Monday, June 11, 2018

"Sawyer Point"

I love Phil’s work, not just for his prose or the way he composes and executes wonderful photographs, but for the subjects he chooses to cover. The way he looks at the city, the things he finds interesting. He does good work over at Cincinnati Refined and in his personal time too. When I came across his story about chatting with one of the men behind designing and building Bicentennial Commons, I was reminded about a greenspace in the city that can be overlooked these days, but is still an icon in the landscape. A place I used to find myself frequently.

“Sawyer Point” often gets thrown around as the casual, all encompassing name for the parks and areas that encompass the riverfront east of Downtown. Sights like the Serpentine Wall, Yeatman’s Cove, Bicentennial Commons, International Friendship Park, and all of their respective features seem to often (at least in my experience) be labeled simply as "Sawyer Point," which itself is a park amongst many others. In the days before Smale Park, The Banks, and Washington Park, these riverfront areas were the symbols of revitalization and the best places to take in views of the meandering water and the Northern Kentucky shore. They’re products of their generation, featuring architecture, design, and structure indicative of the late 70’s and 80’s, but they still hold up well. The trees aren’t small and new here, they’ve matured and grown up. Just as I’ve grown up in this city, so has this area of civic construction. "Sawyer Point" and all of its nearby environs are staples. While they may not get all the attention these days outside of the occasional music festival and annual Riverfront fireworks, they’re still well traveled.

- Views in Smale Park, the premiere Cincinnati riverfront park of today.

I’ve gone through multiple fits of being interested in cycling and running, finally seeming to stick with regular routines these days that positively affect my health. During one of my early bouts of regular jogging, “Sawyer Point” was my haven. I’d drive over from NKU, leave my phone in the car, throw on some music via an old iPod and run throughout the various paths, under the industrial and rusting structures of the old arena, and then up and down the winding, concrete steps of the Serpentine Wall. Surprise fireworks from a Reds’ home run at the nearby ballpark would startle me on my jogs and the old drinking fountains always seemed to be working, ready to provide refreshment that didn't need to come from carrying a water bottle. When I was done, sitting along the river was the perfect way to cool down. Riding my bike over from an apartment in Northern Kentucky, the Purple People Bridge was the best crossing, allowing for a nice commute through the park on my way into Downtown. Heading to Reds games in those days, Sawyer Point not only had cheap parking, but was a nice respite from the noise of the ballpark at a time when the crowds were once heavier and the on-field results far better than today (and really, not all that long ago). Even in the winter, I’d still head down there to see a familiar site covered in an unfamiliar landscape of ice and snow.

As times changed, I got away from visiting Sawyer Point. These days I take my runs around the neighborhood or on a treadmill, back living on the Ohio side of the river. My cycling commute doesn't take me near the park. I don’t attend Reds games as often as I once did, but when I do, the Streetcar and Downtown offerings usually keep me in the city pre and post game, as opposed to heading for a car stashed at the park. I hadn’t been to the "Sawyer Point" area in awhile, a place I once spent countless hours, pondered countless aspects of my life, and ran countless miles. I had also grown up there, it was a fascinating place my parents would take us as kids. It made the flat grass and occasional gazebos of our suburban area parks seem paltry. Sawyer Point was a whole other world, filled with so much to explore.

There's no LED lights, synchronized fountains, craft beer stands, or (thankfully) regular performances by cover bands. It's quieter here. Sawyer Point has a charm gained with age. Flanked by a backdrop of concrete, some of the area's features are a bit worn down, but still very much usable. There's a charm to the place, an urban maturity. It's all a symbol of previous revitalization efforts and its longstanding presence speaks to how well designed it was.

When I read Phil's aforementioned article, I wanted to go back. Thankfully, he was up for a day of wandering the grounds along with our friend Travis, another fantastic local photographer and writer.

So, here's some photographs and anecdotes from an afternoon spent wandering "Sawyer Point," an area I should get back to routinely visiting.

- Approaching the park from Mehring Way and the Steamboat Memorial.

- Former freight railroad tracks preserved in park path.

- US Bank Arena and its steps to the riverfront.

