Over-the-Rhine in Downtown Cincinnati, OH, has a long, rich, and often muddy history, a past of immigration, of social change and social distortion, of rises and falls and culture clashes and cultural reconciliation.
It’s here amid the brick and mortar that Cincinnati’s personality, a pasticcio of young and vintage, of Old World and New, of music and art and passion and violence and destitution and wealth, and of black and white and everything in between, really begins to shine.
This dinky little story tucked away on Race Street in Downtown Cincinnati has been there for as far back as I can remember. It survived economic downturns and through two decades of mass urban exodus in Ohio. Few businesses have been able to maintain a constant presence in Cincinnati, but those that have are now enjoying new customers and new ideas as part of the Great Cincy Revitalization.
Today, this small, family-run storefront offers shoppers a variety of custom leather goods (most notably, personalized motorcycle seats), as well as casual hip-hop and evening wear.
As one of the few purely decorative artistic and architectural styles that emerged from the 20th century, Art Deco is the tangible illustration of a blossoming culture obsessed with independence, excitement, philosophy and sex. The sharp angles, smooth edges and modern simplicity of style coming from the parties of Paris crept its way into the souls of the Lost Generation, artists and writers and adventurers looking for new ways to see the world. And Cincinnati is filled to the brim.
The Union Terminal, built in 1933, is one of the best examples in the city, towering over the low-lying industrial district to the west of Downtown. Once a bustling train station, it lay abandoned on and off for decades before it was renovated and transformed into the Cincinnati Museum Center, housing the Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science, the Duke Energy Children’s Museum, and the Omnimax Theater, as well as extensive historical archives and a research center. The building is also home to the newly invigorated Cincy routes for Amtrak, and visitors can cruise the rails in vintage style as passengers did in the 1940s. Worth a visit just to peruse the grounds and check out the inside, even if you don’t visit any of the attractions.
A more elegant example — one that inspires images of lavish Fitzgerald parties and glittering cocktail dresses — is the Netherland Plaza, now a Hilton hotel. This historic 1930s hotel is part of the larger Carew Tower, one of the finest examples of French Art Deco architecture in the world and the model for the Empire State Building in NYC.
The restaurant at Palm Court inside the Netherland Plaza is known for it’s Sunday brunches ($29.95 for adults, $24.95 for seniors, and $13.95 for children aged 5-12), but if you can’t make it on a weekend, stop by the bar for a light dinner. They offer tapas-style plates (reasonably priced, if you won’t want to dish out for a more formal dinner) and an eclectic drink menu. Feel free to linger a while and pretend you’re sitting in on a party at Gatsby’s.
Before happy hour, treat yourself (or someone special) at Tiffany’s, or just window shop and take in the scene at the adjacent Fountain Square.
While not strictly Art Deco, the Cincinnati Art Museum pays homage to many of the styles that make Cincinnati unique. There is an entire wing dedicated to the city’s art history, and the newly-designed Schmidlapp Wing (the dramatic hallway that greets you as you begin your day at the museum) displays some of the iconic pieces of the museum’s collection. Some exhibits revolve, but the permanent exhibits include collections from all over the world and from more than 6,000 years of art.
The Zagat Survey rates the Cincinnati Art Museum with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art in NYC as one of the best art museums in the country. It’s free (a nice bonus!) and open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 am – 5 pm.
When you’re done with your day, feel free to enjoy Eden Park or explore Mt. Adams (not at all Art Deco, but still worth a perusal). Have a drink over at Mt. Adams Bar and Grill, whose backbar was originally located in a speakeasy owned by the infamous Cincinnati bootlegger George Remus. It has the feel of an old neighborhood bar (you might be the only person who doesn’t know everybody else), and the interior of the building is fascinating and will keep you occupied through a couple of brews.
Art Deco architecture can be found throughout Downtown Cincinnati, hailing back to the Queen City’s heyday. Little details can be found in nooks and crannies everywhere: the American Building on Central Parkway (now condos); the old Enquirer building on Vine Street (soon to be a Hilton); the old Shillito building (now modern lofts); the Cincinnati Times-Star building, which pays homage to the publishing and journalism industry of the 30s and now houses county offices; and other classic features that give the entire city a decidedly vintage feel. You won’t feel awkward walking around downtown as a flapper or in a 50’s swing dress. Which I do.
I’m a Midwestern girl who had to leave the Midwest for six years before I ever played in a corn maze. I know, I know, not very farm-girl of me.
While still in the planning stages of our trip to Cincinnati, Jonmikel stumbled on this:
Why yes, that IS a giant corn maze celebrating all that is the Cincinnati Reds. Irons Fruit Farm in Lebanon, Ohio, does a theme maze every year, and this one coincides with the Reds making the playoffs and winning their division. So OF COURSE we were gonna go! And the following shenanigans ensued:
Yes, my friend Laura saved the day with her new-found navigating skillz.
Irons also has a pumpkin patch, some seriously excellent cider, hayrides, a small country store (selling all manner of fall goods), and farm animals.
