Nine more hulks Tri-state diamonds in the rough and what's to become of them

Story and photographs by Bob Driehaus

Cincinnati and its suburbs boast too many faded giants to cram into one story. That's why we picked another nine cool but vacant theaters, churches, water towers and more to find out what, if anything, is cooking, as a follow-up to last year's Faded glory: Nine Tri-State hulks and their contrasting futures.

1. Newport on the Levee's IMAX

The plaza in front of the vacant IMAX

When Newport on the Levee opened at the turn of the century, it included a state-of-the-art IMAX theater, with a mammoth screen and a booming sound system. But the theater was a bust, closing in 2003, just two years after the doors opened.

Fifteen years later, Kentucky Symphony Orchestra Executive Director J.R. Cassidy is leading an effort transform the space into a studio by day and concert venue at night. That mix would include a long-sought permanent home for the KSO, whose efforts to book some prominent musicians have been hampered by being unable to guarantee a performance venue long in advance.

The valuable screen and a projector are gone, but nearly everything else is left like a time capsule from 2001.

The bones of the old IMAX screen. Photo courtesy of J.R. Cassidy

"Everything else is literally just like it was when they turned off the lights," Cassidy said.

Proponents of the renovation estimate the cost to convert it into a live performance space and multimedia center will be $7 million. The theater would have 600 seats and a stage that's 85 feet wide and 35 feet deep.

Existing IMAX seats. Photo courtesy J.R. Cassidy

"We see it as a center for media, arts and entertainment," Cassidy said.

Newport on the Levee General Manager Barney Estes is enthusiastic about the prospect. "We believe it would be great for not only for Newport on the Levee but for the Northern Kentucky area," he said.

2. Westwood Bell building

Cincinnati's cornerstone institutions used to put big bucks into their buildings, even those with modest functions like Cincinnati Bell's transfer station in Westwood.

The former Cincinnati Bell transfer station in Westwood and future home of Madcap Puppet Theater, including architectural flourishes.

Technology left the need for the station behind decades ago, and the grand brick building became a storage facility for the Cincinnati Hamilton County Public Library. It's empty now, but it's about to get its moment in the spotlight again as the home of the Madcap Puppet Theater.

Related: Madcap Puppet Theater lands funding for $4 million Bell building transformation

Madcap, founded in 1981, bought the grand old building in 2012 from the Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. (WESTCurc) for $1. The theater raised about $1 million to rehab the building, but New Market Tax Credits, funnelled through the Cincinnati Development Fund, will make the project a reality.

Madcap will create a 120-seat theater for puppet shows on the building's sprawling second floor and smaller performance spaces there, too, for community programming.

Rodger Pille, Madcap spokesman, said the final phase of fundraising is under way, and renovations may begin in March.

"Cincinnati Development Fund, US Bank and the city of Cincinnati were critical partners. Our goal is to be open by the end of the year, in order to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Westwood," he said.

3. Walnut Hills YMCA

Residents and boosters were crestfallen when the Walnut Hills YMCA closed in 2011, depriving the struggling neighborhood of an anchor that promoted good health and community.

It hasn't been replaced, but the historic building that housed the Y is being transformed into apartments, part of a larger renaissance blossoming in Walnut Hills and East Walnut Hills.

4. Westwood Fire Station

Cincinnati's Westwood neighborhood has started to blossom around its historic Westwood Town Hall, boosted mightily by the city's commitment to pump $4 million into renovating the hall, creating an expanded and improved park on its grounds and helping to fund the Madcap Puppet Theater headquarters.

West Side Brewery opened just north of the Town Hall, and Muse Cafe opened right across the street to the east.

Community leaders hope to spread the wealth a block west to transform a handsome vacant firehouse into a functioning part of the neighborhood.

Larry Eiser, a leader of three Westwood civic organizations, said a request for proposals is in the works, and the goal is to lure a family-friendly restaurant and pub.

5. Westwood water tower

This reporter has mixed feelings about the memory he associates with a castle-like, concrete water tower on Ferguson Road in Westwood, which he noted each time he was being carted to his pediatrician.

The tower, and the reporter, are worse for wear 40 years later, but the tower has found a second, modest life. It hasn't carried water for decades, but its tall height relative to the low-rise homes and apartments that surround it made it an ideal tower to hold cellular, radio and other media transmitters and antennae.

These days it's owned by Boston-based American Tower Corp., which operates communications towers around the world.

Cody Peters, an American Tower lead generation specialist, said the company got creative when it found the aging concrete tower, giving it a valuable second act.

No. 6 Terrace Plaza

The Hilton Netherland's art deco may get more attention these days, but the Terrace Plaza made its mark on Cincinnati as a modernist masterpiece that opened in 1948.

Its Gourmet Room restaurant was a five-star gem, its lobby was on the eighth floor, and it featured a rooftop ice skating rink.

After a long decline, the hotel succumbed to the Great Recession in 2008, and except for street-level shops, it's been vacant.

Deteriorating light fixtures are filled mostly with burned-out bulbs.

One of those shops is the iconic Batsakes hat shop.

Batsakes, with owner Gus Miller tending to a customer.

Its long wait for new life may be ending soon, with developer Anderson Birkla of Carmel, Indiana, closing in on a deal to buy the property from a group of investors who bought it at auction in fall 2016.

The developer specializes in high-end residential complexes.

Michael Galasso, who represents the current owners, is confident Anderson Birkla will transform the hotel into a thriving residential complex.

No. 7: Imperial Theater

In a corner of Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood that the developers haven't quite reached, the 105-year-old Imperial Theater sits waiting for a makeover like Norma Desmond in "Sunset Strip."

The theater was built for traveling Vaudeville shows in 1913 and renovated in the 1940s to accommodate movies. It's been out of service for decades, but its bones are intact.

Steven Hampton, president of the Brewery District redevelopment corporation, expressed hope that OTR's renaissance just blocks south of the Imperial would make its way to the theater to bring it back to life.

No. 8: St. Andrew Church

St. Andrew Parish was founded in Avondale in 1874, and its Catholic parishoners built a mighty gothic church to show their devotion to God.

The parish survived world wars, the 1960s riots and more, but it finally succumbed to shrinking membership and merged with three others into the newly named Church of the Resurrection in 2010.

Janie Allen-Blue, who sits on Resurrection's finance committee, said the church is for sale, though no serious offers are pending.

She hopes that the property could be converted into a cultural arts center for Avondale, with space for dance, art and other classes. It could also be a space for artists to work.

"The way the church is built would be a great cultural center," Allen-Blue said.

No. 9: Reading Road Warehouse

Avondale has been on the rise since plans were finalized to create the Interstate 71 interchange at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Developments like the Avondale Town Center are transforming Reading Road.

An affiliate of Uptown Rentals, which has invested millions of dollars in rehab and new construction in Uptown neighborhoods, purchased a 92-year-old masonry warehouse a year ago. The building had been the Hock's Buick car dealership.

Dan Schimberg, Uptown's founder and president, said his company has fixed up the property and have no immediate plans for how to use it beyond storage.

But its time may come soon.

"We purchased this building because we think it is architecturally attractive," Schimberg said.

"The Reading Road corridor is more interesting because of the MLK interchange, and a partner of ours had an immediate need for storage. Someday we may look to an alternate use of this building, but for now we are happy where we are."

Created By
Bob Driehaus

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