Thursday, March 9, 2017

From the Archives Part 5: The Emery Theatre

Music Hall, the Aronoff, the Taft, Memorial Hall, and even Bogarts have all come to be iconic Cincinnati concert venues in both classic and contemporary circles. However, at the corner of Central Parkway and Walnut, the Emery Theatre with its legendary acoustics and gorgeous balconies still waits to join that list. These photos from 2008 highlight an ongoing story.

- The Emery Theatre's seats covered up in Spring 2008.

From the Archives is a series of QC/D urban exploration stories that never quite made it to the website over the years. 

When I first heard we were going to the Emery Theatre back in 2008, I can’t say I was particularly excited. Several of us had come together from around the Midwest to photograph historic and pseudo-abandoned/forgotten structures in Cincinnati that day. The theatre sounded interesting, but the highlight was going to be the closed Stearns and Foster factory in Lockland. The day had been arranged by a friend of mine who had negotiated permission to tour most of these places, allowing us all to take our time and shoot rather than have to watch our backs, hop fences, or make a quick get away should the situation call for it. We spent most of the day wandering through the cavernous Stearns facility and it eventually appeared in a QC/D story in 2010:

- Inside the now demolished Stearns and Foster factory, circa 2008. 

Afterwards, sweaty and exhausted from traipsing about a no longer ventilated factory on a hot day, we made our way to the theatre. It’s been almost ten years now, but I remember pretty much being done with the day, ready to call it for myself. As someone who thought they knew a pretty fair amount of local history, I had never heard of this theatre. How interesting could it be? 

In the end, I decided to go ahead and check it out, and my jaw dropped when we walked in: 

- Lower level of the Emery Theatre circa 2008.

How could a theatre this grand, this large, and this gorgeous be left to disuse?

The seats had tarps placed over them and the paint was peeling, but the power still worked. In 2008, it seemed like with a little TLC this place could be alive once again. Since then, it’s been close to returning, but isn’t out of the woods just yet.

My photos from back then aren’t particularly unique or even exclusive. If you follow local preservation efforts, you may be familiar with the Emery’s plight. Hell, you may have even seen local indie favorites The National play here in 2012. Compared to some of the other abandoned theaters I’ve photographed, like this one in Detroit (coincidentally called The National), the Emery was and still is in incredibly good shape. 

The theatre traces its birth back to the Ohio Mechanics Institute, a school in need of a new home. In 1906, the institution began promoting the idea of building a new facility. Those initial plans included a theatre, but not one nearly as grand as what was to come. Philanthropist Mary M. Emery stepped in and agreed to fund the project. With her on board, the school was able to lure the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as a tenant and the original plans were modified into making the theatre much grander and fitting for the local symphony. The Emery is one of four venues based off of Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building in Chicago. The other three were the Orchestra Halls of Chicago and Detroit as well as Carnegie Hall in New York. 

By 1911, the design was finalized featuring two balconies and 2,211 seats. The next year, the building opened to rave reviews, particularly of its acoustics and lack of obstructed viewing angles. Over the years, it hosted a wide range of events. George Gershwin even performed his famous Rhapsody in Blue there with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra right before premiering it in New York. The CSO remained as the primary tenant until 1936 when they moved to Music Hall, their current home.
- The Emery Theatre and a capacity crowd sometime in the 1940's. Image via Wikipedia

Eventually the Ohio Mechanics Institute became known as the Ohio College of Applied Sciences and later was incorporated into the University of Cincinnati in 1969. UC gained ownership of the building and placed the theatre under private management. In 1988, the school moved out and a non-profit was established to manage a theatre now only seeing sporadic events. The school itself was eventually renovated into lofts and apartments as the city’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood began a renaissance following the 2001 Riots. 

After the apartments came online, the non-profit continued managing the theatre. By 2001, though, it was no longer hosting any events. Volunteers provided cleanup and repair work in 2008, leading to local alternative weekly City Beat holding their annual Cincinnati Entertainment Awards in the building. Fundraisers followed and the non-profit partnered with another group, the Requiem Project, to bring in programming and events with the intent of raising awareness and funds for the theatre’s restoration. After a year of continuous programming and stops by touring acts, the partnership also had local artists film music videos there. You can check out all of the videos on Vimeo

- Backstage area of The Emery circa 2008.

However, you won’t be able to get a ticket to The Emery as of this writing. What seemed like positive momentum eventually came to a halt when several lawsuits emerged. The first was between The Requiem Project and ECC, the Emery Center Corporation, which had managed the building since the late 80’s. The two groups eventually settled in court over the right to renovate the theatre. However, Requiem also faced off with the University of Cincinnati, still the building’s owner. Their lawsuit was settled in March 2016 with Requiem walking away. 

Since then, news has been sparse with no firm renovation plans announced by any parties still involved. In August 2016, it was reported that the University of Cincinnati was looking to sell the building. 

While the theatre was able to host events and seemed to be on the right track for awhile, the saga continues. If anyone has some insight into any hope for this building’s future, I’d love to hear from you. Although a lot has transpired since these photos were made in early 2008, I’m still having the same thoughts nine years later:

How could a theatre this grand, this large, and this gorgeous be left to disuse? 

Stay tuned for more stories from the archives soon.


  1. My memories of the Emery are primarily from the late '80s and early '90s when WVXU was at the top of its musical game and hosted a number of events there including some Windham Hill showcases. Riders in the Sky recorded all of their Riders Radio Theater shows there for several years. I can't remember all of the Rider' guests but do recall musicians Floyd Cramer and Myron Floren and Cincinnati sports stars Rob Dibble and Boomer Esiason. It's a great theater that deserves a lot more love than it's getting.

    1. Couldn't agree more and love the memories you shared. I worry now though, with Memorial Hall renovated - what events could the Emery draw?

  2. I was at the Emery once - in the 80s - went with the family and saw a showing of An Officer and A Gentlemen... I was maybe 10, 11 at best!

    1. That's a really cool memory. Was it showing first run films?

  3. I'm a fashion photographer working on my portfolio and always looking for places to shoot and offer as locations to potential clients. Do you know who I could contact to ask about getting permission to shoot in this theater. You are right, it is beautiful .Thanks