Soap Floats

Soap Floats

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Despite the dreary weather, when I heard last winter that a rally would be held to save the embattled Gamble House on Werk Road in Westwood, I decided to check it out. The 13-room house, built in the 1830s, had been in the news as concerned west side citizens struggled to shield it from its owners, the Indian Hill–based Greenacres Foundation, which had announced its intention to tear the place down. No doubt I would see a handful of shivering, well-intentioned do-gooders pacing with signs in front of the haggard mansion. But to update my membership in the Well-Intentioned Do-Gooders Club, I thought I’d swell the ranks.

What I saw as I drove along Werk Road bordered on the surreal. Easily more than a hundred people lined the sidewalks on both sides of the road in front of the Gamble House, shaking their signs at the passing drivers, many of whom honked in loud support. Vans from two local TV stations were knifed into spots a couple of blocks away. Unable to find an open space, I turned around and drove back through the cheering gauntlet of protestors. With the streets just as jammed on the other side of the house, I turned around again and drove through one more time, staggered by the enthusiasm—and sheer size—of the crowd exhorting each other with steamy breaths of defiance.

This couldn’t be real. But it was happening. The question then became—why? West-siders care about their community as much as anyone, but historic preservation isn’t exactly the type of lightning rod that gooses average joes and janes from their couches and shoves them out the door into a freezing afternoon to stand by a road lugging signs in support of a house that, until recently, many didn’t know existed. Something else must be going on.

The Internet forums hadn’t provided a clue that a groundswell was burbling. I had heard no impassioned talk among neighbors or at the grocery store or coffee houses or restaurants. Out of the blue, it seemed that west-siders were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore. But mad about what? Was an old house that no one had lived in for years really igniting such a spirited call to arms?

The Gamble House is a beautiful place, no question. A clapboard Victorian with Italianate features, it sits on 21 rolling acres on Werk Road, a couple of blocks from Mother of Mercy High School in the heart of Westwood. Though it has remained unoccupied since 1961, when Olivia Gamble died, for many years it was zealously preserved under the eye of James N. Gamble’s grandson, Louis Nippert, a wealthy and well-known local tycoon who, perhaps most famously, was a part-owner of the Reds during the days of the Big Red Machine. After significant restoration in 1991, the house was given a preservation award by the Miami Purchase Association (now the Cincinnati Preservation Association) but since then—or rather, since Nippert’s death in late 1992—the house has been sliding slowly downhill, figuratively speaking. In truth, it needs a lot of work, but according to an inspection report, it is structurally sound. The report estimates repair costs between $300,000 and $400,000. (C. Francis Barrett, the attorney for Greenacres, contends that the cost to –restore- the home would be much higher, in the $2 million range.) Though the windows are now boarded up, it retains a certain magisterial grace.

Given the house’s location, the typical west-sider has driven past it hundreds, even thousands, of times. But I’ll wager that until a few months ago none of them had any idea it was called The Gamble House or that it had been the home (from 1875 to 1932) of James N. Gamble, philanthropist, inventor of Ivory Soap and creator of Ivorydale, benefactor of such local landmarks as the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium and Christ Hospital’s research center, scion of the famous Gamble family—as in Procter &—that played a pretty big role in building Cincinnati.

For years I drove or jogged past and admired the place, but I didn’t know it had a name or even that it was vacant. I assumed that members of the local gentry lived there, cozy in their retreat from the surrounding neighborhood that was, well, in transition. What, then, had turned this impressive yet largely anonymous home into a cause célèbre? To find out, I contacted the group fueling the fight.

Greg and Liz Kissel of the Westwood Historical Society have spearheaded what quickly has become an uproar. We met at the Henke Winery in Westwood, where the broad bay windows next to our table look out on the stately Westwood Town Hall, opened in 1889, thanks in part to the civic leadership of James N. Gamble. The hall is located on Harrison Avenue, which had been the main artery connecting Westwood to downtown Cincinnati during Gamble’s day, and through his efforts in support of a rail system that had been located nearby, the area grew into what is now the city’s largest community.

