Mercer Commons: A history of 1314 Vine

Seth Schott writes and runs OTR Matters, a blog centered on the historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati. For more OTR-centric musings, check out the Over-the-Rhine blog, as well as OTR Matters on Facebook and Twitter.

Yesterday, OTR-resident and blogger CityKin wrote a post about 1314 Vine Street titled “Does this building stay or go“. The thoughts and its comments are an informative read and a good introduction to the subject of this post.

1314 Vine Street; photo credit: CityKin

The current Mercer Commons plan

The time is now to discuss the fate of 1314 Vine Street and the current design of the planned Mercer Commons development by the public-private Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) in the Gateway Quarter.

Mercer Commons is a planned development of new construction urban infill and historic restorations in the area surrounding Mercer Street in Over-the-Rhine. The development is bounded by Vine Street to the west, Walnut Street to the east, 14th Street to the north and the northern half of the 1300 blocks of Vine and Walnut Streets. It is an exciting opportunity to turn another corner (excuse the cliché) in OTR’s revitalization.

Footprint of Mercer Commons showing position of 1314 Vine Street in yellow box

In the footprint rendering above, one can see the position of 1314 Vine Street highlighted by the yellow square. If you look closely, you can see the driveway entrance to the parking garage (gray boxes in the middle of that block) lines up directly with 1314 Vine Street.

Other renderings (perhaps older or newer?) shows the following:

Mercer Commons looking east with Vine Street in foreground. Fate of 1314 Vine Street unknown.

It appears that 3CDC is not planning to save 1314 Vine Street, despite that the building has a historic facade and unique and beautiful stone cornice.

The History of 1314 Vine Street

According to the Hamilton County Auditor’s website, 1314 Vine St. was built in 1880 though the date is probably a best guess. The property was transferred from Cincinnati Public Schools to OTR Holdings Inc, a subsidiary of 3CDC, on August 11, 2008. It is a two story structure with what appears to be a cast iron storefront and a beautiful cornice. The original brick exterior has been covered in Dryvit or stucco and painted an odious shade of mauve, which apparently manifested itself during the structures days as a dance club in the recent past. The current configuration of front windows is not original as will be explained later with an examination of the 1904 Sanborn insurance maps.

The peaked roof is topped by raised glass skylights that run the length of the building, see image from Bing Maps below.

Bird

The Sanborn Map Company’s insurance maps of Cincinnati from 1904 show this building. They reveal some interesting facts:

Overview of the east side of the 1300 block of Vine and the west side of the 1300 block of Walnut

A closer view

1314 Vine Street according to 1904 Sanborn Insurance Map with illustration of raised glass roof

In the last Sanborn Map image, you can see the bay windows on the front of the building facing Vine Street. The inclusion of the “CITY MISSION” label is puzzling, but may point some ardent historian toward another chapter of this building’s history.

In 1919, volume 31 of The Machinists’ Monthly Journal, Official Organ of the International Association of Machinists shows 1314 Vine Street as the “District Lodge of the Grand Lodge of the International Association of Machinists”.

The issues

There are two issues at play in the fate of 1314 Vine Street. The first is the fate of the building itself at 1314 Vine Street. The second issue is larger and concerns the role historic preservation plays in the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine. How important is each stitch in OTR’s historic fabric? It’d be enlightening to hear the opinions on these issues from 3CDC, the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, the Cincinnati Preservation Association, individual citizens, and others.

3CDC is to be lauded for its successes, and Mercer Commons could be a true triumph for OTR. However, if 3CDC chooses to demolish 1314 Vine Street by way of a “special exemption“, it will become in no small measure, but a part of the problem it purportedly seeks to remedy. Determining the fate of 1314 Vine Street would be better addressed sooner rather than later.

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Editor’s note: The Enquirer posted an article delving into more detail about the project, which is an interesting read. There seem to be two sides to the argument: one – every historic building is worth saving, and as much as possible should be done to preserve the fabric, no matter the cost. two – sometimes sacrifices need to be made.

The National Historic Registry has been contacted – I’m interested in finding out exactly what it means for OTR’s historic registry status with continued property demolitions and whether or not more demolitions truly threaten the status. Will update with more information as it is received.

So, Mercer Commons: an unacceptable demolition or a necessary evil for the greater good of the neighborhood? We welcome your thoughts.

  • Jon

    This building has been through a lot- the removal of the original bay windows for incredibly ugly flat windows- the purple stucko caked on, Is the interior original at all? Are the skylights still permeable? Being that the location was a club, I’m wondering if the windows have been painted over- I say, save the cornice or offer to have a private purchaser buy and move the building.

