Sunday, November 26, 2000

Walnut Hills leaders envision revival for structure, neighborhood

Goal: Renovate Alexandra Building, built in 1904, into apartments for seniors

By Allen Howard
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In 1904, the completion of the Alexandra Building in Walnut Hills triggered a revival in architectural design.

        Ninety-six years later — and seven years after a fire destroyed much of the structure — the classic building is on the brink of another revival.

[photo] Charles Clingman, president of the Walnut Hills Community Council, anticipates the day the Alexandra Building is brought back to its earlier splendor.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        Developers and community leaders hope renovation of the Alexandra, 921 William Howard Taft Road, will be a sign that this area of Walnut Hills — where a dozen 19th-century structures are in need of repair — is being reborn.

        Many of the 669 vacant buildings in Walnut Hills are near Peebles Corner, which makes up the heart of the business district.

        The vacant building is adjacent to the Kroger parking lot, surrounded by multifamily residential buildings, stores, churches and fast-food restaurants.

        For seven years the building has slowly deteriorated as developers haggled with owner George Thomas of Hyde Park to get it renovated. The city condemned the building in 1998.

[photo] A 5-alarm fire in 1993 caused $280,000 in damage. The building was condemned in 1998.
(Enquirer file photo)
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        Jim King is director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation Inc., the group that is renovating the Alexandra. He said renovation will begin in the spring.

        “I think a project such as the Alexandra will bring focus to what the foundation has done and will attract more investment in housing and business in the area,” Mr. King said.

        The foundation was incorporated in August 1977. Mr. King said it has received $8 million in public grants and loans to purchase and restore residential and commercial properties in the last 20 years.

        The foundation is partnering with Miller Valentine Development Co. of Dayton to renovate the structure into apartments for seniors.

    The Alexandra Building, a four-story apartment complex on the southeast corner of Gilbert Avenue and Taft Road in Walnut Hills, was completed in 1904.
    It was developed by Thomas J. and John J. Emery and Sons of Cincinnati. Joseph G. and Bernard F. Steinkamp of Cincinnati were the architects.
    It was named after Alexandra Moore, the daughter of John J. Emery.
    The building's architecture is a mix of stylistic details, mostly American Colonial Revival, which set a new trend in designs. It departed from the traditional Victorian (bright red colors) to earth colors (brown, orange and yellow).
    Outstanding features include three large wings that project from the main axis of the building. It has a large, decorative north main facade, which exhibits a one-story frontispiece of smooth rectangular stone columns, highlighted by capitals with egg and dart molding and a full stone entablature.
    The building attracted middle-income families from 1904 until the late 1960s.
    There were 54 units when the Alexandra was built in 1904. After purchasing it in 1955, George Thomas converted some rooms for a total of 78 units.
    The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
    In 1998, after years of deterioration, the building was assessed at $377,400.
    In 1999, the building was reassessed at $125,800.

    Before renovation of the Alexandra Building can begin in the spring, a temporary roof has to be put on part of the building to prevent more water from seeping into the building this winter.
    Jim King, director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, the agency renovating the building, said after the roof is done, construction will start, most likely in spring.
    Since the foundation has received low-income tax credit, $1 million must be spent this year or the credit is forfeited.
    Mr. King said that money will be spent buying the building from owner George Thomas, hiring an architect and building the roof.

        Mr. King said it will cost $12 million to renovate the building. His group has been approved by the state of Ohio for $7 million in low-income tax credit and $2 million in historic tax credits.

        “We expect to get the other $3 million from the city through foundation grants and private bank loans,” Mr. King said.

        The funding proposal will be presented to Cincinnati City Council Nov. 29, Mr. King said.

        Ken Bordwell, senior community development analyst with the city's Department of Neighborhood Services, said the Alexandra project is one of the best projects the city has been involved in because it involves renovating the entire building.

        “We are prepared to help with the funding if we get city council approval,” Mr. Bordwell said. “The building certainly shouldn't be left as it is. It will cost the city to tear it down and it will be damaging to the neighborhood to leave it as it is.”

        The Alexandra could be the anchor to the business district around Peebles Corner and other residential developments, said Charles Clingman, president of the Walnut Hills Community Council.

        “To this community, renovating the Alexandra is much more than just housing,” Mr. Clingman said. “The building is a focal point at the intersection and it sets the trend for this immediate area.”

        When built at the turn of the century, the building's American Colonial Revival style represented an artistic protest, said architectural historian Walter Langsam, an adjunct professor of architectural history at the University of Cincinnati, and a former president of UC.

        “We saw a move from the traditional bright red Victorian colors to more earth colors, such as brown, orange and yellow,” Professor Langsam said.

        “The architects (Joseph and Bernard Steinkamp) went back to the colonial period designs and put in more defined classical details. The styling enables the building to utilize land economically and blend in with a very fashionable neighborhood.”

        The massive complex looked like a giant bungalow with a mixture of arts and crafts, highlighted by a red tile, double-sloped gambrel roof and asymmetrical facades.

        At the time, its 54 units represented the largest apartment complex in Cincinnati.

        Mr. Thomas bought the building in 1955 and subdivided it into 78 units.

        But a fire in 1993 caused $280,000 damage to the building and destroyed everything the Alexandra meant to Walnut Hills. No one was injured but all the tenants were displaced. Cause of the fire was never determined.

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