On the Edge

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JUL14_Foundations

Illustration by Sam Brewster

When Greg Imm moved to Cincinnati from Pasadena in 2011, he didn’t know where he wanted to live, but he did know what kind of house he wanted: An old one that he could remodel. It didn’t have to be in the highest-end neighborhood; in fact, maybe it would be better if it weren’t. Imm came here to be the compliance officer for Fifth Third Bank, and as he says, “I do fair lending for a living. One of my responsibilities is to see to equal access for credit. So I didn’t really look at the neighborhood.”

His real estate agent, not quite believing what she was hearing, tried to dissuade him. She took him to Hyde Park and Oakley. Surely there was a house he could work on, she said (Imm likes to do the refurbishing himself). She was certain that in the long run he would be more comfortable there. When Imm didn’t yield, she turned to his best friend, Raphael Verdile. But Verdile had been friends with Imm long enough to know that he wasn’t going to change his mind.

People remodel houses for all kinds of reasons. Updating kitchens and bathrooms are common ones. So is the challenge of taking an older house in an interesting neighborhood (e.g., Columbia-Tusculum, Northside) and giving it a new look. In Cincinnati, where so much of the housing stock is old, people at many different income levels may decide that “what is” just won’t do, and they resolve to change it.

But Greg Imm doesn’t quite fit any of these categories. His passion for remodeling—“restoring,” in his preferred vocabulary—is primal. When his real estate agent told him, as she did, that he would be “in over his head,” he begged to differ. “I want a house that needs work,” he said. “My therapy is to come home and start painting, plastering, or scrubbing.” Recalling that conversation, he adds, “I did not feel supported in my decision.”

Going online, Greg located a house on Edge Hill Place in one of the two Avondales—that’s part of the story, but we’ll get to that—and asked to see it. The property, a 6,400-square-foot retreat in the style of an English country home, sits on nearly five acres, on a wooded ridge that falls down to Washington Avenue on the west side and Clinton Springs, diagonally, on the northwest. The gateway entrance from the dead end of the street gives no sign as to what lies beyond. You have to pass between stone columns, then wind down and around the drive, before you can really see what’s there. Once facing the house, however, its former majesty is apparent. It has all the earmarks  of a showcase of its day, featuring  two high gables, a white stucco facade and a handsome entrance flanked by Ionic  pilasters.

“When I first saw it,” Imm said to me recently, “I thought I must be in the wrong place, but that’s because the listing on the website had shown the back of the house—which is thought to be better looking. Windows were broken, the copper had been stolen, raccoons were living in it—the place had been trashed. Not even the police knew it was here.”

The interior contains relatively few rooms for a house of its size; most are large with some decidedly graceful touches. Dentil molding prevails throughout the first floor. Panel molding on the walls of the living room abuts three large bowed windows with views to the lawn and woods. Fireplaces and mantels remain intact. Yet when Imm first viewed them, these rooms looked as though they had hosted battles. Debris covered the floors; the front hall banister was missing. Upstairs, where three large bedrooms—the master was very large—consume most of the space, conditions were only marginally better.

Outside, a weed-filled lawn gave way to trees on the surrounding hillsides. When the trees were bare, you could see apartment buildings on the streets below. Earlier owners didn’t have that view; it only came into being when someone sold off part of the acreage. A shuffleboard court, a stone koi pond and fountain, and several stone encasements surrounding some of the large trees on the property were all in various stages of disrepair. Restoring any of it would be a Herculean undertaking.

Imm had found what he wanted. “It is just so beautiful,” he told me. “It’s got such character. You don’t see these often.”

To his real estate agent’s dismay, he bought the house for $140,000 and set about moving in as soon as possible. That required first the acquisition of functional plumbing, and it wasn’t easy: “We had to get all new PVC pipes, forcing us to tear out and rebuild the walls, and the walls were mostly lath and plaster. I’d rather go without water than do that again.” Heat, once provided by radiators, would be dependent on forced air—which needed to be installed. In the meantime, he made do with portable heaters that—even at the price of a few blown fuses—never fazed him. It’s part of the restoration process. “I really enjoy doing it,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun for me.”

Now two years after his purchase, he has completed, with the help of an outside designer, a stunning contemporary kitchen, and has painted several of the interior spaces. But much, much remains. The front staircase is still a shambles. A sunroom, beyond the spacious living room, features one floor pattern of green tile and one of cement—someday to be reconciled. The exterior stands as he found it that first day: a pock-marked wreck. “I always get to exteriors last,” he said, referencing two previous restorations (both of which he still owns) in Petaluma and Seattle. At this pace, with the grounds largely untouched, and the stone garage crumbling, it could take several more years to get the place where he wants it.

