Building a Museum of and for Over-the-Rhine

Donna Harris explains how a National Endowment for the Humanities grant helps create a rehab roadmap for two buildings near Findlay Market, which will house the Over-the-Rhine Museum.

Over-the-Rhine is one of the largest and most intact 19th-century neighborhoods in the country, characterized by charming three-to five-story brick Italianate buildings and a complicated history of Germanic, African American, Appalachian, and other marginalized groups calling it home over the years. More than 4,000 tenement buildings bear witness to OTR’s transformation over the last 200 years, weathering numerous changes and challenges to emerge as a place with an indefatigable spirit and tenacious identity. 

The Over-the-Rhine Museum plans to tell the neighborhood’s full story in a new permanent space near Findlay Market, the development of which is being partially funded by a recent $75,000 Historic Places Planning Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Donna Harris, its director of museum administration, shares more about this exciting space and how it will fit within the larger narrative of the neighborhood’s unfolding history.

First, some basics: What is the Over-the-Rhine Museum?

Based on the interpretive model of New York City’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Over-the-Rhine Museum will use interpreted apartments, tours, exhibits, educational programs, and events to immerse visitors in the history of neighborhood. Our two-building complex at 3 W. McMicken Ave. and 12 Findlay St. includes a single-family house built in the 1860s and a four-story tenement from the 1870s. Each will tell the story of a specific moment in time between 1860 and 2008. 

For example, one unit could be restored as it would have looked in 1930, lived in by the Kabakoff family, Jewish immigrants from Russia who ran a dry goods store on the first floor. Another might tell the story of an Appalachian couple in 1950 or an African American family in 1980. Local and personal histories will be connected to larger themes of American and global history; so far, we have identified 135 families who called these two buildings home since 1860.

OTR has been experiencing a major renaissance in the last several years. How does the OTR Museum fit in with this?

In the midst of this change, the museum’s founders were worried the stories of OTR were being lost. Longtime residents were being pushed out, buildings were being torn down or altered, and the rich, multi-layered history of the neighborhood was being replaced with romanticized retellings of a distant 19th-century past. The Over-the-Rhine Museum wants to fill in the gaps—the missing narratives of women, the poor, African Americans, Appalachians, and other marginalized groups. The museum will celebrate OTR’s diversity through the stories of real people who lived here. We want to tell all the stories Over-the-Rhine has to tell as a way of connecting the past to the present.

How will the Over-the-Rhine Museum balance history and representation? Why is this so important?

We believe that preserving and presenting history is essential to a community’s well-being and that when a community embraces its past it can create a better future. The museum will celebrate Over-the-Rhine’s diversity through the stories of actual people who lived here through time. We want the museum to serve as a gathering place for all members of the Over-the-Rhine community—a place where we can explore complicated issues and look for meaningful solutions.

What’s next?

We’re currently restoring the first-floor storefront exterior as it would have looked when the Kabakoff family ran a dry goods store there in the 1930s. The front windows will be uncovered, the stained glass over the entrance is being restored, and an exhibition will be mounted in the storefront windows. Next, we’re using funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct archival research, form a Community Planning Committee, and convene a panel of experts to create an ambitious 10-year interpretive plan that will guide how we use the buildings to tell the stories of past residents.

The opening of the museum building will depend on funding, but we hope to have the first floor completed within the next two years, with apartments and other exhibition spaces opening in phases. As restoration is happening, we will continue to offer walking tours, lectures, and events. Also plan to join us at the North Star Festival on October 2, when we’ll unveil the first exhibition mounted in the museum’s building. Contact me if you have OTR stories to share!

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