Demolition Watch: Gamble House

In a move that can only be described as a grievous affront to our collective heritage, the Greenacres Foundation has set its sights on the historic Gamble Estate in Westwood, a western neighborhood of Cincinnati.

In a move that can only be described as a grievous affront to our collective heritage, the Greenacres Foundation has set its sights on the historic Gamble Estate in Westwood, a western neighborhood of Cincinnati. The historic mansion, a resplendent example of the Queen Anne style, was constructed in 1875 by James Norris Gamble, the son of Procter & Gamble Corporation’s co-founder. Amidst the rambling lots and farms that once dotted Harrison Pike, the estate stood as a testament to Gamble’s legacy, a country retreat where he resided for 57 years until his passing in 1932. His daughter continued to call the residence home until her demise in the 1960s, at which point ownership transferred to the Nippert family.

It is here that the narrative takes an ironic turn.

In early February, the Greenacres Foundation of Indian Hill, an entity ostensibly committed to conservation, announced its intention to solicit bids for the demolition of the 185-year-old house. This non-profit organization, founded by philanthropist Louise Nippert, finds itself at odds with preservationists who seek to have the Gamble Estate declared a local historic landmark. In response, the Foundation filed suit against the city, seeking to expedite the demolition approval process.

The Foundation’s justification for this egregious act? The house, they claim, suffers from “peeling paint and a broken sidewalk.” The roof is deemed “unsound,” and some of the intricate wooden trim is broken. However, according to Liz Kissel, president of the Westwood Historical Society, who conducted an extensive walk-through in 2008 during a period of amicable relations between the Foundation and the city, the building could be easily saved.

Carter Randolph, the Foundation’s vice president, stated on February 11 that they were “no closer to demolition” than they were three months prior. Yet, just a week earlier, he was actively soliciting bids for the demolition. He noted that the house stood on private property and professed bewilderment at the public’s interest in its fate.

In a dismissive gesture, Randolph suggested that concerned parties could “write a check” if they wished to preserve the structure, alluding to a lack of funds or an inability to maintain the property. However, this assertion is difficult to reconcile with the fact that Nippert recently donated a staggering $85 million to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and $100 million to the Greenacres Foundation itself. She ranked fifth on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of top ten charitable contributors for 2009. Yet, the Foundation claims to be unable to allocate a mere $200,000 or so to stabilize the house, which retains electricity, a functioning roof, downspouts, and utilities.

Adding insult to injury, the Foundation has donated at least $3 million since 2005 to restore the Julius Fleischmann estate in Indian Hill, the former residence of a yeast manufacturer arguably less renowned than Gamble. This disparity in treatment has raised questions about the persistence of the long-standing east-side, west-side rivalry that has plagued Cincinnati.

Compounding the controversy, the Foundation has not offered the Gamble Estate for sale, despite Randolph’s assertion that anyone could purchase it if they “wrote a check.” Furthermore, the Foundation has stipulated that, should the property be sold, it cannot be used for any commercial enterprise, nor does it wish to see the house rehabilitated into a museum.

What has incensed preservationists further is the fact that the Gamble Place, James Gamble’s winter retreat in Florida, is owned by the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences. This residence was donated to the museum by the Nature Conservancy, with the Nippert family’s financial support. Moreover, the Gamble Place is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Randolph estimated that renovating the Gamble Estate could cost over $1 million at $400 per square foot. However, Edward Cunningham, manager for the Cincinnati Department of Community Development, who consulted with several rehabilitation consultants, provided a more realistic estimate of $80 to $120 per square foot.

Regrettably, the concerns of the community have fallen on deaf ears. On February 22, two parts of the demolition application were approved.

In a powerful display of solidarity, a protest attended by 105 preservationists was held on February 24 along Werk Road. Singing songs and carrying signs, they voiced their opposition to the planned demolition of the Gamble residence.

Shame on you, Greenacres. And shame on you, Nippert and Randolph. Do not gamble with this very real possibility of preserving our shared legacy. If the demolition proceeds, may your name and foundation be tarnished by your shortsightedness, a blemish on your purported commitment to philanthropy and conservation.

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