservation and, to top it off, she has embarked on a significant restoration project of her own historic Cincinnati-area home.

She has a long-term, vested interest in the issue of preservation and was certainly qualified for the job.

As the Executive Director, Johnson says she is now the lead spokesperson and administrator for CPA. Her job is to implement the goals and priorities of the Board. And those, she says, are the same as they’ve always been—protect at-risk properties, provide community education programs, advocate for formal designation to secure properties, and provide resources for preservation.

The organization is strong and in a good position for future growth, Sole says. Johnson’s predecessor, Paul Muller, built a solid foundation for the organization and Johnson has the perfect skill set to take their mission further.

The power of place in telling Cincinnati’s story

Among its programs, both Johnson and Sole cite Cincinnati Sites and Stories as a highlight of the organization’s current work.

The mobile app and website provide an interactive, map-based collection of stories about the people and places in Cincinnati history and includes virtual tours of significant places. There are 104 stories currently published. Most of them center around downtown and Walnut Hills, but they will continue expanding in the rest of the region.

Johnson says, “The app is a way for us to curate stories and have them associated with physical sites.” It’s a way to connect the oral history of Cincinnati to its material space.

The website’s first collection, Sites and Stories of Black History, was designed to preserve the collective memory of the African American community in Greater Cincinnati. This ongoing archival project is important because Cincinnati, a significant place in the history of Black Americans, is teeming with untold stories.

According to CPA’s website, only 2% of the 95,000 entries on the National Register of Historic Places focus on the experience of Black Americans. In another effort toward amplifying these untold stories, the CPA recently partnered with the Eckstein Cultural Arts Center (ECAC) to preserve the historic Ecktsein School.

Eckstein School, in the Village of Glendale, OHDuring the era of segregated schools, the school served as a public elementary school for Black children in the Village of Glendale, Ohio. The Eckstein Cultural Arts Center--a nonprofit founded in 2017 by a group of African American Glendale residents--had hopes to repurpose the Eckstein School as a cultural arts center, but the building was under threat of a partial demolition with no viable solution on the table for its restoration.

With funds from their Revolving Fund for Historic Preservation, CPA purchased the building in 2021 and is partnering with the ECAC to restore the property. This preservation fund enables CPA to make loans or take direct action to save key historic sites. In addition to supporting Cincinnati communities and property owners, the Cincinnati Preservation Association has, over time, acquired its own assets for the sake of preservation and education.

In 2008, the organization purchased the John Hauck house, a large Italianate townhouse on Dayton Street, West End’s historic “millionaire’s row.” The 20th Century brewer’s house was the organization’s first office and a museum. It is now used for events and workshops as its ongoing restoration is an opportunity for public education in the preservation trades.

The organization also owns the Pinecroft estate, a Tudor-style mansion once owned by Cincinnati industrialist Powel Crosley, Jr. Meticulously kept on 18 acres in Cincinnati’s Mt Airy neighborhood, it is now a premier wedding and event venue.

Both properties are impressive historic landmarks and represent CPA’s significant long-term investment in the stewardship of Cincinnati’s historic sites.

Getting ahead of preservation, before a crisis

Looking ahead, the Cincinnati Preservation Association is working to be more proactive in how it engages the issue of historic preservation. They’d like to help communities engage in dialogue about their historic assets before they come under threat.

“We want to help make preservation a part of the story of Cincinnati,” Johnson explains.

The region is full of historic resources that can be easily used by today’s modern communities.  The Cincinnati Preservation Association can help maximize both public and private resources for their preservation.

Johnson continues—“We want [preservation] to be part of the conversation when we’re doing projects like neighborhood plans, making economic goals, and planning affordable housing.”

The CPA is also supporting initiatives to develop preservation skills through programs like the preservation trades program coming together in Covington, Kentucky, and the annual Northern Kentucky Restoration Weekend event. The entire region will benefit from more educated communities, invested homeowners, and skilled tradespeople, Johnson says.

And one of her personal goals is to develop the organization’s environmental sustainability initiatives. After all, she quips, “the greenest house is the one that’s already built.”

If someone is interested in getting involved in this kind of advocacy, Sole says membership in the CPA is a good first step. Membership levels begin at $50 and include perks like access to educational opportunities and invitations to special events like historic home tours and lectures. Joining the organization means being on the front line of preservation efforts across the Greater Cincinnati region.

But why is historic preservation worth private investment? The CPA’s website says it well—“Historic buildings grant character to communities. As the tangible link to our unique history and culture, they are irreplaceable.”
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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.