Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Dayton Arcade

Since 2007, Queen City Discovery has been a labor of love. In October of that year I started this website, at the behest of a friend who had been telling me to put something together for months. Until then, I was just occasionally sharing photographs on various Internet forums in the days before social media and Reddit. When I got around to finally doing it, I was sitting in a dorm room at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, missing Cincinnati. In the years that followed, there have been so many stories told here on this blog/website. They range through various subjects, but by far the most popular tend to be those concerning urban exploration/the documentation of abandoned and forgotten places. It's hard to pick a favorite one. I could talk about the story of the Cincinnati Subway for days and go on and on about the "ghost ship." There's one building though, one place, that to me has been the most visually striking. Probably the most impressive to take in. I had heard about it for years, occasionally seen photographs, but to see it in person. I was taken aback. That place is the Dayton Arcade.

- The Arcade's street entrance is visually striking, more fitting for Europe than the Midwestern United States.

As cliche as it may sound, the photographs do the Arcade more justice than words ever could. It's an incredibly beautiful building. Yet, I never wrote about it, never got around to sharing the images.

George Washington allegedly once said: "it's better to offer no excuse than a bad one." I don't write this introduction merely to offer up excuses, but to provide some context. Between jobs, projects, and my personal life, sometimes QC/D falls by the wayside. There's also times I question not so much whether to continue to put effort into it, but what is its purpose? Who's it reaching? Are people taking the time to read? In the end what's the goal and does it need one? QC/D has grown simply beyond my adventures photographing forgotten buildings, but what its exact identity is, I'm not quite sure of. Is it a personal blog? A history blog? Photo blog? Storytelling?

Either way, I never got around to sharing the story of the Dayton Arcade (not that I'm the only one who has ever covered it). Maybe it was a lack of focus on QC/D, maybe it was other stories piling up and free time slipping away. Regardless, I went back to the folder from October 2014 and found these photographs. Before taking the time to edit them fully, I thought: is this still relevant? Still worth sharing? 

I believe it is. 

So without further delay, here's the story of the Dayton Arcade featuring photographs made on a visit in October 2014. 

- Details on the Arcade's exterior.

As a kid from the northern Cincinnati suburbs, Dayton was simply "home of the air show." My dad and I would go up every summer that we could. When I started working at Kings Island, Dayton was home to several friends and a place to visit on occasion. It had its own distinct identity from that of Cincinnati, it's own history, it's own stories. As I started exploring history and chasing down abandoned buildings with a camera and becoming interested in the urban landscape, Dayton wasn't really on the radar. Then one day a friend of mine shared some photos of the Arcade: it's incredible rotunda, the light beaming in from above. I started to question: where does such a beautiful structure exist in downtown Dayton and more so: why isn't it being used?

- The arcade's iconic rotunda.

First, let's clear something up that may be obvious to history/architecture buffs, but not so obvious to the casual reader/most people I talk to. The Arcade isn't an arcade in the sense of 1980's nostalgia. It's not a building housing coin operated video games now more commonly found in "retro themed" bars. In this sense, an arcade is an architectural term: a covered passageway or avenue linking several shops. In Cincinnati, you can see this architectural concept still alive within the Carew Tower on the ground floor. Essentially, this concept is now found in modern indoor shopping malls. Ohio's original enclosed shopping center concept first came to Cleveland. Dayton came second. 

Several places cover the story of the Arcade's rise and fall really well (they're linked to throughout this post and listed at the end), but here's the gist: 

- Detail of the Arcade's exterior.

The story goes back to the early 1900's. The idea of developers E.J. Barney and Michael J. Gibbons, construction was completed in 1904. The Arcade essentially started out as a food market.

