Dr. Know: Burger Chef Bygones, Cancelling Charles McMicken, and Counting Turtle Lamps

The good doctor holds forth on troubling issues, including oddly-placed restaurant signage, what else we might erase, and a disappearing municipal fixture.

Why is there a large “Burger Chef” sign in an alley behind Race Street? Was there some kind of rear walk-up window there? Was that kind of thinking an example of why the restaurant chain went bust long ago? Why is such a huge sign still there in that crummy little alley? —GRUBBY GRUB

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

Dear Grubby:
Your four questions remind us of the season’s approaching Passover Seder and its traditional Four Questions. “Why is this alley different from all other alleys?” isn’t as erudite, but the Doctor shall proceed.

You were not in an alley. You were on College Street, ravaged by the years but still with us. Next time, walk around to 632 Race Street, look up, and you’ll see the concrete-embossed name of the Lyric Piano Company. Since that firm’s demise in 1937, several storefronts have come and gone, including Burger Chef.

Now go back to the painted sign at the rear and notice that the doorway is only about four feet tall. Even the bricked-up windows are at knee level. How such low portals served Lyric Piano is a mystery, but any Burger Chef transactions there would have been suitable only for customers like Peter Dinklage. Unfortunately, answers about the sign’s provenance and persistence are lost to the mists and mayonnaise of time.

I’m worried about the controversy over renaming McMicken Avenue. I don’t defend Charles McMicken’s owning of slaves, but I fear how far these corrections might go. Is there an official list of Cincinnati streets that face historical cancellation? —WHERE THE STREETS HAVE BAD NAMES

Dear Bad:
We are all flawed. Naming a street after any member of the human species will always invite danger. Lest we forget: Pete Rose Way. Also consider the wholesale cancellation—and later rehabilitation—of everything German during World War I. Which other Cincinnati street names could be targeted someday? The Doctor knows of no official list, but several candidates suggest themselves:

Should Gest Street continue to honor the surveyor whose certified measurements of Cincinnati turned out to be wrong by almost five acres? Should Broadway forever share a name with New York’s most famous thoroughfare, nicknamed “The Great White Way?” St. Clair Avenue in Mt. Healthy salutes the general/governor who named our city, but this man also led a battle against American Indians that killed entire families while simultaneously suffering a humiliating defeat.

We can’t even count the prominent Cincinnatians who, prior to becoming streets, founded clubs, schools, and parks that excluded Jews and African Americans. Should we keep driving past those names along every block? And did McMicken himself come up with Race Street?

How many “turtle lamps” are left? I know the city decided a few years ago to stop repairing and replacing them, which is understandable. But it’s sad that such a unique and charming feature of Cincinnati is slowly disappearing. Any tally of the surviving number? —TURTLE TALLY

Dear Tally:
For those readers who have not the slightest idea what you’re asking about: Back when automobiles and streetcars uneasily shared the same roads, a lighted pole lamp was often installed at a stop to protect the raised platform—and pedestrians—from getting bumped. In Cincinnati, many lights had a distinctly shaped glass cover that were affectionately called “turtle lamps” or “yellow lamps,” even though they were really orange and shaped more like helmets.

Once numbering in the hundreds, the lights have gradually disappeared since the 1950s but can still be found in many neighborhoods. The city announced some years back that as the surviving ones die out or get hit, they will be replaced with modern lighting. How many are left? The Department of Transportation, quite reasonably, does not consider keeping track a priority.

However, you can always depend on Facebook to have a disturbingly obsessive group dedicated to anything, and sure enough, there’s “Cincinnati Yellow Lamps.” These devotees have no actual numbers, but they continue to search and post photos of locations with surviving lights. They will even tell you exactly where to look in Google Street View History for old images of intersections with now-gone ones. Somehow, that’s comforting.

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