These Buildings Will Outlast Us

29 November 2015 / By Michael Uhlenhake
Through the past 20 years, I’ve worked around many obstacles, from collapsed floors to actively working prostitutes.
As an architect specializing in historic urban buildings, in order to visualize ‘what can be’ we must discover ‘what we have’. In order to create “as-built drawings” we must first measure these long abandoned buildings. Through the past 20 years, I’ve worked around many obstacles, from collapsed floors to actively working prostitutes. On an uppermost floor, I stumbled upon the trove of meticulously arranged possessions of an obsessive hoarder. Throughout Over the Rhine, unwashed pots are left on the stove, discarded toys are piled across floors & laundry still hangs in the attic. Often, all these personal artifacts stand untouched or moved crossing the span of 20/30 years in the silence of a boarded-up mothballed shell. These are the artifacts of past lives, people who once lived there.
Vine St. - OTR

Vine St. - via John Blatchford

Behind an unassuming & highly-stripped façade of an upper Race Street building, exists a beautifully aged palace-like interior. Its magnificent spiral staircase led to an upper apartment whose two well-proportioned rooms connect with oversized pocket doors. Though the original arched windows now had cheap rectangular replacements, light filled the space revealing the contents of its former resident, an old German-American woman. In her wardrobe hung simple light-blue polyester dresses. Among many articles strewn across the floor, some black & white photos captured a glimpse of her life moments. In one photo, she stands within the exact same space. As you go about measuring these buildings, you become intimately familiar with their construction. Above field stone basement walls, the brick walls stand 3 courses thick, reduced to 2 courses on upper floors. From mortar joint to mortar joint, the vertical spacing is on average 3” high. To calculate vertical dimensions, I must often count the number of bricks. Floor to floor, the higher you go, the shorter the space & the shorter the windows. Each brick laid by hand individually, neatly mortared in place over a century and a half ago. Measuring existing buildings is typically a two-person job. Tools needed consist of 1. measuring tape, 2. clip board with graph paper 3. a couple of pens/pencils, 4. a flashlight, ideally a headlamp to keep hands free. One person shouts out dimensions: from the door, to the corner, to the window, to the chimney, the wall & floor thickness as well as overall length, width & height. The other one sketches a plan or an elevation, jotting down these numbers. Afterward, these are taken back to the office, the sorting through this puzzle reveals a representation of that space. Through this process, part of the spirit of the building is revealed, its potential enlightened.
Vine and McMicken 1929 via University of Cincinnati Libraries’ Digital Resource Commons.

Vine and McMicken, 1929 - via University of Cincinnati Libraries’ Digital Resource Commons

Collectively, these buildings formed a neighborhood called Over the Rhine with a dense population of vibrant sidewalks, people moving about, working & gathering. In the mid-1800’s, OTR’s population was 43,000, the majority German-American. The neighborhood developed a lively, culturally-rich social life. OTR largely consists of multiple unit tenement houses for newly arrived German immigrants, often above a commercial storefront. A common layout has two rooms in the front, a central bisecting stairway and two rooms in the back. Rear yards contained water cisterns and shared privies. As modern conveniences arose, these buildings adapted. With the advent of indoor plumbing, bathrooms were randomly added, often resulting in poorly configured cramped units. Fireplace mantles were obstructed with the addition of individual space heaters.
Within these buildings, people lived their lives, gathered in rooms, slept at night, bathed in claw foot tubs and in the attics, they washed their clothes. Along our same staircases, people daily ascended and descended; their hands touching the same banister as ours do today.
Within these buildings, people lived their lives, gathered in rooms, slept at night, bathed in claw foot tubs and in the attics, they washed their clothes. Along our same staircases, people daily ascended and descended; their hands touching the same banister as ours do today. There were others before us & there will be others after we’re gone. But for a long period of time, many were gone. Why? During WW1, it was not popular to espouse your Germanic heritage. Prohibition closed all the breweries & beer halls. Thus, much of OTR’s German population left to become assimilated in other neighborhoods. By the mid-1900’s Over the Rhine’s building stock was in poor condition and antiquated. Those who could afford to move did so. Thus, many of Over the Rhine’s building sat dormant, empty and neglected -year after year, decade after decade. The only change came from nature’s slow, yet steady process of reclamation. The majority of structural issues result from water. A leak in the roof or an unconnected downspout will lead to eventual rotten collapsing floors and sunken failing foundations, sometimes causing the buildings to drop and sag and windows to tilt and sashes to rot. Water caused mortar to erode and bricks to spall. Exposure to temperature & moisture variations caused paint to peel and plaster to fall away. Wild acanthus trees wedge along foundation lines, prying against the walls. Pigeons rousted in attics. Squatters often lit fires to keep warm, often setting the buildings ablaze. Soon, many were just torn down, leaving gaps in the urban fabric, once buzzing with energy. In the 60’s & 70’s, low-income housing incentives further altered these buildings, often stripping them of original detailing. Whole cornices were removed, storefronts bricked-in, ceilings & windows were lowered, the exterior brick was sand-blasted, stairways were removed. Units were chopped up to maximize the number of bedrooms. There was little concern for historic integrity.
So, these are the structures we’ve come to inherit. There’s a spirit inherent within each brick. Like the many hands that held the banister, ours too will add to the story.
So, these are the structures we’ve come to inherit. There’s a spirit inherent within each brick. Like the many hands that held the banister, ours too will add to the story. As I speak, in some forgotten building in some corner of Over the Rhine, the implements of someone’s life sit still. There’s a box of family photos crossing generations, yet no one to claim them. But just as those who came before us, we carry on this continuance of life. While we transform our buildings to meet our visions, we too adapt our lives which are molded in this setting. The invention of the present gets mixed with the aged relic from the past. As windows are opened, fresh air enters.
Via @NickDewald

Via @NickDewald

We are stewards of the past and stewards for the future. We are revelers living in the moment. We throw wild parties. We share sunsets on fire escapes and dream on our rooftops.

Beyond us.

These buildings will outlast us. The details of our individual lives will be forgotten. We’ll be known for what we valued, what we thought worthwhile. Someday someone will come across our life-artifacts. What will we leave behind? How will we leave our mark? Will it matter?
About The Author

Michael Uhlenhake

Michael Uhlenhake is architect and principal at Michael Uhlenhake Architecture which he founded in 1995. He currently resides in Over the Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio - Photo by Christopher Rumer

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