Across the street stands the gorgeous stone facade of the Westwood United Methodist Church, another gift from Mr. Gamble, who, according to the church’s website, matched the contributions of the 150 other members of the congregation five to one to pay for the church, which opened in 1897. Around the corner and a few blocks down Montana Avenue sprawls the Gamble-Nippert YMCA. Residential streets in the neighborhood include Gamble Avenue; Penrose Place (named for Gamble’s wife, the former Margaret Penrose); and Daytona Avenue, named for Gamble’s vacation home in Daytona, Florida.

OK, I was starting to understand the passion behind the battle to save the home. Mr. James Norris Gamble had touched a lot of lives, and his influence and generosity continues to pervade Westwood. The research I’d done about him since that first rally revealed a staggering list of accomplishments. He was, by all accounts, not only fabulously successful in business and a forward-thinking visionary but a community-minded citizen and a helluva nice guy. Maybe the fight was less about the house than about preserving the memory of a man who was, without question, Westwood’s all-time leading resident.

That theory was pretty much confirmed by the Kissels. They looked nothing like the rabble-rousing firebrands I expected. In their middle years, they immediately strike you as reserved and refined. With his lush white hair and white goatee, Greg, an architect, would look at home mounted on a snorting steed in paintings of the Battle of Gettsyburg. Liz, a registered dietician, is petite and exudes a quiet sophistication. They’re life-long west-siders—she from Cheviot, he from Bridgetown. For the next two hours they outlined the history of the house and the fight to save it.

Concern about the fate of the Gamble House is not new for them. Though most of us began hearing about it in February, the house has been a steady blip on their radar since they helped form the Westwood Historical Society in 2002.

“From the very beginning that was one of the first questions everybody would ask,” Liz says. “What’s going to happen to the Gamble House? It’s been there forever, but nobody really knows what goes on. You don’t see a lot of activity except for people cutting the grass periodically.” To find an answer, she contacted Carter Randolph, executive vice president of the Greenacres Foundation, who represents Louise Nippert, Louis’s widow. (Randolph also oversees the Louise Dieterle Nippert Trust.) Though Liz says Randolph was vague in his responses to her initial inquiries about the house, she felt that no plans were being made to change the home in any way, and the society’s concern was unwarranted. “There didn’t seem to be an urgency,” Greg adds. “There didn’t seem to be much for us to follow up on.”

And so they didn’t. Years passed. They met with Randolph a few times, even toured the place in 2007 and 2008, and although they remained wary, they believed that Greenacres held the house’s best interest at heart. Then in March 2009, in response to a neighbor’s complaint, the house was cited by the city for its peeling paint and broken sidewalk. The city contacted Randolph requesting repairs. In August 2009, the house was officially transferred from the trust to the foundation, in what amounted to little more than some paperwork. The city sent more requests for repairs to Randolph, now representing Greenacres as the owner. While some repairs were made, according to the city’s records, that file also indicated that the foundation planned to demolish the house.

Historical society member Bob Prokop saw the declaration of intent on the city’s Community Problem Oriented Policing (CPOP) website, an online version of building and code violations records. Prokop and his fiancée, Laura Twichell, have been in Westwood all of three years. They moved from New Jersey—not for jobs, but to take advantage of Cincinnati’s housing market. “You can’t find an affordable house with character there,” Prokop said. His love for classic homes has led to his interest in fighting for the Gamble House. Members of the society and Westwood Concern, a group of private citizens dedicated to civic causes in the community, gathered on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend to plot strategy. They needed to find a way to convince the city—and the owners—of the house’s historic importance and its cherished place in the hearts of west-siders. A pretty tall order for a house that a lot of people didn’t know about.

“They just know it as the big yellow house,” Liz says. “And because it sits back so far, people drive by it and can’t see it.” The committee leading the charge to save the house, therefore, had to broadcast that story as quickly as possible and hope the local citizenry would follow the call to action. The Kissels agree that when people hear the story of James N. Gamble and the fight to save the house, they climb aboard the bandwagon.Of course, being on the bandwagon and helping to push it down the road are altogether different. Sure, the average resident would prefer that such a unique place be preserved, but is that resident really going to do anything about it? Perhaps the folks at Greenacres had the same thought. And just in case, they moved fast in pushing the city for a permit to demolish.

