The Over-the-Rhine Museum Will Let The Walls Talk

The neighborhood’s long and varied story is being told through the many people who called a single property near Findlay Market home.
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A rendering of the future of the Feitweiss home, soon to be the OTR Museum.

The three-story building at 3 W. McMicken Ave. in Over-the-Rhine has seen a lot since it was constructed by German immigrant Carl Leopold Fettweis more than 150 years ago. He built it to house his stone-carving business, but over the years it’s also been a flower shop, a dry goods store, a soup kitchen, and a church. It was even the scene of a murder.

At least 150 different families have called this property home since it was built as an apartment tenement building, with Fettweis’s single-family residential structure behind it fronting Findlay Street. They’re now owned by the nonprofit Over-the-Rhine Museum, which is transforming them into an immersive museum experience to help visitors step back in time to different eras of the neighborhood’s history.

“People may know the stories of Cincinnati’s famous beer barons, but they don’t know much about the work of midwives in the 1800s or living in a small apartment with five or more children or running a cigar-rolling business,” says Museum Director Donna Harris. “We want to tell the story of the everyday people and the working people who lived here.”

With the help of a $75,000 grant from Ohio Humanities—a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities—the Over-the-Rhine Museum has pulled together research on the buildings and will recreate their rooms to reflect the lives of actual people who lived there between 1860 and 2020. That includes the Fettweises starting in the 1860s, but also a Jewish family who moved in and became the landlords in 1927; Appalachian tenants who occupied the apartments in the 1950s; a biracial family who rented there in the 1990s; and many others in between.

With each room, the museum aims to uncover, present, and preserve the heritage of Over-the-Rhine, says Anne Delano Steinert, the museum’s founding board chair and research assistant history professor at the University of Cincinnati. She’s an expert on Cincinnati history and architecture and one of the urban historians actively working on the project. “The idea is to build empathy and understanding in the present and for the future through an understanding of the past,” she says. “Every story we’ve unearthed contains universal narratives of the strengths, struggles, and survival of all Cincinnatians, all Americans.”


Before Over-the-Rhine came to be, the land where these buildings now stand was home to the Osage, Shawanwaki/Shawnee, Miami, Adena, and Hopewell tribes. But by the time Carl Leopold Fettweis and his wife Anna arrived in 1847 from Baden-Württemberg, Germany, settlers from across Europe had pushed the Native Americans west into modern-day Kansas and then Nebraska.

The Fettweises were part of a wave of 30 million German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1840 and 1850, fleeing famine, religious persecution, or political conflict. Cincinnati was the sixth largest U.S. city at the time, and Over-the-Rhine streets—designed pretty much as they are today—were packed with 25,000 residents (compared to today’s total of 6,000). Industry and trade boomed thanks to transportation options on the Ohio River and the Miami and Erie Canal.

Fettweis’s first building, a tiny two-story structure with five rooms, no bigger than 12 feet wide, was a private residence, eventually housing his family of nine. He added the three-story tenement building next to the house in the 1870s and ran the family’s stone-carving business on the first floor and side yard and rented out apartment space above.

Renters included the Rezacs, Austrian and Czech immigrants who had three daughters, one of whom became a famous circus performer in 1894. A family of five that came in a later wave of German immigrants in 1915, named the Moerleins, were distant cousins of Christian Moerlein, the famous brewer.

Germans would have felt right at home in Over-the-Rhine, a densely populated enclave that they’d created for themselves. “The people are German. Their faces are German. Their manners and their customs are German,” reads the Cincinnati Illustrated guidebook written in 1879 by Daniel Kinney. “Their very gossip is German. They danced the German waltz, as none but a German can. They cook their food by German recipes and sit long over their frothing beers.”

The writer described crossing over the canal to leaving behind “in a single step the rigidity of the American—the everlasting hurry and worry and the insentient race for wealth.… [One] enters at once into the borders of a people more rapidly happy, more readily contented and more easily pleased, far more closely wedded to music and to dance and to song and to life in the bright open air.”

