Over The Rhine :: History
Over-the-Rhine's rich culture is rooted in its history as a port-of-entry for immigrants to Cincinnati. Over-the-Rhine was like a Little Germany, with residents pouring in from various European German states, starting in the 1830s and 40s. People spoke German, ate German food, read German newspapers, and built German-style houses and churches, although it is important to remember that there were many different customs, habits, attitudes, dialects of the German language, religions, and classes present.
The Miami and Erie Canal, completed in the Cincinnati area around 1827, ran along what is now Central Parkway, separating Over-the-Rhine from downtown. Pork-packing plants, soap and tallow factories, and various light-industries developed along the canal.
Throughout the 1830s, first-generation German immigrants who had originally settled east of Main Street were lured by the low cost of land and wood-frame houses beyond the canal. The working class residents could access the original city (downtown) only by crossing bridges, and they likened this to crossing the Rhine River in Germany: thus the name Over-the-Rhine. But "Over-the-Rhine" may have had a negative connotation, too, and some sources say it originated from the more affluent German families, who made their fortunes in OTR, but who lived in the suburban hills of Mt. Auburn, Walnut Hills, and Clifton.
The old St. Mary's Church, with its Greek Revival and Late Victorian architecture, was built in 1842, and is the oldest standing church in Cincinnati. The Roman Catholic church still holds mass in German and Latin, just as it did at its inception.
An increasing number of German immigrants flooded the city as "Forty-Eighters," those who supported or participated in some of the failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe.
Beginning in 1855, commercial activity centered on Findlay Market, located between Elm and Race Streets on land left to the city by former mayor James Findlay. The market has remained in continuous operation since it's opening and is the only original public market building still open in the city.
During the 1850s, the population of the neighborhood was estimated at 43,000, with the majority of the residents being German-American. By the late 1860s, it was considered one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the Midwest. By the 1870s and 80s, however, the 5 new inclined-plane railways and electric streetcar transit lines began decentralizing industry and commerce, and residents started going with them and population began to decline.
Over-the-Rhine's "golden years" were between 1860 and 1900. During this time, the neighborhood lost some of its economic and political influence but gained importance as a social and cultural center. Most of the buildings that give OTR its personality were built during this time. The neighborhood, with a dense, mixed-use development pattern and excellent architectural quality, is characterized by rows of 3- to 5-story brick buildings. The Italianate style is the predominant architectural style in the district, although other nineteenth-century styles are evident, including Federal, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Queen Anne, and Renaissance Revival. The neighborhood was full of places to live, work, play, shop, and meet--in the form of single-family homes, meeting halls, theaters, churches, stores, breweries, and light industrial buildings.
With beer being an important aspect of the German heritage, breweries were a sound entrepreneurial investment. Many of the wealthy brewers, like Christian Moerlein, were committed to the neighborhood and lived near their breweries rather than in the suburbs. In the financial panic of 1857, many Cincinnati Germans entrusted their savings to the brewers rather than with the banks. Between 1875 and 1900, 15 of the city's 36 breweries were located in the neighborhood. The Brewery District was concentrated mostly along McMicken Avenue.
Music Hall was constructed in 1878 as a musical performance hall. The Springer Auditorium continues to house Cincinnati's Symphony Orchestra, May Festival, and Opera Companies.
The Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States was held at Washington Park in 1888, and was considered the "center of art and business endeavor and the showcase of the Middle West".
By 1906, the Miami and Erie Canal had fallen into disuse, and had become a health hazard. The Cincinnati Subway began construction along the canal in 1920, but by 1928 the project was abandoned, and in that year Central Parkway was built on top of the abandoned subway.
The Hamilton County Memorial Hall was dedicated in 1908 to commemorate servicemen who had died in American wars. The classic Beaux Arts concert hall is currently the venue for Cincinnati Chamber Music Society's concerts, as well as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra chamber performers.
The anti-German sentiments brought by World Wars I and II, beginning in the early 1900s, motivated many established German immigrants to assimilate and move to more affluent neighborhoods. By 1919, Prohibition had driven most of the breweries out of business. Christian Moerlein alone had employed over 500 people. Along with World War I sentiments, this was the beginning of the decline of OTR's population and cultural homogeneity. Industry remained strong, and the area was still considered a working class neighborhood. Many migrants from Appalachia and African Americans from the South moved in to become day laborers in the 1930s and 40s.
By the 1950s, the neighborhood's building stock was outdated, and many units were still without running water. People who could afford to leave the densely-packed apartment buildings, and who had cars, moved to nearby suburbs.
Neighborhoods east and west of OTR were essentially wiped out for the building of I-71 and I-75 in the 60s and 70s, and the poor African American populations of those neighborhoods moved into OTR to live among the existing working-class Appalachians. Much of the historic housing stock was gutted at this time in order to create affordable and efficient apartment dwellings for the residents. By the 1980s, crime and poverty were rising.
In 1983 the district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, in recognition of both its exceptional nineteenth-century architecture and its association with the successive waves of German immigration to America in the nineteenth century.
The Ensemble Theater was founded in 1986. While the company's first few seasons of productions were at Memorial Hall, in 1988 it moved to its current location on Vine Street.
In 1991, the Pendleton Art Center opened with the largest collection of private galleries under one roof anywhere in the country.
In 2006, Over-the-Rhine was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of "Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places," and many organizations are helping to preserve and revitalize the neighborhood. Over-the-Rhine contains the largest collection of Nineteenth Century Italianate architecture in the United States.
Also in 2006, the esteemed Cincinnati Art Academy relocated to OTR from Mt. Adams.
The School for Creative and Performing Arts was founded in 1973 as part of the desegregation efforts of Cincinnati Public Schools. Its new Over-the-Rhine home is under construction and has plans to open in 2010. It will be the first and only arts school in America to serve grades K-12.