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Demolition Watch: Gamble House

Gambling away history with the Gamble House in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Gambling away history.

Well, short of a pun, that is essentially what the Greenacres Foundation wants to do with the historic Gamble Estate in Westwood, a western neighborhood of Cincinnati. The historic mansion, constructed in the Queen Anne style in 1875 by James Norris Gamble, son of Proctor and Gamble Corporation’s co-founder, it resided as a country estate amongst other rambling lots and farms near Harrison Pike.

James Gamble, an inventor and humanitarian, lived in the house for 57 years before passing away in 1932. His daughter lived in the residence until she died in the 1960s. From then on, it was in the ownership of the Nippert’s.

Here is where the irony begins.

In early February, Greenacres Foundation of Indian Hill, on Cincinnati’s eastern front, stated it was soliciting bids for demolition of the 185-year-old house. The non-profit, which promotes conservation as one of its highlights, was founded by philanthropist Louise Nippert. Her late husband, Louis Nippert, was James Gamble’s grandson.

Activists want the house to be declared a local historic landmark. In response, the Foundation filed suit against the city, desiring that the demolition approval process be expedited.

What is wrong with the house? It has “peeling paint and a broken sidewalk.” The roof appeared “unsound,” and that some of the intricate wooden trim were broken. But that it was a building that could be easily saved, according to Liz Kissel, president of the Westwood Historical Society. She did an extensive walk-through in 2008, when the Foundation and the remainder of the city were on better terms.

Carter Randolph, the Foundation’s vice president, stated that they were “no closer to demolition” than they were three months ago on February 11. But just a week prior, he was soliciting bids for demolition. He noted that the house was on private property, and had no idea “why people (were) so interested in what happens to it.”

If people were so concerned, he said they could “write a check.” That alluded that the Foundation was short of money or could not maintain the property. But Nippert recently donated $85 million to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and $100 million to the Greenacres Foundation. She ranked fifth on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of top ten charitable contributors for 2009. But that she, and her Foundation, could not afford $200,000 or so to stabilize the house? Which still has electricity and a functioning roof, downspouts and utilities?

an image In addition, the foundation has donated at least $3 million since 2005 to restore the Julius Fleischmann estate in Indian Hill. Fleischmann was a yeast manufacturer, and arguably less famous than Gamble. And the house is in the east end. Which sparks the question: Is the long-standing west-side, east-side rivalry perpetuated with actions such as what Randolph has undertaken?

Initiating further controversy is that the Foundation has not offered the property for sale, despite saying that anyone could purchase it if they “wrote a check.” In addition, the Foundation noted that if it was sold, it could not be used for any commercial enterprise. It also did not want to see the house rehabilitated into a museum.

What infuriated others is that the Gamble Place, James Gamble’s winter retreat in Florida, is owned by the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences. The residence was donated to the museum by the Nature Conservancy, with thanks to the Nippert family who donated money for the effort. In addition, the Gamble Place is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The house, which Randolph estimated could cost over $1 million to renovate at $400 per square foot, would more realistically cost anywhere between $80 to $120 per square foot, according to Edward Cunningham, manager for the Cincinnati Department of Community Development. Cunningham had consulted with several rehabilitation consultants.

The concerns of many fell on deaf ears. On February 22, two parts of the demolition application were approved.

A large protest, attended by 105 preservationists, was held on February 24 along Werk Road. Singing songs and carrying signs, they protested the planned demolition of the Gamble residence.

Shame on you, Greenacres. And shame on you, Nippert and Randolph. Don’t gamble on this very real possibility. If the demolition does go through, may your name and foundation be tarnished for your shortsightedness.

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