Nearby structures such as US Bank Arena (formerly the Firstar Center/The Crown/Riverfront Coliseum) and the One Lytle Place tower were constructed in the same era. Their design and materials reflect similar trends. Unlike the parks, the arena's appearance hasn't held up nearly as well. It can look a bit dreary (as this area certainly did during the 2018 flood) with its dark utility areas sitting beneath. The garage built between it and the One Lytle apartment tower is newer.

While the idea has been thrown out there to upgrade/replace the arena (to little excitement), a new primary arena constructed elsewhere in the region might cause the old coliseum to close. If it did, I'd be curious what would take its place. More parks? Residential buildings? Other nearby residential efforts just off the park haven't come to fruition in recent years.

- One Lytle Place.

- Path above the Serpentine Wall.

- Water play area.

One of the things Phil and I discussed while walking through the area was the water features. On a post Memorial Day, late May evening, none of them were turned on. Maybe they don't need to be when the newer civic parks have water areas of their own? I also seem to recall this area being much different when I was a kid. Didn't it have an actual "pool" and you could climb up the now fenced off stairs?

No matter how it's changed, when the water is on, it spouts from a tower above the splash floor that marks the height of the 1937 flood and runs down decorative structures behind the fence. Several sets of stairs and an elevator connection to One Lytle Place above have been cut off. Now, the only way up is a ramp.

- Ramp connecting up to One Lytle Place.

- Pedestrian tunnel leading to the East side of Downtown.

The Sawyer Point area has interesting access to Downtown. The most obvious/common connection is from Smale Riverfront Park or via walking down from the ballpark/arena plaza. However, you can get to the park from the East side of Downtown by walking through Lytle Park to a small overpass the connects to One Lytle Place. From there, you're able to access the ramp into Sawyer Point.

- Concrete Plaza near One Lytle Place above Yeatman's Cove.

A lot of the suburban, Hamilton County parks I grew up going to in the mid 90s seemed to have fitness courses (some still do). "Sawyer Point" appears to have been no different, although the signs marking the fitness route aren't very common anymore. The one above, near the Lytle Place plaza above the park, is faded and now a graffiti canvas.

- Concrete decoration above the One Lytle Place parking area.

- A warning near One Lytle Place's parkside entrance.

Several of the various park's features reflect the time of their creation. Many of the companies who donated to construction either no longer exist or now operate under different names. Steps up to the bridge overlook were made possible by "Thriftway," a name you no longer hear competing with Kroger.

- The iconic statue of Cincinnatus flanked by a City of Cincinnati flag.

An iconic feature of the park is the statue of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman military leader who was twice given absolute power, but refused to withhold that power past an appropriate timeframe, electing to return to his farm. The man became a Roman legend for his loyalty to the people and the rule of law rather than himself. While the depiction of Cincinnatus is a recognizable aspect of Yeatman's Cove Park, it also leads many people to wrongly assume that the City of Cincinnati was named in honor of Cincinnatus. In reality, the city was named after the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization which aided Revolutionary War veterans and sought to preserve the ideals of the American Revolution. The Society was named after Cincinnatus.

- Riverfront path.

- The Proctor and Gamble Performance Pavilion.

- The "Big Mac" bridge as seen from the park.

Bicentennial Commons, Yeatman's Cove, and Sawyer Point were all built upon former industrial areas that once dominated the Riverfront landscape. Although the park space is prominent, there's still plenty of reminders that you're in the city. The skyline sits above the grass pavilions and several bridges interact and flow over the park such as the Daniel Carter Beard "Big Mac" Bridge, the Taylor-Southgate Bridge, and the Newport Southbank Bridge which is more commonly known as the "Purple People Bridge." Now solely a pedestrian crossing, the Purple People Bridge has walking connections directly with the parks below, providing easy access to Newport, Kentucky across the river. It looks a bit more blue these days than purple.

- Swings indicative of the 70s and 80s within one of the parks.

- Playground equipment in the park.

- Concrete cut out and tiered benches overlooking the tennis courts.

Sawyer Point lacks basketball courts, but houses areas for other sports. A tennis complex is wide ranging along the length of the park, sand volleyball courts can be found, and while "The Boathouse" may be more commonly known for hosting a Montgomery Inn restaurant location, it actually serves as a boathouse. Or, well, it did?

Supposedly the boathouse itself once housed a rowing center. There's no website listed for the Cincinnati Rowing Center online, only an address, and the phone number posted seems to go to a private number. The boathouse features a garage below the restaurant that connects with the park, but no direct connection to the water. Old stairs with rusted railings lead down to the shore, but are no longer maintained. I'm not sure which, if any, local rowing clubs still operate out of the boathouse. Supposedly, the building features a pool for rowing fitness.

Another unique athletic aspect to the park was its ice rink. Well before Fountain Square had its seasonal ice rink, people could partake in the holiday tradition near the boathouse. What's more, they were supposed to be able to do it year round in a Midwestern climate. The Sawyer Point skating pavilion once apparently featured "Glice," a synthetic ice-like surface. These days the pavilion is just cement and used as an event area or to host roller skating and in-line hockey.

- The Sawyer Point Tennis Center.

- One of the multiple areas within the park for performances.

- A bell tower in the park.

- The city skyline as seen from the park.

- Growing through some of the older bricks in the park.

- The skating pavilion as seen from an overlook.

- The overlook of the skating pavilion.

- Northern Kentucky as seen from the park.

A hallmark of the area is its riverfront views. Walking through puts you parallel with the Northern Kentucky cities like Newport, Bellevue, and Dayton. Overlooks jutting out from the park and above the river provide a quiet place to watch barges and riverboat excursions glide by.

During our recent trip there, Travis, Phil, and I got caught in a summer evening thunderstorm, taking shelter near a playground beneath one of the bridges. While the Cincinnatus statue and Gateway Sculpture highlighted by Phil may be the most iconic pieces of art in the park, there's another interesting display beneath the "Big Mac" bridge. Known as "Law and Society," the piece was created in 1972. Queen City Tour has a good writeup on the sculpture which was made from Indiana Limestone. The rougher part of the structure represents society in a "raw state" while the refined parts represent what the law has accomplished. The piece was commissioned to commemorate the Cincinnati Bar Association's 100th anniversary and was on display at Fountain Square for years. At some point, it was moved here. The original stainless steel around the base disappeared in recent time.

- "Law and Society."

- Rain falling on the Sand Volleyball courts.

With the rain cutting off the rest of our day, we didn't have time to swing by the Gateway Sculpture, the subject of Phil's article, nor did we walk along the Serpentine Wall. In the end, it served as a reminder to visit the park again.

I loved this area of the city and I still do. From the chips in the concrete to the old school vending machines protected by chain link fence to the way it feels a bit isolated from the city, but still has the skyline reminding you that you're close. Sawyer Point is always worth a walk or run through, a place worthy of appreciation, a symbol of civic pride that has stood the test of time and is now an integral part of not just the riverfront, but the city as a whole.


  1. My late mother is somewhere beyond, cackling with sadistic glee at the thought that "Law and Society" has been vandalized. I don't think there was a piece of art in Cincinnati she hated more than that giant hunk of rock. She never missed an opportunity when it was on Fountain Square to comment "It looks like the sculptor tried to carve it but it was too hard, so he just quit after gouging a few scratches in it." To be fair, though, she also had quite a hate-fueled fondness for "Two Rectangles..." at E. 5th and Main, which reminded her of a pearlized grey toilet seat they once had in the bathroom.

    1. haha, by all accounts it seems to be that not many cared for "Law and Society" on the square. However, I'm not sure if it was vandalized or if the reflective parts were just removed over time/are being replaced. Do you recall where it was on Fountain Square? I'll admit, I'm pretty open to artistic reasoning and hearing out someone's vision, but I don't quite understand this piece.

    2. If you scroll down to the first photo in post #24 below (not mine, found it in an image search), you can see the sculpture way up 5th, near the corner of the 5/3 building. There's also a close up of it at the end of that post, with what appears to be a seriously underwhelmed tour group visiting it.

      You might be right that the panels could have been removed for repair. People did occasionally try to vandalize them when it was on Fountain Square (scratch them up, put stickers on them, write on them with markers).

    3. Thanks for digging up that photo. In context, that sculpture still looks terrible there. The reflective base is just so bad.

  2. Wow, Ronny, this is your greatest article.

  3. Re: Water Play Area - Yes, it used to be a pool. I took my kids there all the time (late 1980's-early 1990's?). The water was only a couple feet deep, but they had all kinds of water spraying from above from different directions, and yes, you could play on the steps. To the left in the photo where the alcoves are were changing rooms to change into your swimsuit.