A long corridor, the actual arcade, linked the street entrance to a large indoor rotunda. The facility featured two levels of retail shops while the center of the rotunda hosted a place for vendors to gather for the larger food market. At 70 ft tall and 90 ft in diameter, the rotunda was (and still is) an incredibly beautiful and impressive structure. Natural light could flow in and grace the ornate details of the building's construction. To borrow an oft-used phrase to describe Dayton's prized assets, this building really was at the time, the "crown jewel" of the "Gem city." 

The rotunda itself linked several buildings together. The lower level featured the market and retail, while the upper levels housed apartments and office space. These adjoining buildings were built around the facility over time and in the end obscured the rotunda into a hidden section of architectural beauty and economic commerce. Despite eventually becoming hidden by the buildings surrounding it, the Arcade was well known and filled with several shops. Reportedly, over fifty vendors attended the market on a regular basis. 

Over time, tenants changed and the Arcade became known as Dayton's retail center. Health centers, cafeterias, dining, clothiers, jewelry stores, and groceries all called the building home at various points. Following World War II though, downtown Dayton began to face the same kind of downturn that so many other cities' urban cores felt. Suburban sprawl continued into the 60's and along with the rise of the automobile came the rise of the modern shopping center. Apparently as the glass roof became harder to maintain, it was patched with shingles that cut off its natural light and created a dingy environment inside. By the early 70's, the arcade was still hanging on, but suburban strip malls combined with what we know as the "modern shopping mall," starting to hurt its business. The complex would be added to the National Register of Historic places in 1975, but two years later, new owners would force out the few remaining tenants. 

A $14 Million renovation took place. The rotunda's glass ceiling was fixed, the light poured back in, glass elevators were added, so were escalators. The Arcade began to take on the look of a modern shopping mall and while those concepts are fading now in light of "lifestyle centers" (see my stories on Cincinnati Mills for an example), they were all the rage in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In order for urban centers to try and compete with the rise of suburban malls, efforts were made to try and construct similar facilities in urban downtowns. Here on QC/D before, you might have read about Cincinnati's own Tower Place Mall, whereas in Dayton, the Arcade was the perfect spot to launch a downtown shopping mall. In 1980, the facility was reborn as Arcade Square.

Floors 1 and 2 were used for retail, while the third floor became exclusively office space. A few years after it opened, the bottom floor was lowered to include a food court beneath the rotunda, further mimicking the suburban mall concept. What set Arcade Square apart from other shopping centers though, was that according to Mike Kotler's commentary on DeadMalls.com, the Arcade was filled mostly with local shops as opposed to national retailers. His recollection recalls several of the local brands that were once housed there including a video game arcade.

For the most part, the reborn Arcade Square was doing well and all over the nation, these types of downtown malls faced mixed success. Even Cincinnati's lasted quite awhile. However, by the early 1990's, the Arcade Square concept was faltering. The aforementioned Dead Malls article pins the blame on "good old fashioned urban renewal." The author points out that a pharmacy and upscale clothing store nearby were demolished for a garage to serve the shopping center as well as a new office tower. He speculates that his may have been "too-little-too-late." While I'm not exactly sure if these construction projects fit the mold of "urban renewal," they weren't the first things to challenge the Arcade's success. Availability of parking was an issue, there simply wasn't enough. By the time the garage came about, several anchors and well known retailers had already been closing up shop in succession. 

Arcade Square was eventually shuttered save for one last holiday season when the space was reopened solely for Christmas. After that, the arcade closed for good, it's Christmas decorations still hanging from the rafters and still visible to this day from the outside streets. 

- A former christmas decoration still lining one of the building's windows.

I was able to visit the arcade thanks to the generosity of Tom Gilliam and Ethan Bolvi. These two Daytonians share a special interest in the history and future of Dayton, both passionate in preserving both. Tom is the man behind the popular DaytonGram social media presence. Besides being a great photographer, he's a hell of a storyteller that highlights so many great things about his city. 

