As a born and raised Cincinnatian, former Cincinnati Magazine digital media editor Amy E. Brownlee has seen firsthand what the city has to offer. A region with rich culture and history begs the question, what paved the way to get to where we are today? Lost Treasures of Cincinnati uncovers what once was, and Brownlee aims to makes sense of the journey the city has taken.
As a Cincinnati native, what about your childhood inspired you to write this book?
My mom raised us in the libraries, parks, and museums. That was all of our stomping ground. I grew up with an innate love for the city and all of the things that make it what it is. So when I was presented with this project, it seemed like a very obvious thing to do. I love history—local and Cincinnati history in particular—so I thought it was a fun idea.
You covered a vast array of buildings, people, events and more. How did you narrow down your list of subjects and decide what to include?
I followed the lead of one of my publishing colleagues because he published the first entry of this series based in St. Louis. He focused on the categories of food and drink, entertainment, retail, media, and community, so I started with that. Then I just started reaching out to the things that interested me and things that characterized my upbringing here like the Zoo, the train stations, and the parks.
So is this book the second in a series of “Lost Treasures” books, then?
Yes, I believe it’s the second. St. Louis was the first flagship entry of the series. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up in other cities. We might someday see a “Lost Treasures” in other places like Columbus or Pittsburgh.
How did you get connected with this project?
When I was at Cincinnati Magazine, one of my contributors was Greg Hand. We would publish links to his history blog, and I developed a friendship with him. He passed my name along to the publishers; I think it was originally his project. That was incredibly cool of him, and it opened up a door for me.
How did your background as a journalist help you in putting this together?
At the magazine, I was on editorial staff. A few times a year we would put together big service packages about the city, and this is just a huge version of that. It truly was like writing a feature package for the magazine. The difference was I started the whole thing and made all the decisions, which was a new thing for me. It’s fun and cool to be in charge, but it’s a terrifying freedom.
What are some of your personal favorite subjects in the book?
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the meat clock. There was a giant, wacky clock downtown on the town square. It was a big marketing campaign for Kahn’s meats. It was literally a clock with human hands for the hands and they would point at different meat products around the clock. It was so campy. Us being Porkopolis made it really make sense.
I also love the Theda Bara house on Xavier University’s campus. She was a silent film actress who was raised in Avondale and became worldwide famous. She built a California-style house right outside of Xavier’s campus. It was used as student housing for years until they finally tore it down. It was just so cool that it was there, and it reminds us of this celebrity that came from here, who made it big and then came home and put a mark on her neighborhood.
Are there any other celebrity stories that you came across in your research?
I love the little stories that I was able to find. There was a dance studio back when parents used to force their kids to take ballroom dancing. One of the things that drove some of these parents to do that was this mythological story of the fact that Doris Day had gotten her start there. She had taken lessons there when she was younger, and she obviously went on to be massively famous. I love to imagine moms being like, You could be the next Doris Day!
What was the most surprising thing you stumbled upon while working on this book?
I knew that passenger rail travel had been a concern in the 20th century, but I didn’t understand how neighborhood-centric it was. There were passenger rail stations all over the city. That’s the kind of thing now we’d appreciate if we still had it. At the time, nobody wanted to take trains anymore because they all had cars. So it was all torn down. Part of what facilitated that was the new Union Terminal, which replaced Central Union Station down by the river. Union Terminal fit the bill, and it looked so spacey and modern for the time. It replaced it all, and that was by design. Union Terminal is an incredible community asset and a treasure to preserve, but it’s also responsible for many items on the lost treasures list.
Is this rail system related to the abandoned subway tunnels under the city?
These were commuter trains that you see on the West Coast. They existed separately, because the subway never actually happened. I always assumed the subway was a casualty of the Great Depression, but it was just dead in the water before that. Those tunnels are still there; I believe they hold fiber optic cables now. We are fast approaching a point where they won’t be usable anymore, and it doesn’t seem like we will.
Overall, what do you hope Lost Treasures of Cincinnati conveys about the city?
I’ve described it as a guidebook to our past, and I’m going to stick with that. That’s how it’s designed, not to be read cover to cover but to go through and find the sections that speak to you. I hope people don’t feel bummed and wish we still had these things, although that is a part of it. But I want them to walk away with a sense of pride and hometown spirit.
It also shows the importance of preserving what we still have. It’s the people who save places like these, and I hope readers feel the incentive to do that and understand this is a generational project that has to continue.