The Geography of Memory: How 544 Forgotten Photographs Bring Cincinnati’s Past Back to Life

1921

For our February 2017 “Lost City” issue, we remember what time, disasters, and the wrecking ball have taken away.

On the maps we carry in our heads, along with the shortcut around I-75’s backups and the way to grandma’s house, we each plot a network of invisible landmarks. The grade school that used to be right there. The church erased by urban renewal. The traffic pattern that no longer exists. This geography of memory hovers underneath today’s reality, another layer that lives in our subconscious and pops out on those days when we say, “Oh, you should have seen it.”

 


 

In 1968, businesses were cheek-by-jowl on the west side of Vine Street’s 900 block. Times have changed. The Handy Window Shade Co. has moved to Miamitown, vacating the former home of the Cincinnati Freie Presse. The building at right, with the dry cleaner (“One Hour Martinizing”), once home to Hamburger Mary’s, is now the Cincinnati VA Medical Center’s Community Outreach Division, providing services for homeless veterans.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


Three years ago, Paula Drake, the deputy auditor for operations and public records at the Hamilton County Auditor’s office, actually managed to turn memory into reality—and thanks to the internet and the auditor’s website, she shared it with all of us. In a cardboard box next to a filing cabinet, she found 554 black-and-white 8-by-10 photographs of downtown’s central business district, dating from late 1968. “I was beside myself,” Drake says of the discovery. She’d known the photos existed, but as the auditor’s office moved, employees retired, and new colleagues took their place, the box got lost in the shuffle.

Drake explains that the photos were taken for the 1969 property appraisal (which is why the parcel identification numbers are written on the images). As it does today, the auditor’s office contracted with an appraisal company to take photos of properties in the county. Unlike today, each appraisal, held every six years, was relatively low-tech. Limited resources required the office to give photographic priority to areas in a state of flux. Drake and auditor Dusty Rhodes speculate that changes spurred by an extensive urban renewal campaign inspired the decision to focus on downtown.

And boy, have there been changes. Enough remains that you know where you are—the courthouse, City Hall, St. Peter in Chains, Carew Tower—but you see so much in these images that is now gone, including the Shubert and Albee theaters, the original location of Batsakes hat shop, and a slew of restaurants, from the Wheel Café to a little spot called Pigall’s.

However, the photos also manage to capture the future that is at hand: the Fifth Third tower rising on Fountain Square, a King Wrecking Company sign on the corner of Fourth and Main crowning a demolished heap. “It’s important for the community to have access to these images,” Rhodes says. “They’re yours.” Meaning, this is our history and we should not forget it. With the help of librarians in the Information and Reference Department at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, we’ve been able to piece together some backstories of the buildings you’ll see on the following pages. They may be architectural ghosts, but at least they were caught on film before they vanished.


SCROLL THROUGH OUR GALLERY TO VIEW MORE PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THIS COLLECTION:

Far less business was transacted on West Court Street, where the home of Engine Company 45 (at right) was being used for storage in 1968 (in 1980, it would be given new life as the Cincinnati Fire Museum). Next door, the Lloyd Library’s collections were straining the shelves; a new library would be built in 1970, and this lot turned over to parking.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


For nine decades the Batsakes family ran a dry cleaning and hat business on Walnut Street. Then the Aronoff Center for the Arts happened, which created critical mass around the idea of an arts district downtown. The Contemporary Arts Center was interested in a new home; its Vine Street galleries were tucked above a Walgreens. When Stanley Kaplan, then president of the CAC board of trustees, saw a For Sale sign on property at Sixth and Walnut, he thought that was the spot. And that meant Batsakes was in the crosshairs. After a contentious few years, George and Jim Batsakes, owners of the dry cleaning business, opted to shut down in 2000. Their cousin, Gus Miller, reached an agreement with the city over relocation fees, and moved his business to Sixth and Vine in January 2001, where he still makes hats.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


Believe it or not, the Pogue’s garage, at the northwest corner of Fourth and Race, was one of the city’s first urban renewal projects. It was not without controversy: In July 1966, 19 West Fourth Street business owners filed suit to stop its construction, claiming that it was designed to lead parkers directly into Pogue’s and asking for a pedestrian exit to Fourth Street. The following year, the plaintiffs amended their suit to charge collusion and the taking of public property for private gain. In 1971, a judge ordered alterations, but the damage was done—the Fourth Street ramps shown here still jutted into the right of way, and pedestrian access to the south side of Fourth was difficult. As the years passed, the garage crumbled, eventually becoming a target for redevelopment itself. Demolition started in September 2016, and the latest plans for the site include 200 apartments atop a 700-space parking garage, with 25,000 square feet of commercial space along the street. The developer for the $77.3 million project is Indianapolis-based Flaherty & Collins, and they’re working with 3CDC, which would develop and own the commercial space.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