Cameron and I drove up on a cold October day. We met Tom and took in a brief tour around Dayton's downtown. We grabbed a few slices at the delicious Flying Pizza before checking out the plaza where president Kennedy once spoke. We met a few of the other guests outside the Arcade's main entrance, long since closed off to the general public. While the rotunda and arcade hallways are hidden within a block of buildings, the outside entrance is distinct and apparent. It's quite different from the rest of the downtown buildings; unique, and beautiful in its own right. The entrance is of Flemish design, rumored to be modeled after a guild hall in Amsterdam and indicative of Dutch architecture. 

Tom and Ethan had exclusive access at the time and lead us in through the ornate entrance. The first area we saw was a section of the arcade. Like so many other neglected buildings I had been in before, there was the usual dust, the typical musty smell, mold forming on walls, water leaking in where regular maintenance could've kept it out. The arcade itself was impressive as our group walked the long halls past dark and empty former retail shops. 

Then we entered into the main rotunda:

I've seen so many abandoned and forgotten structures in my life. At some point, while unique in their own right, they all share defining characteristics of a forgotten place. Walking into the arcade rotunda brings up this incredible feeling though. At first you're overtaken by it. It's huge and it's hard to imagine that something this ornate and beautiful can exist hidden within a city block. Even on an overcast day, the light pours in, and highlights all the unique details. It's quite a sight and frankly, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. In all of the pictures from previous reports, I had no idea just how big it was. 

Then it hits you, this structure and this area, they're forgotten and closed off. You start to wonder: how could anyone let this rot?

Tom and Ethan first plan to lead the group into several side sections and then upwards. It's a pretty daunting task, because everyone seems to be transfixed on the rotunda, trying to take it all in. They assure us though that we'll have plenty of time near the end as we begin working our way to the roof. 

We make our way down dark hallways and into dingy rooms. Some were offices, others apartments. Their deterioration varies based on whether or not they received any substantial upgrades during the Arcade Square renovations of the late 70's. 

Some of the rooms remain cloaked in darkness with no view to the outside world or behind boarded up windows. Others have their glass intact looking to the surrounding streets as a cover band entertained those in the nearby plaza on their lunch breaks. 

Throughout the rooms there's evidence of the last days in which the Arcade hosted the public: it's final holiday season. A Santa Claus window decal still remains while other windows still display fake candles.

We're shown fire escapes that lead from one of the interconnected buildings to another, passageways creating an intertwined network. 

We form a line of iPhone flashlights to navigate up a dim stairway and to the roof. Once outside, you could hear the sounds of life again. 

From the streets below, emergency vehicles blared their sirens and busses revved at the nearby public transit depot. It's hard not to make this next point when talking about abandoned buildings, but it's worth noting in this case: there's a stark contrast. I think the Dayton Arcade is where I've seen it the most. Inside it's very quiet, ironic in the sense of how often this place was once teeming with foot traffic. Stepping outside again was like walking out of a vacuum. The view from the roof offers a unique perspective of the rotunda and gives you a geographic understanding: this beautiful place sits in the heart of the city. 

Like so many other closed off structures, the Arcade faces attacks from natural elements as well as vandalism. Graffiti is found throughout and at some point, someone spent their time with fire extinguishers. We found them all throughout the building: some discharged, some still with expired inspection tags intact, and one throw right into the glass rotunda.

We make our way back inside, to the upper floor, the one that had been used primarily for office space. 

Looking back at these photographs, I recall the same idea of the abandoned office space I had when I stood there.You can easily imagine someone toiling away at their desk, looking down on the shoppers below. Maybe they were stressed, wondering how they'd afford the same Christmas shopping being down below. Maybe they whittled away time until they could venture down to the food court and indulge in the mall delicacies. Maybe they had a great career, their prominent office space a reward for years of service. 

While the more prominent office suites directly overlooked the interior, a hallway connects several others while lining the inside of the rotunda. 

In one of the offices we came across several boxes bearing the stamps and seals of the State; blueprints and documents leftover from the Arcade Square renovation. They were mixed in with hundreds of pamphlets, advertising the reborn shopping center.

