Monday, November 13, 2017

The Shuttered Sports Bar on Madison Rd.

The concept of a “sports bar” is nothing new. Establishments with bountiful beer selections, memorabilia scattered on the walls, and multiple televisions in view of every seat are a dime-a-dozen. You’ll find them everywhere from rural communities, suburban highway exits, and even in urban cores right next to popular nightlife spots. The concept is so popular with consumers that you see it executed by groups ranging from worldwide chains to local owners. With so many around, it’s not uncommon to occasionally come across the ones that didn’t make it. In this case, a rather mundane looking building with a presumably mundane history represents a surprisingly deep story.

- Destroyed televisions still hang from the rafters above graffiti and debris.

I moved to the East Side of Cincinnati last year and pass this building all the time on the bus. The bright blue paint, boarded up windows, and tattered flags became a familiar sight. I glanced over once and saw the outline of a television hanging from the ceiling in the distance. I swung by on the bike later, wandering back to the overgrown parking lot and the former patio after identifying the words “Pig and Whistle Sports Pub” faded above “Hyde Park.”

The patio itself is a cinder block structure with a roof and open sides. Local and regional sports team logos of the professional and collegiate variety had been painted on the walls, now competing with amateur graffiti.

- The overgrown parking lot.

There’s a lot of rubbish strewn about: destroyed chairs, trash blown in from outside, demolished tables, etc. Several older CRT televisions hang above. They’ve been smashed to pieces and a few have found their way to the ground below.

The building itself is boarded up, presumably preserved for anyone who might want to take advantage of a heavily trafficked corner near one of the city’s more popular retail centers. Around back, the simple construction of the building’s patio looks more like an abandoned industrial plant than a restaurant. Once facing railroad tracks, the rear of the establishment isn’t decorated or painted.

The rails themselves are gone, removed in anticipation of construction for The Wasson Way, a planned bike/recreational trail covered here on QC/D before.

The longstanding fence separating the former railway/future recreation path has become inundated with trash over the years and trees have completely grown around it and absorbed it in some spots.

This building is an oddity. It’s a rather desolate looking structure in a pretty affluent part of the city on what would seem to be valuable real estate. Nearby is Rookwood Commons, one of the region’s more popular retail centers, and the structure sits at the intersection of two busy roads, directly on a busy bus route. Despite a seemingly perfect location, nothing seems to have stuck. It’s most recent incarnation was as the faded name implies: The Pig and Whistle Sports Pub. According to 9 reviews left on Yelp during its tenure, the Pig and Whistle seemed average. One commenter refereed to is as “decent and moderately priced” while praising its beer selection. Apparently a unique hallmark of The Pig and Whistle was the rolling ladder bartenders used to access a wall full of beer taps. The business ceased to exist in late 2015 when developers snatched up the property. A Cincinnati Business Courier article cites the developers wanting it specifically for its location. Since that purchase, nothing seems to have come of the property.

When I first started writing this piece, I was able to cobble together quite a few names associated with the building over the years. Then, the story took a rather interesting turn. In terms of restaurants that lived here, let’s start from the beginning.

The first establishment was known as The Blue Moon Saloon which by all accounts was a rather popular place among locals. After it ceased operations, this Hyde Park corner became yet another Barleycorn’s location. The popular local chain exists only in Northern Kentucky today, but once had multiple locations all across the Greater-Cincinnati region. The Barleycorn’s identity didn’t stick for long though, but it wasn't for lack of business. Rather, Barleycorn’s proprietor Ken Heil came up with an idea that gave this building the name it’s probably best remembered for over the years.

“Huggs Inn” was a play on the last name of former University of Cincinnati men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins. Affectionately known as “Huggs” and currently the head coach at the University of West Virginia, Huggins was a popular figure in Cincinnati following the Bearcats’ success under his leadership. He hosted a weekly radio show out of the bar that somewhat bore his name, but he and Ken Heil dissolved their partnership in 1997. Years later, questionable academics and a drunk driving arrest lead to Huggins’ unpopular ouster from the school and a departure from Cincinnati. Coach Huggins wasn't the first, nor the last, local sports celebrity to lend his name to a local dining establishment. Several more instances were highlighted here on QC/D in 2016.

After the hardwood helmsman ducked out of the restaurant business, Heil had a new plan to keep the a restaurant in the building going. He converted “Huggs Inn” back to the Blue Moon Saloon, an attempt to capitalize on the nostalgia and popular memories of the original bar. Described by a March 1999 issue of Cincinnati Magazine as having “13 tv monitors, three basketball half-courts, a game room, and widescreen tv" (leftovers from the Huggs Inn days), Blue Moon Saloon version 2 seemed to last for a bit, but ultimately disappeared like its original namesake. A poorly reviewed place called Mulligans brought in a golf theme, but the building eventually became the Pig and Whistle mentioned at the beginning.

Seemingly, the story would end there: an abandoned sports bar with a list of former identities and a brush with a once local celebrity. At first, that was the story gleaned from a few cursory internet searches. I have to admit, I hadn’t planned to spend much time looking into this building. The history isn’t terribly interesting and the most surprising thing seems to be the question of how a prime piece of real estate can’t hold down a regular tenant. As it turns out, that was a question Alex Blumberg had too.