Big mistake. The people leading the charge are a savvy bunch. They wrote letters to the city, sent fliers to local residents, appeared on local radio shows. They launched a social-media campaign that spread the word in ways never possible before. Society member Mary Kuhl set up a Facebook page that in just a few months drew nearly 3,000 members. Prokop, a web designer, fed the page with regular updates and created savethegamblehouse.org, which defaults to the Facebook page “Save the Historic Gamble Estate NOW!” He also sent out more tweets than a flock of starving egrets. An online petition to save the house gathered 1,500 signatures in a matter of weeks.

The sweep of interest rolled way beyond the boundaries of Westwood—to every community in the city, to transplants in Texas, Arizona, and California, even as far away as Northern Ireland, from which the Gamble family had emigrated almost 200 years ago. Prokop came upon the blog of Nelson McCausland, Northern Ireland’s Minister of Culture, Arts, and Leisure, who, purely by chance, posted an entry in February about James Gamble Sr., putting him in the “Scotch-Irish Hall of Fame.” Prokop commented on the entry, explaining the fight to save James N. Gamble’s house. McCausland was so moved by the story that he sent a letter of support that was presented to city council in May before the unanimous vote to designate the home as an “historic district overlay” and put it on the Cincinnati Historic Landmark list.

The designation offers some protection, a few hoops that Greenacres would have to jump through before bringing in the wrecking ball, but there are limits. Despite the designation, the house could still be demolished. And Greenacres contends that the request for the demolition permit predates the designation anyway so they’re free to do what they want. Judge Norbert Nadel was scheduled to make a decision on that question, but in late May the case was referred to the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Ohio after the attorney for Greenacres filed more claims challenging the constitutionality of council’s decision. That delays the final decision, which will likely be appealed no matter what it is. Translation: This fight could drag on for some time.

The broad support suggests that the movement has spread beyond a classic west side–east side battle, and the Kissels agree that this is much more than Cincinnati’s typical trench warfare. “Maybe that had something to do with it at first, but it’s grown much larger than a west side thing,” Greg says. Liz concurs, noting that they hear frequently from east-siders who support the cause.

And it’s not as if Greenacres is some rapacious corporation gleefully eager to flatten our history to build condos. Greenacres puts much of its time and resources into programs designed, as they state on their website, “To encourage conservation and appreciation of nature by providing the public, particularly children, opportunities to study plant and animal life in their natural settings.” The foundation wants to extend the programs already in place in Indian Hill to the Gamble property. Tough to argue with such a noble undertaking. Westwoodians wonder, however, why the house can’t be part of the plan. The historical society, according to Liz Kissel, has offered a number of suggestions for ways the house could be used. “We researched other historic houses and how they were repurposed,” she says. “We came up with a bunch of different suggestions. [Carter Randolph] said none of them are viable.” (Randolph contends that he’s never received a written proposal from the historical society and that “any uses of the property would have to be very respectful of the Gambles and the Nipperts.”)

Still, Prokop says that everyone in the group has worked long hours in the past few months, noting that when he would e-mail the Kissels at one in the morning, he’d usually receive an immediate reply. He has thrown himself completely into the cause, believing that the house, and the man it honors, are worth what he calls his “second full-time job.”

And as the story of James N. Gamble spreads, it’s likely that more and more folks will pick up protest signs and march—if only symbolically. That may still be necessary. In late April, the Cincinnati Preservation Association offered to buy the house, including a small piece of land for access. Attorney Barrett says CPA’s bid was not a formal offer, and that the foundation has concerns about the intended use of the property, which have been expressed to CPA’s interim director Paul Muller. The Kissels believe the CPA could work well in partnership with the Greenacres educational programs. But would such an uneasy alliance actually work? Maybe, in a way, we owe it to the guy. The Kissels certainly feel that way.

“We just want them to give us a chance to be stewards,” Greg says, “for someone who, frankly, was a steward for us.”


Originally published in the July 2010 issue.

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