It costs $7 for adults and $5 for children 5-12 years old to wander the maze, which includes a cute hayride and a $1 donation to the Reds Community Fund, which helps support at-risk youth (or children who just need a little more support) in the Greater Cincinnati Area. The maze is open only on weekends, but the farm itself is open all week in the fall for those who want to visit the store, play with the farm animals, take tours, or pick fruit from the orchards. Lebanon is located north of Cincinnati on either I-75 or I-71 (it sits between the two), between Cincinnati and Dayton.
We also stopped for lunch and a beer at The Golden Lamb in Lebanon’s historic downtown. This classic brick building has been the home of the Inn (which, for many years in the 1800s, was called the Lebanon House) since 1815, when it was built to replace the log cabin that had served as a stop for pioneers forging ever westward since 1805. Worth a stop just for it’s history. Though the Black Horse Tavern (the hotel bar) is only about 50 years old, they managed to maintain the 19th century feel: heavy, dark wood, thick furniture, low ceilings and creaking, wooden floors. Dinner is a more formal affair, with entrees running from $20-$40, but lunch is more casual, with good soups and sandwiches for reasonable prices.
The light drizzle steamed off the warm blacktop, the only reminder that only hours ago it had been a summer day. It was cold now, humid in that way only the Midwest can master, a chill-to-the-bone fog, despite the 60 degrees of warmth. Lights flickered here and there, through dusty curtains in dreary alleyways, but the only real light to be had through the rain and night was the eerie green flush that barely illuminated the weary doors of the building across the street.
The glow meant that despite the decrepit exterior of the old-style Bohemian building, windows boarded and stones crumbling, there was breath inside.
We tap-danced across the pavement, dodging puddles and cars in an attempt to stay dry. We reached the door and the minimal shelter the tiny overhang provided. The place looked generally abandoned, except for the lonely light, with boarded windows, colorful graffiti, and a general feeling of condemnation. We shook out hair and jackets and pushed through the peeling planks of wood into Schwartz’s Point.
The jazz club in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, Ohio may not have big names every night of the week like some of its competitors, but it has a dark, sultry, speak-easy atmosphere that out-competes anything in its weight class, and the ones above it. The lights are low, the fabrics are rich and red and tired, the booze flows freely, and if you’re lucky, Ed Moss, the owner of and chief musician at the club, will allow a cigar to slip through.
The musicians get into the music, closing their eyes and swaying their bodies and improvising as only true artists feel how. They each have stories to tell, too, of a world of travel, of losing a liquor license, of a random jam session in Powell, Wyoming. “Where you all from,” cooed the singer, between songs and sips of Heineken. “Wyoming, you don’t mean the state, right?” We did, actually. “Wow, you guys sure had to travel far to hear good jazz, huh?” She laughed.
Ed once got lost in Wyoming, he said. “I was at a jazz workshop in Colorado. It was a bunch of kids; they didn’t know how to groove, ya know? They didn’t dig the music the way I did.” He took a long toke of his spicy cigar, breathing out slowly and purposefully. “So I drove north, ya know? Kept goin’. Met these guys with a band in Cody, you know Cody? And we drove out together. Didn’t know where to, just goin’. Ended up in the middle of nowhere Wyoming pulling a jazz concert at some party. It was real heavy.” In Wyoming, anywhere could be the middle of nowhere, and it all often felt heavy.
And Ed was a true performer. “I love filling my living room with people I don’t know” he said, gesturing his cigar smoke toward the door of his establishment. He lived just upstairs. “It makes me feel like I’ve done something today.” He lived to play, to feel the music, and though he sometimes seemed aloof with his audience, he really dig any time he got to get them to feel it, too.
And the music at “The Point” is to be felt. It’s rich and deep and desperate, full of passion and a sad nostalgia, a throwback to the days when jazz represented the angry, the disillusioned, the boozers and the bootleggers, the subcultures and the countercultures and Bugs Moran himself.
It’s fitting, really, for Over-the-Rhine, a place with its fair share of disillusionment, to have its very own speakeasy, though ironically those locals who could truly appreciate the music and where it came from are probably too poor to afford it. Though the neighborhood is dodgy and those who live and work there swear they’ve never had any trouble, it’s always said with a nervous smile and an edgy lilt to the voice, as if they’re not sure of that fact themselves. But it looks just right, and smells just right, and tastes just right and awakens something a little daring and a little dangerous and more than a little lustful in each of us.
Schwartz’s Point (check them out here) is a fantastic little jazz joint located at the oddly triangular intersection of Vine Street and McMicken in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati. Tuesdays are the big nights, with a home-cooked buffet dinner and an entire orchestra of truly alive jazz musicians. Fridays and Saturdays are more intimate, with a crooner, Pam, a jazz singer with a day job. Come and introduce yourself to Ed Moss, the owner, a real beet of his own, with thick glasses and a cigar in hand and a flask of whatever ales you (in a homemade way) in a jacket pocket. We’d like to thank Ed and the gang for giving us a private performance a couple of weekends ago. It was one of the best jazz concerts I’ve had!
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