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All Along the Church Tower

By Steve Ramos · July 21st, 2004 · Arts Beat
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The 1962 demolition of Manhattan's old Penn Station -- a grand 1910 building with a vaulted glass ceiling and massive concourse that made train passengers feel like royalty -- caused an outrage credited for breathing life into the historic preservation movement and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The same thing should have happened in Cincinnati when the stately Victorian stone mansions that made up Edgecliff College -- the Thomas and Mary Emery House, the Maxwelton and the theater -- were bulldozed in 1987 in the dead of night by Xavier University, the college's owner since 1980, to make way for a high-rise apartment building. It took four years for the complete dismantling of the old Penn Station, but the Emery House and its adjoining buildings came down in a flash.

A nondescript office tower, a cramped train station below street level and the Madison Square Garden sports arena have replaced old Penn Station, although there are plans for a new Penn Station at the General Post Office Building.

The less historic buildings that once were Edgecliff College, overlooking the Ohio River from the Walnut Hills neighborhood, continue to serve an educational function as part of the University of Cincinnati's OMI College of Applied Science. Those small structures remain, but nothing noteworthy replaced the historical buildings.

That battle, one of artists against bulldozers, neighborhood preservationists against Xavier administrators, failed in its attempts to define historical architecture as world-class art worth saving.

Like all cultural clashes, once one has ended, there are a handful of new ones waiting in the wings. In the case of the Emery House, lovers of Cincinnati's heritage and its classic buildings only have to walk away from Eden Park and further into Walnut Hills.

The ghost of the Emery House and the failure to save it can be seen in the church tower of the former Walnut Hills Presbyterian Church, built over 100 years ago and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The stone tower is the final remnant of the now demolished building at the corner of Gilbert Avenue and William Howard Taft Road, the last sign of an artful, historic building and a painful setback to an effort that sought to bring something creative and significant to the longstanding neighborhood.

The three-year history behind saving Walnut Hill Presbyterian Church includes plenty of efforts, although they fell short of the resources needed to preserve and remake the church. The city of Cincinnati pledged $50,000 to Cincinnati Preservation Association to buy and convert the structure into a community center

Walnut Hill Redevelopment Foundation, led by Jim King, and the Walnut Hills Community Council, led by Kathy Atkinson, partnered with the Cincinnati Preservation Association, led by Paul Muller of Muller Architects, to raise the necessary $2 million to save it.

There were reasons for optimism. Across the street, the Alexandria Apartments, a 99-year-old apartment building damaged by fire in 1993, reopened with 83 apartments for senior citizens after a $12.7 million renovation. A few blocks west, the former Ford Model T Factory on Lincoln Avenue was converted into office space.

But the necessary money was never raised, and the building's owner, the Rev. Donald Jordan, wanted to use the land to expand his funeral business. The battle to save the church is over. But the battle to save its most prominent feature, its church tower, remains. For the time being, behind chain-link fence and piles of steel pipes, the tower and its steeple stand out like a bombed-out relic. Its tragedy is ironic, a neighborhood example of déjà vu.

The monuments of our past crumble and are turned over with the dirt and replaced with funeral home parking lots and banquet halls that could be anywhere. There are numerous expressions of sadness when grand old buildings are torn down in Cincinnati -- although often not enough to save them.

 
 
 
 

 

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