When people talk about the current resurgence of metropolitan Cincinnati, some of the first destinations that come to mind are recently renovated Cincinnati landmarks like Fountain Square and Washington Park. With those two cases in mind, it seems that the best approach to building a better town might not be constructing an altogether new wheel, but rather reinventing it.
So when Scott Hand and Dominic Marino decided to transform the old Jackson Brewery in Over-the-Rhine into Grayscale Cincinnati — a performance arts space and craft brewery — it only made sense.
The Jackson building is set to be a linchpin for the Brewery District, and Hand and Marino are relying on its location overlooking the intersection of McMicken Avenue and Elm Street — currently slated as the northernmost point for the streetcar route — to make it a destination point for locals as well as tourists.
“We’re trying to create something that people are going to want to come to on a daily basis,” Marino says. “Something for the neighborhood.” And with a brewer, unnamed as of press time, ready to occupy a space that includes a production kitchen, fermenting room and tasting room, there should be plenty of beer being brewed once again within those hallowed walls.
But they’re not going to rely on beer alone to entice visitors through their doors — that’s merely the icing on top of the Grayscale cake.
What Hand and Marino really envisioned in Cincinnati is a melding of their two professional passions: music appreciation and architectural acoustics.
Although the two went to high school together (they were just a few years apart and briefly played together in the school’s band), it wasn’t until they reconnected in Chicago that they began scheming about how to incorporate their two professions into a viable project for their hometown.
Hand is an architect with a special emphasis on performing arts facilities and architectural acoustics, while Marino teaches music at The School for Creative and Performing Arts and UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, so they both have their hands in the local performing arts world.
In their quest for the perfect space, Hand and Marino picked the Jackson Brewery not only for its location, but also for the size and integrity of the rooms.
A front lobby will connect two venues: an “informal” 300-person music hall with a stage large enough to seat a 16-piece big band, and a more “formal” 192-seat theater
The plan is to raise a few ceilings, level the concrete floor and extend a wall or two, but mostly the spaces will remain intact. The raw aesthetic of the building, with its exposed brickwork, metal columns and industrial feel, is what attracted them in the first place.
“Everyone in town seems to be yearning for a space that concentrates on music first and foremost,” Marino says. And Grayscale Cincinnati intends to be that place. Most of the other venues in town with the quality of sound that Grayscale is capable of achieving are substantially bigger.
“There’s no place for your doing-really-well local band to come in and play. They’re not going to get to take a stage at the Aronoff,” Hand says, “but we want them here. And they’re going to want to play here because it’s going to be the kind of place that will make them sound really good.”
The building’s Romanesque Revival architectural style is typical for the time when it was built in 1859, featuring inverted crenellation on the eaves, red brick and rounded arches over windows reminiscent of the Rundbogenstil mid-19th-century architecture. That style followed the German diaspora of the era and is a considerable part of Cincinnati’s urban architectural heritage.
Within a short walk of the Jackson Brewery is the neighborhood’s most recent addition to the Cincinnati brewery renaissance, Rhinegeist, at 1910 Elm St. Grayscale is poised to continue their momentum and Cincinnati’s tradition of beer-making north of Liberty Street.
Even though they weren’t part of the most recent Brewery District Master Plan in 2011, Grayscale is exactly what the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. had in mind when devising their strategy for repopulating Cincinnati’s underutilized collection of historic brewery buildings.
Where Grayscale takes the idea of neighborhood watering hole to a new level isn’t just the mere addition of entertainment as a featured attraction, however. It is the historic precedent of a multi-purpose space in Cincinnati that engages the community on a large scale. Gathering places surrounding the five inclines that existed in the mid- to late-19th century were elaborate complexes like the Highland House at the top of the Mount Adams Incline, and they are good templates for what Grayscale hopes to be.
The Highland House was a sprawling complex that served people who wanted to dine, dance or drink after a trip up the hill. The beer garden alone accommodated as many as 8,000 patrons on a busy night. These social spots greatly increased the incline business by encouraging tourism and ridership but also helped to develop the then-barren hilltops — all of which could be seen as good model for the aspirations of Cincinnati’s Brewery District.
“We could have done this way easier if we’d done it somewhere else. But we wanted to do something for this city,” Hand says. “It’d be cheaper and easier to get a new place but the underground, industrial aesthetic is what we liked.”
The overwhelming difference that the large-scale transformations (and subsequent public programming) of Cincinnati landmarks like Washington Park or Fountain Square have had on the current climate of excitement over the city proper as a legitimate destination point has been palpable as of late. If Grayscale Cincinnati can keep the momentum up, we’ll be living in a whole new city before we know it.
To follow the renovation of GRAYSCALE CINCINNATI, visit grayscalecincinnati.com.