In November of last year, along with a few dozen other community members, I attended the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting regarding the future of the Davis Furniture Building. After the Historic Conservation Board (HCB) decided in early November 2014 to deny the Stough Group—the owners of Davis Furniture—their request to demolish the building, the Stough Group appealed the decision through their legal representative, C. Francis (Fran) Barrett. This appeal, like all others arising from HCB decisions and other planning and zoning rulings, was taken to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), who ultimately voted to uphold the decision to deny the Certificate of Appropriateness for demolition.
The ZBA, much like the HCB, includes planners, architects, lawyers and real estate agents, and these qualified community members voluntarily serve on this quasi-judicial board. That day in November, they listened to Barrett represent and re-hash old arguments as to the economic infeasibility of redeveloping the Davis building, alongside cases made by community leaders who still maintained that the structure was worth saving and economically viable. The latter won, for now.
In addition to the client and the opposition debating these financial matters, Barrett brought up a new point. He argued the building was not historically significant, and thus it should not be preserved. Such a position has grievous consequences for the future of our city because it ignores the unpleasant, though nonetheless important, years of urban history in America, and it also emits so-called “everyday people” from our city’s story.
Revaluing What an “Ugly” Building Means
When you look at the Davis Furniture Building, it is not Music Hall or the Woodward Theater. It is not Union Terminal or one of the commonplace Italianate buildings that pepper and distinguish Over-the-Rhine as a historic district. It is actually two buildings, 1119 and 1123 Main Street, with a hard-to-miss side mural of a man dropping a large bowling ball. It is large—13,000 square feet—and surrounded by a parking lot to the south and one to the north. In fact, if you drive north on Main Street from downtown, pass over Central Parkway and enter into the Over-the-Rhine Historic District, the Davis building is the only edifice left standing on the west side of the first block of Main. The two structures comprising Davis Furniture boast boarded-up windows and a large ground-level storefront space, and hardly look worthy of preservation. Or at least that was what Fran Barrett and the Stough Group asserted that day in November.
At the ZBA hearing, Barrett repeatedly insisted that it was incorrect and foolhardy to consider the Davis Furniture Building physically or aesthetically appealing; that it is an eye sore to his client who renovated and now occupies the Hanke Exchange Building; and that, above all, the building is historically insignificant. By Barrett’s repeated claims, no one significant had ever lived in that building. No one that mattered had worked there. Nothing important had ever happened there.
And this got me thinking. I study history professionally. I am pursuing my doctorate in history at the University of Cincinnati, specializing in late-20th century women’s and environmental history. I am five months away from my dissertation defense. Most days, I write, lesson plan, teach and think about the past. But mostly I think—how to explain our history, how to conceive of what used to be, what questions to ask about and of the past. These issues fill my mind. I rarely turn off or tune out the analytical and methodological skills that my academic training has given me. At the ZBA meeting, then, such bold assertions that the Davis Furniture Building was historically insignificant, as well as all the tenants and workers it contained over the years, struck me, and really bothered me.
And it bothered others too. Opposing witnesses lined up to respond to Mr. Barrett’s claim that Davis is not historic. Some said that it exists in the Over-the-Rhine Historical District, thus by inclusion, it matters. Others noted how much of a “gateway function” the building serves: it is the first structure you see when entering the neighborhood on Main Street. Several noted that because it is the only one left standing on that block, it is very important to preserve what we can of that piece of Main Street’s history.
I am definitely not an architectural historian, but I believe that you do not have to be one in order to research, analyze, contextualize and begin to explain the richness of human history contained within a building. Like many others, I have begun researching building histories—when the structure was erected, who lived in it, why they lived there and what they did—and subsequently, I always fall in love with the building. The more you research it, the harder you fall.
In undergrad and graduate school, some of my favorite classes have consistently been urban history. For one, these classes were all taught by the same professor, the best one I have ever had. Compelling to listen to, he presented digestible arguments and thoroughly interesting material. But above all, he politicized cities for me, and gave me the scholarship and vocabulary to understand and be opinionated about past and present urbanism. One of the most tragic narratives that I studied, rather unique to U.S. history, is the so-called “urban crisis.” While cities had historically attracted millions for jobs and community, beginning in the early 20th century and becoming more pronounced by the mid-20th century, many Americans fled from the urban core for the suburbs.
In a process now called “white flight,” many white middle-class urban dwellers opted for suburban addresses to avoid the chaos, pollution and diversity of cities. Federal government subsidization of suburban home ownership and highway infrastructure in the mid-20th century meant less money going to blighted inner city neighborhoods. Years and historical layers of housing and employment discrimination kept African Americans and other minorities stuck in city centers where jobs, opportunities, satisfactory housing and healthy environments were hard to come by. The minorities that did manage to gain some kind of class mobility moved outward into suburbs, usually provoking white residents in these suburban neighborhoods to then flee further from the city. Cities were thus grounds for major racial and class tensions brewing in America in the mid-20th century. De jure desegregation mandated by courts beginning in the 1950s did little to spatially integrate America as many urban cores remained nonwhite and impoverished. This escape from the city and the accompanying urban impoverishment resulted, by the late 20th century, in what contemporaries of the time called the “urban crisis.” I remember a great photo of President Jimmy Carter walking through the Bronx in the late 1970s and asking, “What of this can we salvage?” In many ways, we had let cities in America die.