    I don’t know what it is- 99% of the time I’m against demolishing anything- but this building has never ever ever had any interest to me. Then again- perhaps there’s a gem under that stucko…

  • Matt Jacob

    I’m in the camp that this is a necessary sacrifice for the greater good of the neighborhood. As Jon points out, much of the historic character of this building has been bastardized long ago. Taking a little extra time to save the cornice and perhaps whatever is left under the stucco would make the most sense. With all the development that 3CDC is doing in the area, having a few historic pieces to fit into their new developments could make what they are already doing even better.

  • I wrote the piece above back in March.

    For an update and my thoughts, check out yesterday’s post on the subject here:
    http://overtherhine.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/mercer-commons-3cdc-and-1314-vine-street/

    (Jenny, feel free to update this post with my post from yesterday.)

    Thanks for reading everyone.

  • Dan

    While I’m for all saving everything we possibly can in OTR, you’re never going to save 100% of it and I think 3CDC would if they could. If you talk a walk down republic, check out what they’re doing to save that street. Sometimes you have to sacrifice something and I think Mercer is a big enough, and important enough project that people need cut 3CDC a break. I hope they do address it, but in the end if it can’t be saved I’m not going to let that stand in the way of the Mercer project.

  • Marshal

    The Mercer Commons development will preserve a staggering number of buildings and pump hundreds of units -including the virtually unquenchable demand for market rate rentals – in a big hole in the center of the neighborhood.

    For all that, they can let one building go. Anyone who picks this fight is going to fall on their own sword, I’m afraid.

  • Schmiez

    Well, Mercer has sat there for how many years un-inhabited? And as the post above points out, there is an extreme demand for quality rentals in the area.

    Given that there seems to be confusion on what exactly occurred within the Mercer building, and what historic context it holds, this one may be a casualty, or rather an egg shell.

  • Wade

    Does anyone remember the set of row houses that were moved over a block from their origanl location on MLK during construction? I’m sure the city of Covington could have torn them down but chose to move them instead. I don’t believe they were anything terribly special. I don’t know, I see both sides here.

  • There’s older layers of history in OTR that are long gone, as the current incarnation of the neighborhood replaced what was there before. This is the nature of cities, they grow and change and (generally) get better over time. We humans have demolished countless magnificent buildings of our past, but it was ok because what we put back in its place was almost always better. Once we got into the mid 20th century however, that all started to change. We began replacing buildings with parking lots, or with more “crazy” and less urban buildings. Starchitecture, sprawl, and zoning regulations mean that now change is usually worse than what was there before. It’s gotten so bad that even overgrown abandoned corn fields are more cherished than any new development whatsoever.

    This is the problem that needs to be addressed. Sacrificing the old should only be justified if it’s being replaced with something better. To do any less would be a further degradation of our own human habitat. If 3CDC can’t make the project outstanding and truly worthy of the neighborhood, then they should preserve every last bit of the “better” historic fabric that they can. If however they can make the project truly great and a noticeable improvement on what’s there, then the loss of that one building probably is justified. The question is, can they achieve that?

  • Ryan L

    According to The Over-the-Rhine Foundation’s This Place Matters campaign on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s website, we are four buildings away from 50% of the original building stock. We should try to preserve every building possible!

    I think 3CDC is doing a great job with historic preservation thus far, but if we let them tear down one building that is structurally sound, what about future buildings that are falling apart?

    Analogy: Just because you save 20 people’s lives doesn’t give you the right to kill someone of your choice. No number of rights can justify a wrong. I will not be able to side with anyone who claims that they have done so much good that they have somehow earned the right to demolish a building. I believe they can find a use for the building or find a new location for it. The Mercer Commons lot is very big, I’m sure they can be creative with a solution.

  • Ryan L

    @Schmeiz,

    Many of the buildings in OTR have unknown pasts. Records were not kept on every building. Over time some more information could be discovered in libraries or during renovation of the building itself. And a lot of the past has been found as well up to this date. It has been the “District Lodge of the Grand Lodge of the International Association of Machinists”, it housed the Cincinnati Socialist Party (from the Enquirer article), a bowling alley, saloon, and a night club. I think quite a bit is known about the building, and it would take some more research to find the exact meaning of “City Mission”, but I’m sure someone can find out what it means.

    3CDC could think of a creative solution that saves the building, and I hope they do. They already have people fighting them about low income residents, homeless people, and the long-time residents of the neighborhood. I don’t think they should get another group upset with them who, so far, have been very supportive (preservationists).

