Courtesy of Greg Hand
The Queen City supplies a seemingly endless abundance of material for a blog called Cincinnati Curiosities. While this inspiration is usually tucked away in musty old newspaper files, Cincinnati sometimes just plops an amazing curiosity right there in plain sight.
For example, consider the odd little building at 208 East Liberty Street. It is vacant now, but signage indicates that it was once a restaurant with a bar known as Teez Café. Even though it is rather small, Teez Café leaps out visually from its neighboring structures because it boasts a façade of bright white glazed brick, trimmed with glazed navy blue.
The curiosity arises from that façade, because it leads so many Cincinnatians (and decades of exceptional marketing) to assume that this little structure was once a White Castle restaurant. The assumption is totally false. There was never—ever—a White Castle restaurant at 208 East Liberty Street. The truth, as usual, is far more interesting.
If 208 was not a White Castle, what was it? The building is quite old, for a start, far older than any White Castle. The first White Castle was built in 1927 at 714 Walnut Street in Cincinnati. The hamburger franchise always built brand new restaurants because the building was as much a part of the brand as were the distinctive sliders sold within. Parts of 208 East Liberty may endure from 1891, when Fred Schrikel ran a little produce market there.
The address got a major renovation around 1914 when the Crescent Motor Company located an automobile repair service at 208 East Liberty. The name “Crescent” doesn’t ring many bells these days, but Cincinnati was a major automobile producer in 1914, and Crescent was a top Cincinnati make.
Operator of the repair shop was a young mechanic named William Yeatman Headley. When Crescent Motors went bankrupt, Headley renamed the operation as the Headley Motor Company and ran the garage under that name for 20 years until around 1936. For whatever reason—Was it health? A change of interest? The Great Depression?—Headley closed his auto repair shop and the building sat vacant for a couple of years.
In January 1939, an auction was advertised in the Cincinnati Enquirer, announcing the sale of all contents of a “modern machine shop” at 208 East Liberty, including lathes, planers, milling machines, drill presses, etc. William Y. Headley was cleaning house to prepare for his next venture.
The Stop Lite Café opened in 1940 at 208 East Liberty. Proprietors were William Y. Headley and his wife, Martha. Occasionally, the newspaper referred to the place as a night club—suggesting that musical entertainment or dancing was offered—but it appears that the Stop Lite was your basic bar, with some burgers and maybe a few other sandwiches on the menu.
Business must have been good. The Headleys lived on a big plot of land north of Mt. Healthy and in 1950 bought a century-old house on 70 acres near Morrow.
Headley ran the Stop Lite right up until he died, aged 83, in 1974. By then, the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was in steep decline. Multiple clippings from the early 1970s record robberies at the old Stop Lite Café. By then, the bartenders were armed and any aspirations to “night club” status were gone. Martha died in 1978 and the property passed to their daughter, June Joerg, who sold the property in 1983.
In 1985, 208 East Liberty was acquired by a woman named Maria Grueter, a retired Cincinnati schoolteacher who held a master’s degree, had traveled widely and had earned honors in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II. Despite this storied past, Mrs. Grueter was considered to be just one of the street people who wandered the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Residents there called her “Mother.”
“Mother” made the news in February 1994 when neighbors called police about her 1978 Chevette, overflowing with trash and infested with rats. One witness counted at least eight rats crawling around the car packed with packaging, newspapers, and half-eaten food. “She’s like a little old bag lady, but instead of a cart, she has a car,” said Police Sergeant Greg Guy. Mother Grueter was taken to University Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation while exterminators worked on her car. She was found to be mentally stable and in good health and was released to the care of a relative.
Mrs. Grueter died the next year and 208 East Liberty passed to her daughter, who lived in Chicago and sold it almost immediately. The property has been sold five times since then. At some point, the bar/restaurant portion of the building took on the Teez Café name. One customer remembers Teez Café burgers as “awesome . . . true skillet burgers.”
If 208 East Liberty was not a White Castle, why does it look like a White Castle? That is a good question, and the answer might lie in the fact that a real, honest-to-goodness, authentic White Castle had been located just around the block.
Cincinnati White Castle Number 5 was built in 1927 at 1604 Main Street. It remained in operation until the 1970s. A visitor to one of the local blogs reported that, around 1977, the vacant White Castle had lost its roof and weeds were growing inside.
Could it be that William Y. Headley acquired some extra bricks from the White Castle construction crew and put up a distinctive façade for his auto-repair shop? Or, maybe he just asked them where a guy could purchase some bricks like that. To add to the conjecture, the property at 1604 Main Street on which White Castle Number 5 was operated was purchased in 1946 by Martha C. Headley, wife of William Y. Headley, who ran the Spot Lite Café, just around the block in a building that looked an awful lot like a White Castle.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities