Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Some Things Are Worth Saving

A downtown landmark with historic roots faces an uncertain future at the crossroads of demolition and preservation.

- The iconic hand painted advertisement reflect's the building's past life.

To me, it's most definitely a landmark. I've noticed it ever since I've been coming downtown. It's hard to miss that hand painted sign on the side, you can even see it from the Carew Tower. When I wrote my recent book about fading advertisements/"ghost signs," the Dennison building was the first place I headed to. It received a prominent feature not just for its name being emblazoned on the north and south walls facing Main Street, but for the large Quaker Oats sign it carries as well:

- One of the Dennison's three fading advertisements or "ghost signs."

The Dennison was always a bit of an oddity to me, even beyond the art on the sides. For as long as I can remember, it looked empty. Occasionally you'd see a light turned on inside or someone coming out of the building, only to lock the door firmly behind them. As someone whose always been interested in exploring forgotten locations, the Dennison was one that always eluded me. Was it abandoned? Was there still some activity? How could a large building that looked perfect for apartments sit so unused in the center of a rising downtown?

When the central core's housing market started its rebirth in the late 90's, luxury condos and upscale dwellings came to fruition just across the street. That kept spreading and especially in the last ten years, downtown Cincinnati has seen a massive boom in development. Yet, as cranes rose up around it and crowds walked by, the Dennison sat quiet. There was a plan to bring it back to life, one that would've added a new chapter to a building with a colorful and historic past. It fell through though. New plans have come, but they don't include saving this building.

- Street level side of the Dennison.

Cincinnati has this feel to it and it's always apparent to use the Fountain Square parking garage below ground. You walk up the stairs and outside there's this rush of air, a hum of noise. It hits you, you're in the city. When you walk the downtown streets, the building's tell a story. They're physical representations of the city's history. From historic structures to bland office buildings to the skyscrapers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The most character comes from the older buildings though. The ones that were planned with design in mind. Aesthetic and message over cheap materials and pastel colors. Quality that isn't often replicated today. They all differ in appearance, but come together to form an urban fabric. The Dennison is an essential piece of that fabric.

Even in its neglected state as rain pours from the sky, the details still protrude out and echo the artistry of Samuel Hannaford.

- The building's details designed by renown Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford.

If you don't know his name, you know his work. You've probably seen it in the form of Music Hall, City Hall, the Observatory and the Times-Star Building among many others. He helped give Cincinnati a distinct look and The Dennison was yet another in his portfolio.

Hannaford had designed the building for the G.B. Schulte Sons Company which manufactured tools and parts for carriages. The building opened for business in 1892 and lasted until 1930, which most speculate was due to the rising popularity of the automobile. The first few floors would continue to be leased to various tenants, while the upper floors were converted into a lodging business known as the Main Hotel. In 1933, the hotel was converted into the "new" Dennison Hotel, the original had been located just down the road. The hotel was a far cry from the kind we know today. It's evident in the old advertisement painted on the side: 105 rooms, but only 60 baths.

Over time, the Dennison, as well as its neighbors the Fort Washington and The Metropole, became more synonymous with "flop houses" than typical hotels. Rates were dirt cheap as Anne Senefeld dug up over at the wonderful site Digging Cincinnati History. $30 was the average day rate while $80-$110 would get you a week in 1999. As the Dennison eventually ceased being a hotel, its counterparts saw revitalization. The Fort Washington Hotel became upscale apartments and The Metropole became an upscale hotel/art gallery/restaurant with a rooftop bar. Yet, the Dennison sat mostly quiet.

A 2011 plan by The Model Group, 3CDC, and the Metropolitan Housing Authority would've seen the building converted into studio apartments for transitional housing. At the building's base, a cafe/restaurant would've provided job training to residents who were receiving support through the nonprofit Talbert House.

- Rendering of a proposed reuse of the building in 2011.

The plan fell through though and again, the Dennison sat quietly on Main Street. Developments continued throughout downtown, OTR, and the city at large. The streetcar finally started construction and its rails as well as a station were laid on the street out front. In the summer of 2015, I photographed the building for my book. Occasionally a dumpster would appear, there'd seem to be some work being done, you'd hear a rumor or two.

Then there was finally some news.

- As the demolition requests became public, scaffolding and barriers emerged around the Dennison, the first attention it had received in years.

The Joseph Group through an entity known as Columbia REI sought to demolish the building. Known for their numerous car dealerships around town, the group currently owns the vast parking lots that sit around the Dennison. In the mid 20th century, as the automobile rose to prominence, much of Cincinnati's historic building stock was demolished to make way for surface parking. In our own downtown core, you can be surrounded by buildings on one block, then surrounded by parking lots on the next. Buildings like the Dennison are what give our city its distinct character. While the Joseph Group released renderings of a proposed "Fortune 500 HQ" and even talked about maybe constructing an apartment building, there are no definite plans and questions arose.

- Rendering of a proposed "Fortune 500 Headquarters" by the Columbia development group. 

What company is realistically interested in relocating here and could potentially occupy the proposed "Fortune 500 Headquarters?"

How far along is the planning for a residential building?

Why not build upon the acres of parking and free space you already own?

Even if these questions had answers, they don't necessarily require the demolition of a historic structure, a genuine piece of the city's history. No matter how significant in one's eyes, the Dennison is a part of our past and not worth sacrificing for proposals and "plans" that are far from definite.

I understand the question though and wrestled with it myself: is this particular building worth saving?

As the fight between preservation and demolition loomed, the usual talking points came out. Spokespeople touted public safety concerns and erected scaffolding that conveniently popped up as demolition requests became public. Mayor Cranley said he'd "rather let the market decide" (the Joseph group is a major donor of his campaigns). Casey Coston over at Soapbox laid it out pretty well, echoing a similar fight between demolition and preservation that occurred in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. He makes some excellent points and I agree with him.

Should we let a historic building, designed by one of the city's most prominent architects and historical figures, be demolished so its space can be used as surface parking lot until some not yet decided plan comes along?

Or should we preserve a piece of history for redevelopment?

In fact, Coston's Soapbox article notes something interesting. In the late eighties, most of the block surrounding the Dennison was razed. As the January 14, 1987 Cincinnati Enquirer headline read: "Columbia Development May Build Office Space." 29 years later, that office space still hasn't materialized and there remains a large swath of surface parking in the downtown core. Nearly three decades and the story continues: do we demolish a historic structure based on the speculation that something may be coming?

If there was a plan in place, something to judge The Dennison against, I could see a stronger argument for its demise. There's nothing though, nothing to weigh the pros and cons against and for except talk, the same speculative speech that was touted in 1987. Why, exactly, does this building need to go?

Some things are worth saving.

The Dennison is worth saving.

The Dennison is worth redeveloping.

Instead of tearing down our history, I believe we should utilize and preserve it.

To get involved, check out the preservation effort's Facebook page. A hearing on the building's proposed demolition is scheduled for May 26th at City Hall.

The above shirt was designed by the talented Phil Armstrong. I picked up mine at Park+Vine and they're also available downtown at the Dennison's neighbor, Acme Hardware.

Update | Oct. 22, 2017:
  • The Dennison has been mostly demolished. A small part still stands and the final, few parts of demolition are still on hold. No Fortune 500 company (or any new development) is currently planned. 


  1. Very nice article and awesome pictures. They don't seem to show the ornate parts of the building when they picture it in the news

    1. well no, they want everyone to think it's a dump and worth tearing down...

  2. Over in London every where you look is all old buildings. That is until you walk inside. They are modern, bright, and functional. Why is it that in America we tear it down. In Hamilton they tore down all these beautiful old scholl and built these eyesore modern things that have no spirit.

  3. Great Article Ronny! In my line of profession I am frequently involved in historic renovations. It all comes down to one thing which is money. It is cheaper to knock down and build than renovate. While I would hope that the Dennison does stay and get refurbished I cannot fault Columbia. They have the most skin in the game. They own, and paid for it fair and square. They should be able to do with it what they want. It is easy for opposing opinions to tell you what to do with your own money/property.

    As for a fortune 500 taking occupancy, maybe it is a far fetched, maybe not. We have seen over the years that businesses can be persuaded to go anywhere for the right tax deals and we have seen Cincinnati royally mess that up.

    Regardless this will be interesting to watch unfold.