Eventually we make our way back to the rotunda, passing spaces formerly occupied by upscale restaurants. 

All throughout the building, there's an incredible amount of detail. From the floor tiles to the ceiling to the railing, all these small components come together to form one glorious structure. Near the top of the rotunda, several sculptures reference the Arcade's legacy as a food market:

In my personal opinion, the added elements of the Arcade's "suburban mall years" don't seem to clash too much with the historical detailing. The sunken food court area rounds out with the main rotunda and the elevator centers it. The escalators stick out awkwardly from the building's symmetrical form, but in doing so they help tell the story of how the building had tried to be reborn. 

A wreath still hangs form above, a plant that would've been long wilted had it been real. Christmas lights still hang in long strands from the rotunda ceiling. While someone may have bothered to turn out the lights as they left, they never took them down. The tacky and rotting holiday decor though, still helps to try and masquerade the structure as a mall. 

I wandered back down the actual arcade area, the covered pathway once lined with shops. While the rotunda has held up fairly well against the elements and vandalistic fire extinguishers, other areas of the building are worse for wear. 

While mold has crept in through drop ceilings, peeling paint, and collapsed drywall, the core structure and its bricks still seem to be holding intact. 

We all end our trip by congregating back under the rotunda. I can't stop photographing it, still amazed that it's rotting while hidden in plain sight. 

In the years since its closure, there's been some talks of a new life. Potential developers, new owners; they came and went. The city formed a task force in August 2014 to study redevelopment. They delivered a report in 2015 stating that the building was still structurally sound. Occasionally, a public tour will be hosted. Talks of demolition will spring up, but most of those involved seem opposed to the idea. 

Occasionally, you'll hear a rumor or two about a fresh plan. However, I have nothing concrete to report in the time since I had the opportunity to visit the Arcade. The latest proposal that seems to have momentum calls for the creation of artistic and creative spaces.

Initially, and even still now, it was staggering to me that there's not more of an effort to really save this unique place, to use it for renewing and uplifting a civic pride in Dayton.

What do you do though?

While the imagination can deliver several ideas, the economic realities of return and investment can limit them. The mall-adapted-for-a-downtown-setting concept is dead, gone even before the current days of dwindling indoor, suburban shopping centers. Mixed-use, maybe? Apartments blended with light retail and office space? At the very least, while in limbo, the Arcade doesn't seem to be lingering near an arranged death. In fact, the city of Dayton has undergone several maintenance projects to secure the structure.

Like I've said all throughout this story, the Arcade shares many hallmarks of all the other abandoned structures I've visited. And like many of those, its fate is in limbo. It's still remarkable though, one of the most beautiful structures I've ever been in. It's features, especially the captivating glass rotunda, that's what sets it apart from similar stories. Maybe in the end, that defining architectural feature, maybe thats what saves it?

While lamenting to Tom and apologizing about how long it took me to post these photos and share this story, he spoke of his personal connection with the building. Neither he nor I were the first to ever photograph it, appreciate it, visit it, or desire to save it. We definitely won't be the last. He shares a special connection with this place though and definitely understands it better than most, just as he understands Dayton better than most. I sincerely appreciated the opportunity to visit the Arcade with him and respect his admiration and advocacy for the place he calls home. You can check out Tom's work here.

For more information about the Arcade and its history, these links are great resources:

Friends of the Dayton Arcade - advocacy group working on behalf of the building. 
The Shopping Mall Museum - a look at the Arcade's history as well as other iconic shopping centers.
Dayton Daily News - article highlighting efforts that came and went to revive the Arcade.
Dayton History Books - a pictorial look at the Gem City's history.

Interestingly enough, the day after my story dropped, the group working to redevelop the Arcade site received a large tax credit ($10 Million over ten years). The goal as of June 15, 2016 is to redevelop the site into affordable housing geared towards artist. The Dayton Business Journal has the story.


