Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Old Lebanon sits at crossroads

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — Old Lebanon is part past, part future, a city that still can't make up its mind which century it intends to join — the 21st or the 19th.

        The hardware store brims with antiques and specialty items, and the clothing store is an antiques mall. The theme of the whole downtown, in fact, has been gently retooled for tourism.

        Lebanon is a buffet of Americana: A Texaco gas station, circa 1950; a 1920s gas station (yellow brick with replicated red steel roof) with old-style pumps; Warren County Courthouse, 1835; and, of course, the Golden Lamb Inn, with origins to 1803.

[photo] Mulberry Street, looking east from Broadway in downtown Lebanon, evokes the feeling of the town's simple past with its old-style storefronts.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        But recently, some controversy has developed over preserving the past: What to tear down and what to save?

        “Maintaining the charm of classical Lebanon really helps with the progress of the city,” said Michael Schueler, president of Henkle-Schueler & Associates, a major real estate firm. “As company leaders come in to evaluate the community, the downtown — and the Golden Lamb — is a powerful selling force.”

        Here in the seat of growing Warren County, “preservation” isn't just a word to be found in musty museums and City Council resolutions. People take their old buildings seriously. Historic preservation is a rallying cry for people who have fought for years to defend the city's old-time character and charm.

        Some of the efforts:

        • One faction vigorously opposes the state-required widening of Main Street (Ohio 63), tentatively set for 2002. Main Street residents oppose the Ohio Department of Transportation's plan to remove on-street parking and add a center turn lane. They fear it will increase truck traffic and bring it closer to their old houses.

        A majority of council supports the plan, but resistance continues. A placard at a Victorian house reads: “Say goodbye to historic Main Street and Lebanon. Thank you city council, city manager and Ohio Department of Transportation.” A for-sale sign stands in the yard.

        • Council sued to stop demolition of the town's oldest house, and may buy the historic but badly damaged building by August.

[photo] Penny Haas, owner of the Shoe Factory Outlet Mall in Lebanon, is reflected in a mirror in one of the booths in the refurbished four-story building.
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        • The city recently approved a regulation that makes new structures conform to the historic architecture found downtown.

Past, future blend

        Despite its preoccupation with the past, Lebanon is no small-time country burg. It has built its own multimillion-dollar telecommunications system and operates its own electric utility. And it's working hard to attract even more visitors to its downtown, anchored by the historic Golden Lamb Inn and the Turtle Creek Valley Railway.

        The town also has been discovered by suburban people who work in Dayton and Cincinnati. Since 1970, just before Kings Island opened near Mason, Lebanon's population has increased from 7,934 to 16,962 and the city has issued 4,324 residential building permits, including some multifamily permits.

        With the gradual assault of population, time and technology, one question looms: Can the Lebanon of today — and the feeling of 1915 — survive?

        Most people say, confidently, that it will.

        “Oh, it has to,” said Frank Armstrong, a Main Street shop owner. “This is an antiques town now. A lot of people come here just to see Lebanon — the history, the buildings. Without the Golden Lamb, there would be no business here. We need the old buildings.”

"Roots on Main Street'

        Commitment to saving historic buildings runs so deep here that sometimes even preservationists are viewed as soft on the issue.

        “Some Main Street people would say some of us on City Council are anti-preservation because we support the Main Street widening,” Councilwoman Amy Brewer said. “I am for preservation. The ambience, charm and character of this town attracted my family, and we bought a 100-year-old house when we moved here in 1985. My roots are on Main Street.”

        She said so many people share the preservation feeling that she knows of no anti-preservationists.

        Although she also opposed buying the historic house at 27 N. Mechanic St., she said her reason was simple: She opposed council's use of eminent domain to acquire the structure from the owner, who wanted to tear it down to build a parking lot.

        Last month, a jury ruled that the city must pay $230,000 — more than twice what council had expected to pay — for the burned-out hulk with blackened, exposed beams.

        “It's probably the first real house built in Lebanon,” said Gerald Miller of the nonprofit Lebanon Conservancy Foundation. “Council turned the issue into political football and it shouldn't be. Old houses are like orphans who need to be taken care of. But some people would throw the orphans into the street, too.”

        This year, another debate involved two consultants' proposals for developing a nearly empty downtown block — around Mechanic, Cherry, Main and Mulberry streets — into parking spaces, a gazebo and band shell.

        The problem: A Queen Anne-style house, built in 1855. One consultant proposed using it as a residence; the other suggested demolishing or moving the city-owned building.

        Planning Director Marty Kohler said the plans represent a conflict of good objectives.

        Lebanon's Conservancy Foundation wants the house restored because of its history. Unfortunately, that wouldn't leave enough open space to build the band shell, Mr. Kohler said.

        Then there's the former Charles Meis shoe factory, a brick behemoth near the railroad on South Street. Seven years ago, new owner Penny Haas heard her husband suggest that it be turned into an antiques mall. She replied: “Are you nuts? It's all orange, green, blue, yellow — and dirty.”

        Today, 90 dealers work out of the Shoe Factory Antique Mall.

        “We've taken what could have been an eyesore and made it into something special,” she said. “Restoration wasn't easy, but it was worth the trouble. We have an old boiler system. By the way it sounds each morning, I can usually tell when it's going to act up. It gives the place character.”

        Near downtown, Lebanon is filled with many Victorian homes and buildings, including the Orient Fire House on Mulberry. The building, erected in 1880 with a tower, still has its original bell. All around are houses in the Colonial Revival, Carpenter Gothic, Queen Anne and Italianate styles.

        “Lebanon probably has more historic architecture — distinctive and rich — than any other city of its size in the region,” said Dennis Dalton, a Lebanon resident who has studied local architecture.

        Mr. Miller agreed, but said the 16-block historic district has lost 220 buildings since the 1950s.

        “They're melting,” he said. “People who don't support preservation are the ones who consider that everything has to be new. They have no heritage, no connection with the city.

        “The ones who are causing the trouble are ingenues who've been here 10, 15 years and want to spend all the money on playgrounds and schools. They have their place, but we must protect our past.”


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