The Fettweises became part of Cincinnati’s artisan class. They were never wealthy but were well known and well connected. Carl helped lead one of the city’s largest German cultural organizations, the Turners, which became a center for political organizing, education, and social networks in Cincinnati. The group is credited with helping make physical education part of the curriculum of public schools.

One of his sons, Leopold Fettweis, also left an imprint on the city with various stone carvings still on display today in Inwood Park and Washington Park and inside a niche on the Germania Building at the corner of 12th and Walnut streets. That’s where he carved an impressive 25-foot head-to-toe sculpture of a classical female Germanian figure. Carl Leopold Fettweis died in 1887, but his sons kept the stonework business operating out of the building on McMicken until 1920.

Solomon and Rebecca Kabakoff moved into the Feitweiss building in 1927. // PHOTO PROVIDED BY PHIL KABAKOFF

Solomon and Rebecca Kabakoff became the buildings’ second owners in 1927, when they purchased the property from Carl Fettweis’s granddaughter, Martha. Married in Cincinnati in 1908, the couple moved there with their five children from another part of Over-the-Rhine. Rebecca and Solomon had emigrated separately to the U.S. from towns in Russia, both today part of Ukraine. Rebecca had been 16 and Solomon 20 when they became part of the migration of approximately 3 million Russians to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century.

The Kabakoffs added the storefront that can be seen from the street today. Inside, Rebecca ran a dry goods store and Solomon worked as a tailor and furrier. The family was Jewish and spoke Yiddish in the home. They attended a synagogue in the West End and, after it closed, another in Avondale.

Their son, Herman, was mentioned often in The Cincinnati Enquirer for his swimming achievements at the YMCA pool on Central Parkway. Their daughter, Ida, was photographed by the paper for her participation in a neighborhood jacks tournament. Four of the five Kabakoff boys served in World War II.

Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, killed Cincinnati’s thriving beer brewing industry, shuttering large breweries like Christian Moerlein, Windisch-Muhlhauser, and John Hauck and destroying many jobs. At this point, Over-the-Rhine was packed with 45,000 people, and the average two-room apartment housed large families.

The Kabakoffs owned the building until 1955, when Rebecca died. Solomon moved with his second wife to Avondale. Most of the people who could afford to leave Over-the-Rhine were gone by now, electing to move to new neighborhoods developing on the hills above the river valley. Members of the Fettweis family, for example, moved to Corryville, along with many other Germans.

After being owned by two families for its first 90 years, the properties at McMicken and Findlay would never again be owner-occupied. A series of businesses came and went, including Gateway Bargain House Storage, Price’s Hauling Trucking, and Cathy’s Glass.

By the mid-20th century, Over-the-Rhine had become a neighborhood primarily made up of poor Appalachians. “What begins as a trickle around the time of World War I picks up through the Great Depression and is a flood by the 1950s,” says Delano Steinert. Appalachians were recruited from towns in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia to fill Cincinnati factory jobs that had been vacated by soldiers going to war. Others came here out of desperation, when coal and lumber jobs started to decline after the end of the Industrial Revolution.

These new Over-the-Rhine residents were looked down on for their rural dialects and unfamiliar vocabulary. Appalachians were often discriminated against for jobs. “There was a huge cultural disconnect,” says Delano Steinert. “They had real wisdom in the art of how to survive in a rural setting, but a lot of that knowledge was useless in an urban one.”

Low-wage jobs and poor living conditions became the norm in Over-the-Rhine. Many lived in poverty, including Anna Riggs, who occupied the smallest apartment in the McMicken tenement in 1956. She’d grown up in Orlando, Kentucky, and by 1928 had met and married Eugene Riggs. They had three children, were poor, and moved almost every year.

Anna shot and killed Eugene at the top of the building’s main stairwell on February 10, 1956, after he refused to trade in their 8-inch television for a 21-inch one, according to newspaper reports. Anna told police her husband had beaten her and their three children for the better part of 30 years and that he’d controlled her life entirely, refused to let her out of the house, and withheld money for household provisions. She said she was as surprised as anyone that she’d shot him. Anna was found guilty of manslaughter but was sentenced to five years of parole.