But that’s OK. “I never plan on selling it,” he told me. “So I don’t want to hear ‘that’s not good for resale.’ I told this to the person advising me on the kitchen, but I think he couldn’t help himself. He told me I had to have overhead cabinets—he even told me I had to cover some windows to put them in. I said it’s my house and I don’t want them. I do think he had my best interests in mind, and he probably does know better. But I don’t care.”

Imm is nothing if not strong-minded. This zeal to improve his house to a degree that bears no relation to the economics of the local market is the best evidence. Most rehabbers work their magic in the confidence that someday, ultimately, they’ll be financially rewarded for their efforts; Imm professes indifference. Likewise, he says he doesn’t care whether he lives in Avondale or North Avondale—the more upscale and prestigious of the two communities. In a world where many people attach critical importance to the zip code they inhabit, Imm’s nonchalance regarding his address is both unusual and refreshing.

Built in 1946, according to the Hamilton County Auditor, the house was always somewhat isolated, situated just south of the North Avondale Elementary School (now North Avondale Montessori), visible through the woods. In the beginning, it sat on eight and a half acres, at the end of a street lined by older dwellings of far more modest proportions, making it an unlikely presence. Edge Hill Place, however, opened onto North Crescent Circle (now renamed North Fred Shuttlesworth Circle), and at least until the late 1950s, a North Crescent address was plenty fashionable. That proximity, no doubt, rubbed off.

By December of 1950, the house had passed to Sam and Ruth Aronoff, well known throughout Cincinnati for a dealership in art and antiques. When the Aronoffs bought the house, the transaction was newsworthy enough to merit an announcement—accompanied by a small black-and-white sketch of the property—in at least one of the city’s three newspapers. Although the Hamilton County plat books are not entirely clear about subsequent owners, it is firmly recorded that by 1968 the house had changed hands once more. It also sat vacant for extended periods of time after that; Imm believes that in one recent incarnation it belonged to a local fraternity. A neighbor says that for a while somebody had been using it for a “party house.” If so, the physical evidence suggests that they were memorable parties. It also suggests that whatever urban dynamics preserved most of North Avondale as a still handsome and highly desirable neighborhood, they eluded the back end of Edge Hill Place. Which is why the debate over the actual location of Imm’s house is intriguing.

Although that newspaper article said the house was in Avondale, residents of what is now known as North Avondale make vigorous claim to Edge Hill and several surrounding streets. “Our bylaws say that our boundaries go to Glenwood,” which is well south of Edge Hill, says Charlene Morse, former administrator of North Avondale Neighborhood Association (NANA). “It is the most ridiculous thing in the world to suggest that Greg Imm’s house is not in North Avondale. The people who live in those streets founded North Avondale. North Crescent Circle was the Rose Hill Avenue”—a particularly handsome North Avondale street—“of its time.”

Ozie Davis III, executive director  of Avondale Comprehensive Development Corporation (ACDC) argues to the contrary: “At the federal government level, the census tract shows the end of Avondale at Clinton Springs. What happened is, in the late ’80s and mid ’90s, the police department, and then the school district, began to separate the two communities at Glenwood. The result is that some of this land, including Greg Imm’s property, is ‘disputed.’ We call it the ‘disputed’ land.”

When I asked City Hall for copies of what it calls the “statistical neighborhood approximations” for the two communities, which include specific maps and demographic information, what came back corroborated Davis’s claim. The boundary is drawn at Clinton Springs.

Does any of this matter?  Imm, who sits on the ACDC board, told me unequivocally that it makes no difference to him in which neighborhood he officially resides. “In the Midwest,” he said, “race is a big deal. I struggle with race here. I think Avondale is incredibly stigmatized. I think it’s underappreciated—its sense of character, its architecture, and its location.

“A lot of what we discuss at ACDC is race-based,” he adds. “Our developments, our art exhibits, our events, all have a black bent. And in that context, we have to decide: What is our end-state vision? Do we rebuild for the residents here, or do we try to attract new people from the outside? Where are we going?”

The answer to that, I learned in a subsequent tour of Avondale with Ozie Davis, is that the community is working hard to respond to all kinds of people. Many of the older apartment buildings are already under rehab, or are planned to be soon.  Where ACDC can help a new owner fix up the remaining vintage houses, possibly with a loan, it is doing so. The vision is to make life better for current residents, for sure, but also to make the community attractive to others who might like its inner-city-neighborhood location and be willing to come in and participate in its ongoing revitalization.

