As our cities and towns age, the adaptive reuse of old buildings is something we see more often. What we see today traces its roots to the historic preservation movement started in the mid-1960s—when the National Historic Preservation Act was passed in response to the destruction of historic buildings.
But the repurposing of old buildings has been going on much longer, and as far back in history and in our memories, as we have had buildings.
In its simplest form, the concept seeks to give a building renewed life to meet the needs of contemporary users. The altering of physical features to transform how a building, or even a home, is used can happen anytime, and anywhere.
At the end of W. 70th Street, in the Cincinnati neighborhood called Carthage (about 7 miles north of downtown), sits a large, 2-story, rectangular, brick building. A handful of window dormers top its roofline along with several prominent chimneys. Built in 1865, it was once a saloon and pool hall. You could find a room to rent there too.
When 235 W. 70th Street was built, Carthage had barely become a village—it was incorporated in 1861. The area remained mostly rural for the rest of the 19th century. If you stopped there in 1900, you would find some infrastructure improvements—like gas lights, graded roads, and trolley connections to Cincinnati—but it wasn’t until 1911 that Carthage was annexed to the City of Cincinnati.
Today, 235 W. 70th Street is a 4-unit apartment building. Except for the occasional train passing by on the nearby tracks, this residential neighborhood is very serene.
How could a saloon ever thrive in this setting?
Saloons were the centers of business, politics, and community (at least for men, that is). Jack London, in his 1913 autographical novel John Barleycorn, had this to say about the importance of such places:
Saloons are poor men’s clubs. Saloons are congregating places. We engaged to meet one another in saloons. We celebrated our good fortune or wept our grief in saloons. We got acquainted in saloons*!
What we see now wasn’t always so.
No matter the year, type, or scale of operation, a business needs to be located where you can service your customers. In the 1860s, the location of 235 W. 70th met two crucial criteria: the presence of customers, and traffic/convenience. Both were due to the railroad line that still sits adjacent to the property.
This railroad line was originally the Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Dayton Railroad (CH & D). Construction began in 1851 and went straight through the middle of Carthage. The railroad attracted German and Irish immigrant workers. After the railroad was completed, they stayed in the area and found new work in factories being built close to the railroad and nearby Miami and Erie Canal.
The CH & D mainly transported passengers. As new communities sprang up along the rail line, people with the means to do so moved out of Cincinnati and further away from where they worked.
A passenger depot was once located across the street from 235 W. 70th Street. When people got off the train, it would have been hard not to see, and be lured to, the saloon just a few steps away…Much like the amenities we are attracted to when we step off our plane, reach land after a cruise, or slow down at the end of our highway exit ramp.
The CH & D Railroad operated until 1917 when it was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Eventually, the line became part of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway–a New York Central affiliate also known as the Big Four Railroad. In 1968, the Big Four’s lines were incorporated into Penn Central when New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad merged. Penn Central declared bankruptcy in 1970, and in 1976 many of Big Four’s lines became Conrail, which was first government-sponsored and then privatized. In 1997, CSX and Norfolk acquired Conrail.
Railroads dominated our transportation infrastructure until after World War II. Then, in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act, triggering the creation of our current highway system. The highway expansion of the 1960s and 1970s represents a significant broad pattern of American history. Returning to 235 W. 70th Street, it was at this time that the building was converted to a multi-family dwelling.
Every old building has a story. When we know the story, it reminds us we are part of something bigger and it strengthens our sense of shared identity. The story of 235 W. 70th is actually a big story, one that forever changed how we move, how and where we live, and how we get things done.