University of Cincinnati Architecture students designed and constructed this memorial to H.H. Richardson in Burnet Woods across the street from DAAP in 1972. Photo by Jay Yocis
The only headquarters building that the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce has owned in its 175 year history was destroyed in a dramatic, deadly, fire over a century ago. Despite that, in a strange twist of fate, almost everyone alive today has come into contact with that building.
For 40 years after its founding in 1839, the Chamber of Commerce rented office space, but the Board regularly commented on “the necessity of better rooms” and dreamed of a more permanent and dignified space. During the 1870s, the Chamber considered locations on Main, Plum, Third and Sixth Streets, but took no action.
In 1880 the leadership appointed a Board of Real Estate Managers to oversee the design and construction of a building, while Henry C. Unger, the President of the Chamber, developed a financial plan to support a major building project.
At that moment a large piece of property at the southwest corner of Fourth and Vine became available because the federal government decided to build a new Post Office and Customs House on Fifth Street in the block east of the new Fountain Square. The Chamber purchased the older property for $100,000.
The Chamber of Commerce Building, Vine Street side. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Historical Society Library
On December 17, 1884 the Board of Real Estate Managers issued a circular announcing building specifications and a national design competition. Although the Chamber invited any firm to submit a proposal, it offered $500 to six preferred architectural firms. Three were Cincinnati-based, headed by well-known architects Samuel Hannaford, James McLaughlin and A.C. Nash. But the Board also included Burnham and Root of Chicago, George B. Post of New York City and H.H. Richardson of Brookline, Massachusetts. In the end, the competition generated 13 sets of drawings for consideration
The winning design was developed by Henry Hobson Richardson, who along with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright is often included in the “trinity of American architecture.”
A graduate of Harvard and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Richardson popularized a distinctive Romanesque Revival style that emphasized richly varied stone, rounded Romanesque arches springing from short, squat columns, recessed entrances and round towers with conical roofs. The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce was the last building Richardson personally designed. He died on April 27, 1886, before the Chamber could even put his plan out for bid. (A good example of Richardsonian Romanesque that is still standing is Cincinnati City Hall, which was designed by Samuel Hannaford a decade later.
Richardson described the design as “strictly utilitarian” in a Romanesque style “especially adapted to the requirements of a large civic building.” The basic building blocks were rough cut pink granite with marble detailing. The goal was to provide a “sense of solidity requisite in dignified, monumental work.”
The 11 large arched windows allowed light to flood into the Merchants Exchange. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Historical Society Library
The controlling feature of the building’s design was the necessity for a large open, 10,480 sq. ft., three-story tall Merchants’ Exchange that occupied the bulk of the main floor. To guarantee sufficient light, that space required 11 huge windows along both the Fourth and Vine Street facades, each 10 ½ feet wide and reaching almost 3-stories. The arches of those windows echoed the giant arches of the Roman aqueducts.
Richardson placed circular towers on the corners. The resulting circular bays created “retired places, where men interested in some particular matter may escape from the bustle of the room and congregate to discuss and transact business during Exchange hours.”
The three upper floors of the building contained rental offices, club space and a banquet hall. In an interesting design feature, these floors were suspended from iron rods hung from 14 iron roof trusses. For all the beauty of the building, that feature, in the end, proved to be its fatal flaw.
At about 7 p.m. on January 10, the night before the Chamber’s annual meeting, while a group of West End businessmen dines in the seventh floor banquet hall, a small grease fire broke out in the kitchen. Although thought to be manageable, it was suggested the staff urged guests to vacate the building. Within minutes the fire got sucked up into the attic space, intensified and warped the steel trusses that held up the top three floors of the building. The trusses failed about 8:10 and the floors crashed downward taking everything below to the basement.
Six people were killed, including Charles Siebel, the President of Early & Daniel, which rented space on the third floor, several employees of the Chamber and
George Hayman, an 18 year old reporter who followed firemen into the building. The pile of building material was so dense, it took 148 hours to find the first body and 12 days to find the sixth.
In the aftermath of the fire, some members of the Chamber talked of rebuilding, but since it cost $772,674 to build in 1889 and was insured for only $90,000, that option was quickly dismissed. The Chamber sold the property to Union Central Life Insurance with an agreement that it would lease space in the new tower.
But what can only be described as a strange twist of fate, when the granite and marble elements of the hollowed out shell were cleared, some took on new lives. Four eagles that had perched high above the Fourth Street and Baker Alley, found a new home guarding the Melan Arch Bridge in Eden Park near the Krohn Conservatory. Some fragments of decorative marble is scattered along the road next to the bridge leading to the upper overlook.
The Cincinnati Astronomical Society dreamed of using the discarded granite and marble for a new headquarters. Nearly 1000 tons of the material found its way to Cleves in western Hamilton County, now the Mitchell Memorial Gardens of the Great Parks of Hamilton County.
When that plan ground to a halt, the stones and columns receded from memory until William Rudd, a Professor of Architecture at UC rekindled interest Richardson’s masterpiece. Inspired by his research, Professor John Peterson and student Ted Hammer launched Operation Resurrection to repurpose “Richardson’s Rocks.
Student Steve Carter won a new design competition in 1967 that employed the 14-ton lintel with “Chamber of Commerce” carved into it as the focal point of a 51-piece sculpture in Burnet Woods across the street from the College of Design Art Architecture and Planning. With the help of professors, later students, the Chamber of Commerce and Fenton Rigging, the sculpture was dedicated on November 20, 1972.
In 2001, the Great Parks of Hamilton County open Glenwood Gardens and scattered decorative marble elements of the old Chamber of Commerce along the walking path.
The continuing interest in the Chamber of Commerce building that was designed by one of America’s most significant architects speaks to the power of great public art.
*If you know of other places that utilize element of the old Chamber of Commerce building, let Dan Hurley know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Dan Hurley, local historian, host of the weekly “Local 12 Newsmakers” program and former director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.
This is the third in a series of 12 essays about the history of the Chamber and Cincinnati business, to commemorate the Chamber’s 175th anniversary.