But neighborhood boundaries do matter to others, and not just to the executives of NANA and ACDC, who both point with pride to the amount of rehabbing going on in their districts. According to 2010 census figures, Avondale, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, is 89 percent African-American and 11 percent all other. With 12,466 residents, it has a median family income of $30,130 and 18 percent of its housing units are owner-occupied; 56 percent are renter-occupied and the rest are vacant. Is it any wonder that people like Ozie Davis, who are working for the community’s betterment, are keen to attract people like Imm who are willing to purchase and restore a house that will, by any measure, greatly enhance the neighborhood? “We would like to find many more Greg Imms,” Davis told me. “It is absolutely amazing. He wanted to do this on his own, with no assistance from us. That is hard to find.” For Avondale, Imm’s project signifies in microcosm the kind of rebirth that the larger community wants to encourage.

North Avondale, by contrast, is 63 percent African-American and 37 percent all other. It contains 3,229 residents (remember, this is by current federal census boundaries, not by NANA’s) with a median family income of $61,109; 47 percent of its housing units are owner-occupied (many more than in Avondale), 37 percent are rented, and 14 percent are vacant.

For North Avondale, Imm’s location in the midst of several streets of more modest housing supplies a counterbalance to the perception of a relatively small, relatively elite enclave. “I’ve discovered,” NANA’s  Morse, a Pittsburgh native, says, “that a lot of people who grew up here would say they grew up in Avondale because they didn’t want to be perceived as ‘rich kids.’ If you cut us off at Clinton Springs, you put all the big houses in one place. You cut off all the diversified housing. So is it important to us? Yes it is.”

Still curious about the background of Greg Imm’s house, I made a couple of phone calls to try to track down anyone who might have known Sam and Ruth Aronoff. The trail led to a smartly dressed woman with close-cropped, snowy hair, accurately described by a friend as “still ravishing,” who lives in a condominium near Amberley Village. Gretalee Kaplan is the Aronoffs’ daughter, and when I reached her, it was clear that she had not thought about Edge Hill Place for a very long time. “It was a beautiful home,” she finally said, “with a large living room, a giant study, built-in curio cabinets, black and white tile in the front hall,  and a lovely stairway. It was decorated beautifully. There were lots of antiques and art—and my father’s wonderful Russian enamel collection.” I gave Mrs. Kaplan my phone number and asked her to call me if she thought of anything else. Fifteen minutes later the phone rang. She had a scrapbook. It had pictures of the interior as her parents maintained it. Would I like to see it?

The pictures, showing both exterior and interior views, recall anybody’s image of spacious and gracious living at mid-century. Classic furniture, much of it antique, stands out against the muted tones of various wall, carpet, and curtain choices. Shelves packed tightly with books, and decorative accessories on tabletops, reflect vital lives with varied interests. A picture of the Aronoffs on their stairway includes renowned comedian Sam Levinson, all framed at the bottom by the intricately curved brass banister that Imm wishes he still had.

Surrounding the pictures, I noticed, were a number of newspaper clippings and a letter from the year 1959. The letter congratulated Sam Aronoff on becoming the president of the newly formed Crescent Circle Association, organized to prevent the large homes just up the street from him from being subdivided into multi-family units. It was already happening further south in Avondale. I started to read the clippings.

“Two hundred residents,” one article said, “have launched a campaign to keep the neighborhood from becoming a blighted area. They have seen ‘changes’ work deleterious effects in southern sections of their community. Now there’s a chance they too may be engulfed.

“Their neighborhood of stately homes with eight, 10, or more rooms has become inviting for multi-family housing. The exodus of families from downtown areas, being razed for development projects, has increased the need for multi-unit dwellings.”

Further down, the reporter noted, “The situation in the area has been worsened by scare tactics employed by a few real estate agents: ‘Sell your home now, while the market price is up. Negroes are moving into the neighborhood. If you wait, the price will drop.’”

That was 55 years ago. We know what happened. Sam Aronoff’s finger in the dike against urban evolution was not enough. The neighborhood changed dramatically in spite of his efforts. Not only is the Crescent Circle Association long gone; the name Crescent Circle has disappeared as well. Today, one long block away, down Edge Hill Place, another white man is making another gesture in defiance of the tide. There can be hope that it will be a catalyst for other such gestures. Certainly Ozie Davis and Charlene Morse see it that way. Other pockets of rehab in the two Avondales give them reason to hope, and anyone who cares about the revitalization of the city will want to join them in that optimism.

Before I left, I asked Gretalee Kaplan if she would like to see her family’s former home. Greg Imm is a nice guy, I said, I’m sure he would be amenable.

She thought about it for a moment. Then she said, carefully, “No. No, some things are better left as memories.”

Originally published in the July 2014 issue
Illustration by Sam Brewster

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