Beth Johnson Explains What an Urban Conservator Is

Basically, she juggles the past, the present, and the future to keep Cincinnati’s architectural fabric intact. But let her explain.
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Illustration by Lars Leetaru

Beth Johnson, who joined the City of Cincinnati as urban conservator in 2016, has a window to the mistakes of the past. Literally. Her office overlooks Queensgate, once the site of Kenyon-Barr, a historically African-American neighborhood that was emptied and razed in the 1960s under the guise of urban renewal. We spoke with Johnson about the nature of her work and how it impacts the architecture that defines our city today.

Can you give me a thumbnail explanation of what the Historic Conservation Office does?

Every historic district and historic landmark has conservation guidelines that help the architect or designer know what’s appropriate. Our staff works with designers, architects, owners, and developers to make sure that changes they make follow those guidelines.

What’s the difference between conservation and preservation?

Conservation is about managing change [through] adaptive reuse or rehabilitation. Preservation is about keeping it as it is.

For example?

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House is more a matter of preservation—they’re trying to represent what the house was like when Stowe was there. A good example of conservation is Music Hall, a rehabilitation project where there were changes to the building to make it a better use for the current tenants.

You came here after serving as deputy historic preservation officer for Austin, Texas. Were there any surprises, architecturally speaking, when you took this job?

I grew up in Dayton and had worked in Covington. When I came back to the area, I considered this my home. But I do remember when I first came to interview for the job in Covington, I was just overwhelmed by the amount of Italianate architecture. It was just overwhelming the amount of [historic] fabric that exists on both sides of the river.

The most contentious recent issue was certainly the demolition of the Dennison Hotel downtown. That was when you were new on the job.

It was within the first month of me starting. So, you know, baptism by fire. In historic preservation you don’t always win every case, but what I learned was that the historic preservationists here are amazing.

In areas like Over-the-Rhine, where rehabbing old properties and new infill construction are both going on, what are your concerns when proposals come to you?

Our guidelines address things like window placement, materials, setbacks, and verticality, because OTR buildings tend to be taller than they are wide. Basically, what elements should be incorporated into the building. We don’t expect new buildings to be built in an Italianate style. We don’t want to create a false sense of history. We look at compatibility. We want people to be able to look at a building and say it fits in and supports the historic district.

In the Dayton Street Historic District in the West End, someone is attempting to turn a church into a climbing gym. What’s the conservationist’s view?

Churches are really hard to reuse, and part of the challenge is figuring out how to program them. We’ve had some successes in Over-the-Rhine with The Transept and Taft’s Ale House. But you have to be creative. When the people working on the climbing gym came to me, I said, Yes, let’s see how we can make this work. I really hope that they’re successful. Churches are landmarks in these communities. The steeples are part of the skyline.

As you learn about Cincinnati’s history, are there things we’ve lost in the past that make you think, We can’t let that happen again?

Every day I look over there [at Queensgate]. That’s a whole neighborhood [Kenyon-Barr] lost, and we’ll never get it back. And I know that’s still having repercussions generations later on the people who lived there.

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