The Over-the-Rhine Museum Tells Stories of the Neighborhood’s Past to Build a Better Future

Anne Delano Steinert on the origins of the museum, telling stories through historic buildings, and why she doesn’t use the term ”OTR.”

Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

When she was a tweenager, Anne Delano Steinert would ride the bus downtown with her best friend to score cheap sunglasses from The Chong, only to get off a stop early to explore Over-the-Rhine. She knew back then she wanted to help share the stories of the historic buildings that line our city’s streets. After more than 20 years in New York City, she’s back in the Queen City and ready to do just that as board chair of the Over-the-Rhine Museum.

What is the Over-the-Rhine Museum?
It’s a nonprofit organization whose mission is to build respect for all people by collecting, preserving, and celebrating all the stories that Over-the-Rhine has to tell. We plan to do that in an immersive experience in a physical structure. We’ll be modeled somewhat after the Lower East Side Tenement Museum [in New York City]. They really pioneered this idea of bringing people into uninterpreted residential spaces. We will take a tenement building in Over-the-Rhine and interpret each unit to the life of a real family who lived in the building, and do that across time to see how the building’s use would have changed and grown across time—in this case, from the 1860s to the 2000s.

How did the Over-the-Rhine Museum get its start?
I went to graduate school in New York City. I had a professor who did some of the original research for the Tenement Museum and a friend who helped design the first two apartments the museum opened. This was in the early ’90s. At some point I had a meeting with Gale Peterson, who was then the head of the Cincinnati Historical Society. He asked if I knew anything about the Tenement Museum, and I said, Yeah, actually. I have all of these connections. He said, That’s what we need to be doing in Over-the-Rhine. I was in my twenties and just starting my career and didn’t even think that was something I would ever do, but it kind of went to the back of my head and stuck in there. Twenty years later, I came back to Cincinnati and the city was changing…[and] we lost a lot of physical structures in Over-the-Rhine. Also, you could see the rapid change of some people being displaced and some stories being lost and new residents coming.

We want to help people understand that Over-the-Rhine is a neighborhood that’s housed wave after wave of working class and lower income people. So after the German wave, there were other immigrant groups that came, that transformed into Appalachian migrants, that eventually came to African Americans. So helping people understand all those layers is an important part of what we do.

Ann Senefeld, a colleague of mine who runs Digging Cincinnati History, had the same idea. A mutual friend hooked us up together. We went out and had pizza at Dewey’s. We brought on Nancy Yerian, who was at the time an Ohio History Service Corps volunteer, and she helped us write up our first history and mission statements and got us moving.

What have you accomplished so far?
In terms of our institutional history, we started meeting as a board in 2014 and really solidifying in 2015. Since then, we’ve been working hard on many fronts. We have three signature programs: an oral history project where we record stories of the neighborhood; a traveling exhibition called Stories of Over-the-Rhine, which is 12 panels telling stories that connect Over-the-Rhine to larger regional and national trends; and a quarterly lecture series called Three Acts in Over-the-Rhine, where we have three 15-minute talks on disparate topics relating to Over-the-Rhine with the goal of saying to people, You can sit in this room for one hour and learn this incredible breadth of things that Over-the-Rhine has to teach you. And we can do it again and again and again—it’s endless.

Why are you so passionate about this neighborhood?
I’m a preservationist. When I was 17 years old, I applied to colleges to get a bachelor’s degree in historic preservation. I knew from the beginning that this was what I was and this was in my soul. I grew up in Clifton, and when I was a tweenager we were allowed to take the bus downtown. And so from 12 or 13 years old I fell in love with the historic architecture of Over-the-Rhine and the idea that these buildings had stories to tell—that if I could just learn the language and understand the vernacular of what the buildings were saying to me, I would know so much about the past. So really, my professional quest has been to realize that dream of being able to speak the language of historic architecture. Over-the-Rhine is the place I fell in love with. I went to college and got a bachelor’s degree in preservation, got a master’s degree in preservation, got a second master’s degree in urban history, and am working on a Ph.D. in urban history. Over-the-Rhine is my muse.

Do you live in OTR?
I used to live in Over-the-Rhine. I honestly don’t call it OTR. I feel strongly that OTR is the rebranding of the neighborhood for the new resident, and that if you talk to anyone who lived in Over-the-Rhine historically they call it either Over-the-Rhine or The Rhine. I’m now an east side resident.

You returned to Cincinnati in 2008. The neighborhood has changed drastically in that short time. How has that impacted the museum’s mission?
As the pace of change accelerates, I would certainly say the museum feels an imperative to save stories before everything is lost. Part of what’s happening in Over-the-Rhine is that these buildings that were originally two- to three-room tenement units, which was the standard size for 19th century, are not what people in 2019 want to live in. In order to make these buildings attractive to current residents, they have to be completely reconfigured and modernized. So much of the physical fabric of the building is being taken out, rearranged, or lost that you can’t read the story of the building any more because it’s been so transformed. Part of what we’re trying to do is create our physical museum tenement space now before we lose too much.

That change brings both positives and negatives to the community. Could you weigh in on that?
I will say this: Over-the-Rhine is a neighborhood that was built to house 40,000 people. There is no reason that everyone and all their needs and desires can’t fit within this neighborhood. I think the thing that’s important as Over-the-Rhine develops is to make it a home for everyone who wants to be here.

The Over-the-Rhine Museum is currently working to secure funding to purchase and renovate a historic tenement building at West McMicken and Findlay streets to house its physical museum. Why this building?
We looked at over 30 buildings and felt like we had a situation where prices were going up pretty quickly. We wanted to find something affordable for us where the interior was somewhat intact and where we could enter into a long-range purchase contract so that we had some time to fund-raise. Before we had a specific site in mind, it was hard for people to believe that this was real. The first question everyone would ask is, Where is the building? Where is the museum? Now that we can say the address, people say, Oh that’s great. It’s close to Findlay Market. I know where to park.

We have not purchased the building yet. We are fund-raising to meet the terms of the purchase contract. Once we own the building, then we can really start going with longer-range funding options.

How much time does it take to get a museum like this up and running?
If we look to the Tenement Museum as a model, they phased in their space over about 20 years. They started by doing walking tours and raised money that way. They were able to interpret two apartments on the first floor. They showed those two apartments for years then raised enough money to be able to interpret two more apartments. They have a huge operating budget now. I think it’s the second most popular history site in all of New York City, after Ellis Island. So it’s the next place people go to learn about the city’s past.

Do you think Cincinnatians have a real interest in this part of local history?
I think anyone who has family from Cincinnati has some connection to Over-the-Rhine or the West End. Prior to 1870, pretty much everyone who lived in Cincinnati lived in the basin neighborhoods: downtown, Over-the-Rhine, or the West End. Anyone who is a long-term Cincinnatian can trace themselves back. And it’s fascinating to think, How did my great-grandfather live? How did they heat their apartment? Where did they cook their food? What, their bathroom was in the backyard?! All of that is really compelling. It’s so different from the way we live today that it’s hard to imagine without really immersing yourself in it and really feeling it.

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