As it awaits the outcome of a multifaceted legal battle that will likely decide its fate, Westwood’s historic James Norris Gamble House is enduring a harsh winter.
The uncertain future of the Gamble House has stirred contentious debates between the property’s owners, city government and preservationists across Greater Cincinnati and beyond.
“As we speak, the Gamble House is crumbling down from inclement weather conditions, it is being destroyed through neglect,” says Mary Kuhl, a member of the Westwood Civic Association’s board of directors.
The fight to preserve the former home of a key figure from Procter & Gamble’s history gained serious visibility when the owner, Indian Hill-based Greenacres Foundation, applied for a demolition permit in February 2010, a permit the foundation still is seeking. The Greenacres Foundation, founded by the Nippert Family in 1988, hopes to turn the 22-acre Gamble estate into a youth education center and nature preserve. The foundation contends that renovating, restoring and maintaining the Gamble House is simply not practical or economically feasible.
“I think it’s nice for so many people to want to preserve it (the Gamble House), but it takes money and it is an obligation that the Greenacres Foundation did not commit to when it accepted the property,” says Carter Randolph, the foundation’s executive vice president.
Many advocates of the Gamble House’s conservation emphasize its historical significance through highlighting ties to former owner. Gamble was a celebrated philanthropist, the inventor of Ivory Soap, an admired entrepreneur and the first mayor of the village of Westwood, back before the neighborhood became a part of the city of Cincinnati. He was the son of Proctor & Gamble Co. co-founder James Gamble and resided in the 13-room, 2,600-square-foot High Victorian Italianate villa from 1875 until his death in 1932.
“It’s difficult to enumerate the value of the Gamble House,” says Paul Muller, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA), an organization that has made three unsuccessful attempts to purchase the home from the Greenacres Foundation. “James N. Gamble is important not only to Cincinnati but to the history of American philanthropy.”
The most recent purchase offer, submitted Jan. 17, allowed CPA up to 90 days to raise $250,000 to buy the Gamble House and a 1.7-acre parcel of land.
Despite CPA’s three proposals, Randolph maintains that no realistic offers have been made.
“We have been open to proposals and yet no one has stepped up with a proposal that would include funding for renovation, and upkeep to make sure that it (the Gamble House) would not become a burden to the community in the future,” says Randolph.
“CPA has had over a year to demonstrate some financial capability.
In that year, they have raised approximately $3,700.”
The association contends that raising the funds necessary for the Gamble House’s preservation won’t be an issue.
“We know of organizations that will contribute to this cause,” Muller says. “The CPA is absolutely confident in its ability to raise the money for renovations and upkeep. But some kind of agreement needs to be in place before we can kick off a capital campaign.”
The association isn’t alone in its crusade to save the Gamble House. In the nearly one-year time period since Greenacres filed for a demolition permit, the Gamble House has captured headlines and been the subject of countless hearings, meetings, protests and discussions.
Shortly after the application was filed, support for the home’s preservation began to swell. Organizations such as the CPA, the Westwood Historical Society and the Westwood Civic Association jumped into action, launching campaigns to protect the home.
A group on Facebook called “Save the Historic Gamble Estate NOW!” has more than 3,000 followers. More than 1,600 of them have signed an online petition, and on Feb. 24, more than 100 preservation advocates gathered in front of the Gamble House to protest the home’s demolition.
“We want to do as much as possible to try to save this house,” says Greg Kissel, a trustee of the Westwood Historical Society. “If that means we need to make ourselves heard, we will.”
Kissel and his wife, Liz, who serves as president of the Westwood Historical Society, were instrumental in seeing that the Gamble House received a “historic landmark” designation, which was approved unanimously by Cincinnati City Council in May.
Although the designation doesn’t prevent a demolition permit from being issued, it certainly complicates the process and is at the heart of the current legal battle.
The Greenacres Foundation argues that because it applied for a demolition permit prior to the historic landmark designation, it shouldn’t be a factor in evaluating the application. This issue sparked the original lawsuit, which was filed just days after the demolition permit application was submitted.
“We believe the city of Cincinnati denied us the permit unlawfully and the matter is before a federal judge at this point,” Randolph notes.
Other options also have been proposed for saving the house.
City Councilman Charlie Winburn has advocated for the city to take the house by eminent domain — using municipal power to force its sale by an unwilling owner.
“The councilman says, based upon public hearings in Westwood, that the West Side community has demonstrated that there is significant public interest in not allowing this house to be bulldozed,” says David Miller, Winburn’s chief of staff.
According to Miller, the councilman “sees the house as something that is very personal to the Westwood community and wants to help them invest in their neighborhood.”
A transfer ordinance, which would set funds aside to buy the Gamble House by eminent domain, tied 4-4 in City Council’s livable communities committee. So far, no member has presented it to the full council for a vote.
Miller explained the transfer ordinance is only the first of several steps necessary to pursue the option of eminent domain.
Kuhl believes some outside factors might be influencing council’s sluggish progress in the eminent domain process. She alleges that Cincinnati businessmen Jack Rouse and Otto M. Budig Jr., who both serve on the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors, have been “applying pressure” to some City Council members to let the Gamble House activity “fall by the wayside.”
“We’ve heard rumblings that some very powerful, very wealthy people — Jack Rouse, Otto Budig Jr. — have been in council offices, using their influence, and I have had it confirmed by at least four council members that this actually happened,” Kuhl says.
Rouse and Budig were active in supporting fund-raising efforts for the renovation of Over-the-Rhine’s Music Hall.
According to Kuhl, Rouse and Budig implied to council members that if they didn’t stop the city’s involvement with the Gamble House dispute, a large amount of money gifted by Louise Nippert for the renovation of Music Hall might be jeopardized. Nippert is a co-founder of the Greenacres Foundation and a member of its board of directors.
Several council members didn’t return calls to comment. Miller said he had no information regarding the alleged involvement of Rouse and Budig, and the two men didn’t return calls and e-mails.
The legal battle’s progress is currently on hold. Before the case is heard, the courts must first determine if the federal court has jurisdiction in this matter. If not, it will fall back to the Common Pleas Court level.
At this point, if anything is clear,
it’s that the Gamble House’s future is very much in question and that
many Cincinnatians feel passionately about the issue.