If you’re familiar with public radio or podcasts, Blumberg’s name may ring a bell. Known for his work on This American Life and Planet Money, his career is both acclaimed and respected. Blumberg started Gimlet Media in 2014, a network which hosts one of my favorite podcasts, an incredible show known as Heavyweight. While searching for information on the Pig and Whistle Sports Pub, I was incredibly surprised to find Gimlet Media showing up in the initial search results. As it would turn out, one of the network’s shows, StartUp, featured an episode titled after the building’s address: 2680 Madison Road. I was pretty shocked to see the story of a random, abandoned, seemingly rather insignificant building in Cincinnati show up as the subject on one of Gimlet’s shows. “How interesting could this structure really be?” I thought. The episode description reads as this:

“Something is amiss at 2680 Madison Road. In the thriving Cincinnati neighborhood of Hyde Park, the property is sandwiched between several decades-old Cincinnati staples, and a stone’s throw away from an upscale shopping center. The space is huge, the parking is ample. And yet, the building has sat abandoned for five years. Seven different businesses have cycled through the address over the last thirty years. It seems that every business that inhabits its four walls is destined to fail. 
Alex Blumberg sends StartUp Senior Producer Kaitlin Roberts to his hometown to investigate this peculiar property. With microphone in hand, she books a ticket to Cin City.”

So I downloaded Episode 10 of StartUp’s third season and went for a run.

I’m going to offer a quick summary of the show, but not a spoiler: It starts with a first job out of college, touches on the history of selling imported cars, shares the dream of someone who wanted to own a bar, and tells the story of what happened when that dream was curtailed by disloyalty. A local businessman enters, teams up with a popular sports figure and drama ensues. Rebirth is attempted, but ultimately unsuccessful. Under a new identity, a terrible tragedy takes place in the parking lot. One last attempt is taken at serving up reasonably priced food and beer among the glow of television screens, but it eventually brings to the story to today: a vandalized and vacant building that just never seemed to find sustained success in a seemingly perfect location.

There are several stories linked to the walls of this structure and the episode of StartUp brings them all together, threading what would’ve otherwise just been a list of former occupants and some photographs. As I listened to the story play out on my iPod, I adjusted my running route to take me down Madison Rd., directly past the blue walls of the building. I had to stop for a moment and just stare at the place. It was a bit surreal hearing it discussed by the voices of popular radio figures coming through my headphones. My strongest reaction, though, wasn't to the attention this building received for 45 minutes, but rather to the personal stories that played out. I’ve photographed and documented a lot of abandoned locations, some of them are rife with colorful and historical tales. Others, not so much. You start to get a feel for what has “significance” and what probably doesn’t. I’ll admit, at first glance, I assumed this building didn’t have much. Listening to that podcast and staring at that building, it reminded me of what a place can mean to different people.

- Pictures of the building in its heyday, as the first incarnation of The Blue Moon Saloon. Images via Gimlet Media.

One interviewee tears up retelling her personal memories and another recounts how his family’s life was forever changed when losing his son in the parking lot. It really stuck with me and challenged me to reevaluate how I view a place. Despite the outward appearance of this structure, it once truly meant something to someone and is a symbol of pain for another. Not to mention, there’s probably a seemingly endless stream of memories and thoughts from those who came through the doors beneath various names. Blumberg and Roberts do an excellent job telling this story. Rather than rehash it, I want to encourage you to listen to their reporting. If you’re nearby, take a quick walk or drive past the structure sometime after listening. Maybe it’ll challenge how you view the places around you as well.

You can listen to StartUp's story here and check out the other great shows by Gimlet here.


  1. I listened to that podcast years ago and would have thought to have found the link from your site. I now wonder where I originally found it, but I will have to give it another listen. The building site has a new controversy going on now as it is part of plan for a large mixed use development project. Plans are being presented to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Council tomorrow, so hopefully there will be more information online about that soon.

    1. It'll be interest to see what they say. It's a big building and the parking lot is large too, but I'm curious how much can fit there to be "mixed use?" Hopefully it's better than the monstrosity known as Oakley Station.

  2. We go to The Echo for brunch all the time, but I've never turned right after the commons onto Madison/towards Busken and this. Might have to head that way next time we're down there, as I agree that it's so weird this place can't keep a business going.

    1. Definitely swing by and take a look, keep an eye out down the driveway and you'll see the tv's hanging. The Echo is excellent btw.

  3. I'm down there every so often and never went over that way. I'll have to walk over next time.

    1. Definitely go give it a look, especially if you're listening to the podcast at the same time. Gives it an interesting perspective.

  4. From memory this was a Saab dealership back in the 60's/70's called Schoonover Motors. The odd shaped beer garden in back with a 14' wide gap (big enough to drive a car through) was the service department. If you go back you'll see 1/2" pipes and valves attached to 3 pipe manifolds placed along the walls. those were the automotive lift controls. but as old as that building is it predated Saab in America. Id bet it was a Packard/Ford/Desoto 1920's dealership...

    1. Yep, according to the aforementioned podcast, it was once an Oldsmobile dealership before becoming "Schoonover Imports" around 1975. Specialized in Subaru and Saab. DIdn't know about the pipe manifolds, thanks for pointing that out!