The era is marred by a lot of violence and pushback against Appalachian newcomers, says Delano Steinert, but plenty of families found a home and some stability in Over-the-Rhine. The museum will portray the lives of one such family, the Smithers, in one of the building’s reimagined apartments.

James Smithers was from an Appalachian town in Kentucky and served in the U.S. Army before he came to Over-the-Rhine and married his wife, Gertrude, a native Cincinnatian. James worked as a television repair man, and Gertrude stayed home with their two girls, Betty and Marilyn. Gertrude was a devout Catholic. They lived directly across the street from Webster School (now demolished), but she made certain the girls walked to St. Francis Seraph on Liberty Street to attend Catholic school.


The next wave of Over-the-Rhine residents were mostly Black, those who got displaced from homes in the neighboring West End. After World War II, residents of the urban core began leaving for newer suburbs. The population decline resulted in a loss of city tax revenue, and Cincinnati’s response was an urban renewal project in 1958 that demolished a 400-acre section of the West End, called Kenyon-Barr, to make room for the construction of Interstate 75 and a new industrial area dubbed Queensgate.

The construction of I-75 decimated the Kenyon-Barr neighborhood, and many of its residents relocated to Over-the-Rhine. 97 percent of the displaced residents were non-white.

The West End had been Cincinnati’s historically Black neighborhood since the 1920s. And while there was marginal success drawing companies to industrial Queensgate, adding some jobs and tax revenue, it came at the expense of displacing 25,737 residents, 97 percent of whom were non-white. The project razed 10,295 dwelling units, 137 food stores, 118 bars and restaurants, 86 barber shops and beauty parlors, 80 churches and missions, 24 dry cleaners, and six funeral homes in Kenyon-Barr, according to city documents. People who had lived in their homes for decades were simply told to go, with no assistance. Many moved to neighboring Over-the-Rhine and attempted to rebuild community ties.

By the 1980s, about half of Over-the-Rhine’s population was Black and half white Appalachian, with some Germans and Italians scattered about. Nearly half of the population was elderly, and the neighborhood was solidly low-income.

People in Over-the-Rhine still loved their homes and their community, says Steinert. The museum has held roundtable discussions with longtime residents who remember these years fondly, recalling a great sense of community.

The Rachel family, for instance, lived in one of the tenement’s apartments in the 1990s. Donald Rachel was Black, and wife Sherry was white. They lived in the apartment with Sherry’s young daughter from an earlier relationship and Donald’s niece, whom they’d adopted and was in a wheelchair.

Other family members lived with the Rachels off and on, and Sherry’s mom lived across the street with her boyfriend. The building wasn’t handicap-accessible, so the young girl had to be physically carried up and down the stairs—but the family has shared tender memories of barbecuing in the backyard, doing puzzles, and listening to music together.

“Sherry is still around and lives in Westwood,” says Steinert. “She describes OTR as a place full of family and love. They just had this whole extended network of support around them. Donald died in 2001, and Sherry still says, That man was the love of my life.”

Over-the-Rhine fell into some dark days in the 1990s and early 2000s. High vacancy and crime rates resulted from the crack epidemic, decades of disinvestment, continued growth of Cincinnati’s suburbs, racial tensions between the neighborhood and the police, the Great Recession, and other variables.

The last official tenants moved from the Fettweis properties in 2008, Harris says, but when the museum bought the buildings in 2020 it learned others had lived there. “We know people were squatting in the building,” says Harris. “One room is all covered in graffiti, and it’s actually quite beautiful. We’re going to leave it and tell that story as well.”

Delano Steinert hopes the buildings can continue the discussion of what makes a neighborhood and what makes us human. “The idea that every building in Over-the-Rhine is embedded with this many stories is incredible,” she says. “I think anyone who hears them must think, Wow, this is worth saving.”

 

Organizers of the Over-the-Rhine Museum hope to open the Fettweis buildings in the next two years. In the meantime, they’re offering a variety of neighborhood walking tours focused on early life there as well as women’s, Black, and labor history. They also hold a quarterly program of short talks called “Three Acts on Over-the-Rhine,” introducing a variety of topics related to the neighborhood. To learn more or inquire about volunteer opportunities, visit the museum’s website.

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