I read about this history for years, but only in the past few years, as I have gotten involved in historic preservation, moved to Pendleton and then Over-the-Rhine, and especially as I began to write historical reports of buildings, did this story of people physically, financially and psychologically leaving the city become tangible for me. While not the case for every building in OTR, many that I have researched experienced a similar trajectory by the mid- to late-20th century. Each had fewer tenants or fewer workers. The buildings began to switch owners repeatedly as they became dilapidated. The city directories increasingly listed them and the neighboring addresses as “vacant.”
The Davis Furniture Building is historically significant because it is an “ugly” building. It is evidence, a primary source, of a major American story. While many residents of OTR and other urban neighborhoods remained in cities throughout the 20th century, many others financially, physically and psychologically fled, leaving buildings vacant and dilapidated in the process. It is not a happy, triumphant story about our nation, but if there’s one annoying maxim about studying history that everyone’s heard, it’s “if you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”
We must treasure buildings like Davis because they have invaluable, albeit uneasy, lessons and experiences to share. The recent surge of interest by many to live in and experience Over-the-Rhine is wonderful but not without its problems or social consequences—something we should all be talking much more about. Cities in the U.S. got to the place that they’re in because we neglected to anticipate and be accountable for the political, economic and social (meaning racial and class) consequences of abandoning them and the people there. This history, then, should thoroughly inform our present conversation about urban redevelopment. Buildings like the Davis Furniture can move our community toward a dialogue about historic preservation, of course, but can also prompt us to ask, “What got Davis Furniture building in this bad of shape in the first place? What about Cincinnati’s downtown in general? What about its economic, political and social past can explain the poverty and crime in Over-the-Rhine? What are the racial and class dimensions to our city’s history, and how do they inform the present?”
Remembering “Ordinary People” of Cincinnati’s Past
There was one other, final thought that Barrett’s claim about historical insignificance provoked. I study women’s history, and as part of graduate school, I have had to study the history of women’s history. This is what we call historiography: what’s been written about a certain subject and field, and how that scope of knowledge came to be. Women’s history in the U.S. entered academia in the 1970s and 1980s, growing from women’s liberation and other social movements of the 1960s. In these last decades of the 20th century, women’s historians began the arduous process of disinterring past women and their experiences. They were starting to tell the story of women from scratch, as hard as that is to believe. These historians were part of a very important wave of history-writing. Pioneering what is now called “social history,” these scholars distanced themselves from studying only the “big men of the past” (ahem, old, white men) and instead sought to know the masses of men and women that lived before them.
This was a big project. It required drastically new methodologies. New questions had to be asked; new sources had to be sought. The working-class carpenter that immigrated from Bavaria to Cincinnati in the 1850s left few traditional—i.e. written—records. So historians had to get crafty to get at this man’s life—this was the new “social history.” They brainstormed all the other ways they could find archival and material sources that would illuminate and help explain this man and other “ordinary” peoples’ lives. This was a successful project as social history is now an integral, mainstream part of academic history.
But, when Fran Barrett claimed that the Davis Furniture Building was insignificant because no one or nothing worthwhile had ever lived or happened there, I was troubled. So many of my peers and students at school recognize the importance of “ordinary” individuals in the past, but clearly this is a message that still needs to be spread. As dangerous as it is to argue the building’s insignificance on aesthetic grounds, we should be careful to assume that because this structure is not a grand museum or the host of a world’s fair, it does not matter. Historians have spent decades interrogating and revaluing this concept of “historical significance,” and they have realized that what and who gets such a designation is very much political. For many, many years, the only people that historians paid attention to were white, privileged men. By the late 20th century, the working class, African Americans, women and more recently, gay and lesbian scholars have demanded rightfully as much attention in the historical record. They have connected their exclusion from historical narratives and textbooks to their discriminatory exclusion in society at large. When we study the past, what we emit or cast aside as “not important” has profound, political implications today.
For months now, I have been doing historical research on the families that lived at 1667 Hamer Street, known as “the Tailor Shop,” over the past 170 years. The Maresch Family from what is now the Czech Republic, the Herolds from Bavaria, the Zottleders from Austria—none of these families that lived and toiled within those walls left any written records. Genealogy has allowed me to unearth fragments of who they were. But I have enough respect for the complexity of the human experience over time and space, enough academic training in history and enough love for that building, that I would never, in a million years, contend that, because these men and women lacked wealth and societal privilege, that they thus did not matter or do anything significant. It is not only the Samuel Hannafords that made our city. Far from that, these so-called “everyday” people that spent their days in buildings like the Tailor Shop or Davis Furniture were significant…..merely because they were people that lived their lives here in Cincinnati, through and in these buildings. And that is more than enough to make them matter.
Let’s continue to revalue what historical significance means in our city, and continue to correct those that misunderstand it.