Cincinnati, Ohio can scratch off another storied and historical site, disguised under the veil of progress.
The demolition of the Friars’ Club property at Ohio Avenue and McMillian Street in Clifton Heights, near the University of Cincinnati, has been a structure I’ve long overlooked. Abandoned since 2006, the four-level imposing brick building was the home of a non-profit social service organization that was dedicated to serving at-risk and disadvantaged children through organized sports, activity, nutrition and fitness.
The organization was formed in 1860 when it was known as the St. Anthony Sodality for Young Men, and was later known as the Friars’ Gymnasium and Athletic Club by November 1908. At the time of its establishment, it was one of the only facilities of its type operated solely by a religious order. The Club operated out of the former Saint Francis school in Over-the-Rhine at 1610 Vine Street, and over time, an indoor swimming pool, gymnasium and library was constructed. But by the mid-1920s, the property was showing its age. The population was shifting up the hill towards Clifton Heights, and the school was just becoming outdated and too small. In early 1928, the decision was made to relocate.
The decision was an easy one: Large donations were received to help build the new structure, and a large lot was donated by Dr. Paul DeCoursey. The property included a three-story building, which was used as a temporary home until the new structure was completed.
Ground was broken on May 18, 1930 and the new Friars’ Club was completed on May 17 of the following year. A dedication took place on October 18 and festivities were held for a week in celebration of the new home. Handball courts, a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool and a gymnasium were some of the amenities featured, along with boarding rooms.
Over time, the Club established a boating club in Dayton, Kentucky along the Ohio River, a summer camp near Milford, Ohio along the Little Miami River and a retreat house.
In 1941, Lumen Martin Winter, a noted muralist who lived at the Friars’ Club, began work on a set of murals that depicted industry, music, religion and literature in the residents’ lounge. For four years, Winter worked on the murals, although his work was interrupted for 18 months while he was enlisted as a chief artist illustrator for the Signal Corps under the Air Force. The murals were dedicated on November 12, 1944.
The Friars Club was known as the organization that put Cincinnati on-the-map in amateur basketball. Basketball greats, such as Frank Wilberding, Joe Schoettmer, Harry Janszen, Joe Scheve, among many others, played at the Friars and brought welcomed attention to not only the club, but to the city.
On June 30, 2006, the Friars Club relocated from the 60,000-square-foot structure to 2316 Harrywood Court, citing a lack of space and high maintenance costs. Demolition began on May 1, 2010 on the 80-year-old former Friars Club location, which is being replaced with a gated apartment community for University of Cincinnati college students will replace the imposing brick castle-like building, and will consist of 129 units in five three-story buildings. Construction is slated for completion by late summer 2011 and will be certified as a LEED site.
But the demolition of a significant and contributing structure to Cincinnati’s history leaves me wondering. Is federal funding, via the Neighborhood Stabilization Program Grant, being used to demolish the Friars’ Club? If so, did the city pursue a review of the site, per Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act? And how does demolishing a large, reinforced-concrete structure, which was in great condition, be environmentally friendly, especially when the developer is seeking LEED status?
Progress doesn’t need to happen at the expanse of our treasured historic sites. This building was well salvageable and stable, and it could have been repurposed into student housing in ways that today’s cheap steel-and-wood-framed structures can never achieve.
Good job, Cincinnati.