  1. I, for one, am glad that you still keep up this blog. I almost asked you yesterday about your not posting anything new here. But I do understand how life gets in the way eventually. Between your career, DI, and being in a relationship, I'm surprised and glad that you still keep QCD in the mix. Your photography is amazing and your "storytelling" compelling. It is the sort of adventure that I would never undertake, but reading about it makes me feel a part of. The one that I did take was the Cincinnati Subway tour before they shut it down again. It was thanks to QCD that I even knew about it. It has also given me a new appreciation for history and for Cincinnati. I wish I knew you back when I worked for Bell, I'd have loved to have been able to get you into the building as a guest.

  2. Thank you Ronny for such a greatly detailed story of the Dayton Arcade and the accompanying photos! You are a wonderful storyteller. This was very interesting and sad to think of its demise. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

  3. Whenever you might question the goals or usefulness of QCD I'd put it this way: photography + history + storytelling + local interest is a wonderful niche, exactly the type of thing we need more of, not less.

    1. Thank you, definitely planning to keep up with albeit the focus may change a bit.

  4. Yes. Yes it is being read.
    Your efforts don't go unnoticed. Of the information and history you have you could likely publish a book(s).

    Stay the course!

    1. Thank you! Interestingly enough, a new book is in the early days of planning.

  5. I absolutely love this blog and this entry. This building is amazing, reminds me a bit of the mall in downtown Indy. I just can not understand beautiful structures like this not being used! Thank you for your pictures and the stories that go with them!

  6. Ronny,
    I've been reading your blog now for years, and have gotten all of my friends hooked as well. As a Cincinnati native I have to say your blog is a gem :)

    1. Thank you! I really appreciate you reading it and spreading the word.

  7. Nice report. That's definitely a place I wish I'd paid more attention to the few times I was there many years ago.

    1. If they offer another public tour soon, you need to check it out. I'd love to see your photos from there!

  8. WOW!! Just WOW!! This is why I come here! I have never even heard of the Dayton Arcade. You really do these places justice. Within your photos you are able to show the beauty of what exists and tell the story of what was.

    Life happens and as you get older it just gets busier. I appreciate the effort that you give and am pumped when I stroll by here and see that there is new content. Keep up the great work!


  9. I used to visit this site more often when your posts were more frequent, but I always catch up on the backlog when I drop in now, and I've read all of the entries. I grew up in the historic area of EPH, and I particularly enjoyed your pieces on the Masonic Lodge and pre-rehab Elberon Apartments, two places I'd been by a million times, but never been inside.

    I worked my share of night shifts at the radio station in college, so I know that feeling of "Hello? Is anyone out there paying attention to me?", but I assure you, there are readers out there who do care and who appreciate the creative and thoughtful efforts you've put into this site over the years. Art always reveals the artist, so maybe a blog doesn't need any more purpose than to share your experiences with your fellow human beings....

  10. I feel your pain about wondering why I still do my blog...and if anyone is reading/listening/looking...but something keeps compelling me to carry on with it! I definitely love and appreciate your images and stories...and this is yet another stellar entry :)

  11. Great pics! I love your site. Thanks for the sharing.

  12. Great post, and please keep it up! I think that the Dayton Business Journal link above may be directing incorrectly, is this where it should be going? http://www.bizjournals.com/dayton/news/2016/06/03/dayton-arcade-effort-moving-forward.html

  13. I've lived in Dayton for over 10 years and never once knew about this or paid any attention. If I ever win the lottery I know the first thing I'm going to do.

  14. I know this is an old post but I'm in Dayton and there is major movement on the Arcade project right now. The development partners have acquired the real estate and hope to close on financing right after the new year. There is pre-development work going on right now, including scaffolding up in the rotunda.

    1. Hey Andrew, thanks for the update! I'll have to look into this.