As customers go to and from the Ice Cream Palace on the street level of the once notorious, now ever developing Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, many of them are unaware of the secret two stories above the store which produces their ice cold deserts.
Often times when exploring abandoned buildings or forgotten places, relics are left behind. Relics that give an insight as to the location's former use, former tenants and history. In a day and age where abandoned buildings are mostly visited for their scrap metal, it's rare to find personal items left behind after the vandalism has passed. When these personal items are how found however, they often give a deeper meaning to the location at hand, lending you some sense of the person or persons who once were there. Never has this been more true than when I explored the former apartment of a man named Joe Wilcher.
My friend Ali called me up one day to tell me about this place. The building is in the process of being completely renovated by her boyfriend Chap, of Pinstripes fame. After discovering the attic apartment and it's contents, Ali contacted me, thinking I might find it interesting. Not only was this place interesting to photograph, but you could easily spend hours taking a look into the life of the man who no longer resides there.
Who was Joe Wilcher? Joe Wilcher was a decorated Korean War combat veteran. Joe Wilcher was a Metro bus rider. Joe Wilcher was well organized. Joe Wilcher was resourceful. Joe Wilcher liked to smoke hand rolled cigarettes. Joe Wilcher suffered from some sort of disability affecting his mobility. The most obvious thing about Joe Wilcher's personality though; Joe Wilcher loved to read or at least collect books.
According the information Chap could gather from the building's owner, Joe paid his last month's worth of rent and left, never to be heard from again. No one knows what he took with him or where he went, but a glimpse of his personality can be found in what he left behind. According to the calendar on the wall: Rent was paid on June 12, 2001 with a letter having been sent to Jim (the landlord) on June 14, 2001. Joe left some time shortly after that, leaving behind a one room apartment modified in a resourceful manner and an amazing collection of literature.
Joe used almost anything and everything he had. A lot of his supplies went to building bookcases for his expansive collection, yet it was apparent he let nothing go to waste. Shelves and cabinets were constructed out of cardboard, while stickers and cut outs from magazines were used to provide decorative details on Joe's handywork.
Judging by the multiple handles around the room, it seems Joe suffered from lower mobility issues in his legs that didn't allow him to walk or stand up properly. With little use for it, his stand up shower was even converted into a bookshelf as seen below:
Despite the room obviously having been ransacked over the years, many very personal and sensitive documents still remained tucked away in a drawer in the apartment's "kitchen" area. Social security cards, medicare information, military and medical records as well as a Bronze Star Medal awarded during the Korean War were among many things tucked away.
It was obvious that when Joe was living here, he wanted to keep uninvited visitors out. The door to the apartment had been rigged and fitted with various homemade deadbolts and locks. Cut away windows in the bathroom area and kitchen area allowed Joe to keep an eye on the door at all times.
One area of the small room seemed to be Joe's "Desk." Adjacent to the "kitchen," this area featured receipts, mail, supplies of rubber bands, pens, writing materials and other office supplies in addition to even more bookshelves.
One of the most interesting artifacts found in Joe's apartment though was a single shot glass:
The shot glass bears the seal of Ohio University, the school I transferred away from this year. Upon realizing this, I was reminded of my one room dorm that I had stayed in at OU. Roughly the same size as Joe's apartment, I wondered if he had been a graduate of or attended Ohio University at some point after being released from the army in 1953. Maybe he just had the shot glass?
When I lived in a one room dorm at Ohio University I had a few good friends, photography and this website as an outlet for the frustration I felt of being in a place I wasn't totally happy with. I wonder who, if anyone, Joe Wilcher had and what his motivation was for just up and leaving.
According to Chap, Joe relayed to his landlord that he "couldn't take it anymore" and requested no help in moving out. Joe left behind no clues as to where he went or any sort of journal or writings.
As Over-The-Rhine continues to be rapidly redeveloped and improved, hidden treasures within the walls of the neighborhood's old buildings will be found. Some will be explored, others lost and forgotten. While Chap and his crew press on with the building's renovations and improvements, Joe Wilcher's belongings remain. Many of them have been packed up and moved for sanitary reasons and to prepare for work on the building. Since Joe never returned for anything after leaving in 2001 and there is a good chance many of these items will be lost, I took the shot glass with me. I've collected them since I was a kid and attended Ohio University at one point. If Joe or someone from his family could ever be found or contacted, I'll gladly return the shot glass and help them retrieve most of these belongings if they so desired. It would also be nice to have some closure in finding out where Joe went, why he left and possibly meeting him if he's still alive. Until then, the shot glass sits on a shelf in my room amongst similar glasses from various tourist attractions and amusement parks throughout the nation, yet this one has a special story behind it. A story that preserves some memory of Joe Wilcher, whether anyone else remembers him or not.