Between 1940 and 1980, the northeast corner of Sixth and Walnut served as one of Cincinnati’s downtown movie palaces. Built to show newsreels, and converted to full-length features at the end of World War II, the Times got its name from the former occupant of its site: the Times-Star newspaper. By late 1992, demolition of the theater and other buildings along Walnut (including the Angel Apartments, at left) was underway; the Aronoff Center for the Arts and the adjacent restaurant space (which would house Plaza 600 Seafood Grill, Bella, and now Nada) would open in October 1995. Look closely and you’ll see Maisonette’s signature awning to the right of the theater.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


Downtown had been without a grocery store for four years when Kroger announced in August 1959 that it would be opening a multi-level store on Race Street, using the basement, first, and second floors for the retail space. The Enquirer reported that Kroger would lease the space from March 1960 through 1976, but it was not to be—the store closed at the end of 1969. Next door, Bernhard’s Pastry Shop chugged along until the mid-1980s. Today, what used to be a grocery store is now home to sportswear retailer The Chong.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


Built as a YMCA on the corner of Seventh and Walnut in 1848, the Shubert Theater was demolished in January 1976. The final act: Red Foxx, who performed two sell-out shows there in May 1975. In 1921, as Shubert’s curtain rose, another business was debuting: Steinberg’s. Ely Steinberg built his appliance and electronics business, lost it in the Depression, then returned to build it again. Though Steinberg’s left downtown in 1982, it would be 1997 before the company went completely out of business. Across Seventh Street from the Shubert, a different kind of theater was taking place upstairs in the Seaboard Loans building. Cincinnati’s Playboy Club kept keyholders happy from 1964 to 1983. The last to go would be the Phoenix Café. In 2007, nearly 25 years after the bunnies turned in their tails, the Phoenix finally closed for good, following pressure from the city and the arrest of a bartender on drug charges. Nightlife group 4EG opened The Righteous Room in the space in 2009.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


It may seem like overkill, but an abundance of signage was important in an era when shoppers trolled downtown’s sidewalks on foot. Fountain Place occupies the site of Revco Drug, Allens Shoes, James & Co., Mayor’s Jewelry, and the Holiday Dance Club, but the Terrace Plaza (minus its sign) still looms over Sixth and Race.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


At the time of this photo, Izzy Kadetz was three years into his tenure at Elm and Ninth, where he’d moved from the original location on Central Avenue.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


Across Ninth Street, Jim LaBarbara was a new DJ at WLW’s studios in the COMEX building. In 2016, he told WVXU’s John Kiesewetter he could look out the studio windows and see Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, and other guests of The Bob Braun Show walking over to Izzy’s for a late lunch.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


The lights were still on inside the St. Moritz Lounge, and Getz Jewelers was still displaying its wares in the window, but the large “View of Tomorrow” map obscuring the front door of Goodie’s shows that this corner of Seventh and Vine would soon be ancient history. Demolition of the St. Moritz building, which also housed the Jack & Jill Bowling Alley, began in October 1968; the Getz property fell soon after, and in early 1969, the Vindonissa Building was razed. Shillito’s bought the property for a parking garage; today the building that stands here bears the Macy’s name, and Skyline’s coneys and three-ways have replaced Getz’s diamonds and pearls at street level.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


While the Albee’s marble arch survives on the Fifth Street facade of the Duke Energy Convention Center, the curtain fell for its neighbors—including the pub-like Wiggins Tavern—in 1977.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


Customers would line up outside Peri’s Pancakes at the corner of Fifth and Main for Milton C. Blersch’s breakfasts, but Peri’s flapped its last jack in November 1976.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


There’s no way to catch a glimpse of the Suspension Bridge from the corner of Plum and McFarland these days: 312 Plum looms above you; Radius at The Banks, next to the new GE Global Operations Center, stands in the way.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


Also gone: Those ramps sticking out of the Dixie Terminal. Bus service stopped in 1996; the ramps came down two years later. That “Interstate Bridge” referenced on the sign? That’s the Brent Spence, which carries the “Mill Creek Expwy”—or I-71/75—to this day.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor


In this view of the north side of West Seventh Street at Central Avenue, almost nothing you see remains. Everything to the west of the building with the cross on its front (an unidentified church—if you recognize it, please let us know) has been demolished. The pawn shop building was owned by the Cincinnati Archdiocese, and it was torn down for a parking lot in 1977. The buildings farther west were demolished for Centennial Plaza and additional development. The building to the east, with its ornate brickwork, was also demolished for parking.

Photograph courtesy Hamilton County Auditor

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