  • Marshal

    Wow, we are now equating old buildings to human lives?

    Settle down. We’ve learned a lot in the last 30 years about making good cities. There’s no reason to become Che Guevara over the fact that a massive infill project only saves 95% of the historic building stock.

    Hell, 30 years ago they’d be tearing down 95% of it, not saving it.

  • Sean Gray

    I would typically be really opposed to a demo such as this one (I was pretty mad at CPS over the Rothenberg teardowns) but in this case I am in the camp that says let 3CDC take it down. There are a lot of things about it in my mind that all add up:
    -It does not appear there is much left of historic value, just the cornice
    -It stands alone, there is no “fabric” on this block, even a reuse of the facade would not be very valuable, possibly just weird looking
    -Parking is severely needed and is a huge challenge to redevelopment projects. Getting parking will save more than just the buildings on this lot. This is the one spot there is for a large garage.
    -It is very deep and windowless, I am not sure what would be a practical re-use for this building. It doesn’t lend itself well to dwellings or offices

    The demand for units in OTR right now is huge. The momentum needs to continue. This project will be absolutely transformative to the area and will help the redevelopment potential of surrounding sites. Slowing it down would be a big mistake.

  • Kirsten Holm

    Seriously? It says “City Mission” because 1314 Vine was the first location of the City Gospel Mission.

    http://www.citygospelmission.com/ourhistory.html

  • adam.

    the web formatting is a little screwy with the post, btw. it looks like the rest of the articles are nested within this one. maybe didn’t close formatting somewhere?

  • Ryan L

    @Marshal

    I am not saying the two are equal. It is called an analogy. Is this better?

    Analogy: A police officer does not have the right to rob a bank just because he has stopped 20 robberies in the past.

    Analogy: You should not be allowed to pour used motor oil into a sewer that leads to a stream just because your company does environmental remediation.

    The point I was trying to make is that just because you have done good things in the past does not warrant you a get-out-of-jail-free card. I did not set the two scenarios as equal, just an analogy. I’m not crazy.

  • Would have been cool if they could have used the facade at least.

  • Aaron Watkins

    I only wish they would put a little more effort into designing buildings that someone might feel is worth saving in another 150 years. Unlike the spiritless cubes that run along Vine north of Central Parkway. Gee thanks 3cdc, those are gorgeous.

  • Schmiez

    C’mon Aaron. Was there anything unique about 7500 narrow brick 3-story buildings all over OTR in the mid-to-late 1800’s?

    Heck, the Ascent is the only unique building around, and 99% of area residents hate it.

  • Aaron Watkins

    @Schmiez
    Those buildings have cornice details, carved wood accents above the windows, bay windows, and other unique details. They aren’t just 7500 3 story brick buildings. Just because these old buildings may not have character (your opinion, not mine) does not mean that any new buildings should be as boring or soulless as those I mentioned.

  • Schmiez

    Yes they do, but “porches” and “sliding glass doors” might be as admired in 2161 as wood carved cornices are in 2011. And if every building has them, they may not be unique at all.

    I do believe they have character, but its a bit easy to say that we can build affordable buildings right now that will have architectural and design integrity 150 years from now. Key word being affordable.

    Heck, the tenament houses were considered low brow back at the turn of the century. Nowadays, we try to save them.

  • Aaron Watkins

    Well I’ll admit that I prefer these buildings to an empty space or a parking lot. I appreciate the garages as well.

  • Sorry for jumping into the discussion so late. I’ve been away for a little while so I have quite a few posts to catch up on…

    My initial reaction was the same as many others’: this building has lost its historical significance; kudos for saving all the other buildings but it’s understandable that this one needs to go for the good of the development.

    If it was any other private development, I would probably still feel this way. But, I think 3CDC could have and SHOULD have done better because of what they stand for as an organization.

    So maybe it’s lost some of its historic significance. I’m sorry, but bluntly, in its current state, 1314 Vine is actually quite ugly (IMO). Solution? Renovate the building to bring it back to its circa-1880 character. Look at it as a design challenge. Tearing down the building and putting in a parking garage… quite boring and cliche. But restoring this building and finding a way to make it fit with the surrounding context, both old and new? Wow.

    This could have been an incredible–perhaps game-changing–design if 3CDC had found a way to remodel the old while accommodating the new.

    Don’t get me wrong, this looks like a good development, architecturally, economically, programatically, etc. But it could have been SO much more, and 3CDC should have been up for the challenge instead of just taking the easy way out.