I answered the doorbell. “Hi,” said the woman, “I want to show you a picture I’ve had for a long time. I think it’s your house.”
She handed me a faded picture postcard showing a home that almost matched the one where we stood, but the living room window was smaller. Not a deal-breaker; it may have been upgraded at some point. A much bigger difference, though, was the roof—it was almost gone. And every window was shattered. Rubble covered the entire front yard. The dwelling next door was barely there at all.
Surrounding details in the photo confirmed that this was definitely my house, having its worst day ever. It had been, the woman explained, one of the luckier victims of the Hyde Park tornado on March 11, 1917. She then produced a whole series of postcards with more images of devastation; her grandparents had kept them.
I was stunned, but also angry. This explained everything! Now I knew why this place was such a nonstop money pit—the damn house had PTSD! I’d only recently had to winch up the front porch to prevent its collapse. My damn house (I’ve never stopped calling it that) had been our first mortgage. First home to our first-born, in 1976. Our years there as a young family were wonderful, but those endless repair bills? Don’t get me started.
I was angry, yes, but at least I wasn’t Edwin Bevitt Stephens angry. He’d moved into my house way back in 1895, soon after it was built. Oh, this guy had some kind of anger. Maybe it was the stress from his job as Sunday School Superintendent at Mt. Lookout Methodist Church. I mean, Sunday School kids, right? I can’t assess Stephens’s breaking point, but I’m extremely grateful that he held it all in during the time he lived in my house. He waited until after he’d moved away to murder his wife and all five of his children, one by one as they slept. Thanks, Ed.
That gruesome detail is but one of several interesting facts I discovered after deciding to research the full history of my damn house and its occupants. Turns out that my family may be the least interesting people who ever lived there.
Before we go any further, though, I want to emphasize that the house has, in the years since I lived there, become thoroughly undamned. Several rounds of Zillow photos show that its subsequent owners have addressed the issues I mostly shook my fist at, while also making some impressive improvements. Should anyone in the future come upon this article while considering the home’s purchase, please be assured that all of its demons have moved on—some to the house where I live now.
We’ll get back to the 1800s, but for now let’s jump to 1952, when my house was converted into a two-family. Years later this had consequences for me, because the upstairs and downstairs utilities were separated. Two gas furnaces and two water heaters were installed down in the medieval dungeon some might call a basement. When the house converted back to a single family just before we bought it, the utilities did not. We received two bills every month. Either one could cause a heart attack, thanks to the pair of Chryslers down in the dungeon. Yes, Chryslers. Maybe you didn’t know that Chrysler used to make furnaces. Each of ours was as big as a 1952 Imperial two-door and just as fuel-efficient.
To be fair, the two furnaces turned out to be a blessing. January 17, 1977, was the coldest day in Cincinnati history (minus 24 degrees), and that was the day one of our Chrysler Imperials broke down. Luckily, we had a spare. We lived upstairs for two days until a repair crew showed up ($$$).
While I’m being fair, I should mention another incident that repeated itself years later in a different house, so maybe it’s more common than I think. Have you ever sat calmly in your home as a family member showered upstairs, and then suddenly watched water rain from the ceiling fixtures and dribble out of the electrical outlets? Is that a thing? Or is that just one possibility in the great raffle of homeowner disasters, like termites? (By the way, we had those.)
The latter-day ceiling rain happened because a shower curtain had been left outside the tub and the floor flooded. But at my damn house there was no such error—a large drainpipe inside the kitchen ceiling had simply cracked open. When the plumber tore open the ceiling ($$$), a huge soggy blob fell out. Somebody had just crammed a large wad of absorbent material up there instead of replacing the pipe.
Our first-mortgage naiveté meant we hadn’t looked at things closely enough, and shoddy workmanship became a running theme. We considered legal action against the house-flipper who’d prettied up the place and bolted, but decided against it. How satisfying it was many years later, then, when we saw that guy on the news being sentenced to four years in prison for real estate fraud. Yes! Dude should have just fixed our pipe, and maybe propped up the front porch. I haven’t even mentioned our miniature Sunlite Pool that formed in the basement during spring rains, when literal trajectories of water would spurt from the walls ($$$).
OK, back to the 1800s, as promised. In 1897, after Edwin Bevitt Stephens left with his doomed family, the next occupant to call my house home was a local celebrity: John S. Highlands, freshly and honorably retired after 50 years as a Cincinnati teacher and principal. He moved into my house with the Perkins family—his daughter was the young missus—and so he probably used the smaller front bedroom. He was there, dressing for church in 1900, when he had a stroke and died a few hours later. That kind of in-home death at my house doesn’t bother me, especially considering the possible scenario of a shorter fuse on Mr. Stephens.
A parade of occupants came and went after the Perkins family, suggesting that the place was rented for a while. But in 1906, my damn house got its first solid, we’re-staying-put homeowners: the Andridges. All eight of them. They had moved from Tusculum Avenue, where teenaged daughter Mabel had recently suffered a stalker. He followed her to and from school, serenaded outside her window, attempted suicide after getting arrested, and swore that “ten thousand fathers cannot prevent me from marrying Mabel Andridge!”
So, once again, the people occupying my house had their most newsworthy experiences while living somewhere else. Well, that’s true only if you rank a crazed stalker higher than a crazed tornado. Yes, the Andridges were the ones who got hit in 1917. Dad was injured, and the house took a beating. They lived there another six years; maybe I should blame them for not fixing things up enough.
Or maybe I should blame the Ornes family, the next-longest curators of my future damn house. Starting around 1930, Conrad and Mildred, her mother, and three kids somehow went 20 years with absolutely no tornados, murders, or stalkers. They had plenty of time to address the porch (just sayin’).
From here up until the chapter of me, my home’s biography gets blurry. Official records after 1950 are harder to come by. Newspapers also stopped including the home addresses of everyone in a local story. I couldn’t find much, therefore, about how my home dealt with the Cold War, Watergate, or Uncle Al.
This entire project of mine, while rather pointless, is not unique. Many Cincinnatians want to know the history of their homes; local people charge fees for doing the digging. I’ve learned how to do most of it myself in my other identity at this magazine (Dr. Know), and it’s been fun. In yet another identity as a radio guy, I was delighted to discover that Cincinnati’s first radio religious broadcast (WLW in 1922) came from the church just a few doors from my damn house.
A standard quip begins with If these walls could talk, but any handyman or rehabber knows that walls—and ceilings and floors—often shout when opened up. Even more conversations emerge from official documents, newspaper stories, etc.
If you live, or once lived, in a musty old Cincinnati money pit, check out its history. It will be a comfort getting to know the other people who slept there, as long as they didn’t kill anybody.