Up in the Air

What will become of longtime sports and entertainment venue Cincinnati Gardens?

click to enlarge The Gardens' Legends Museum houses memorabilia
The Gardens' Legends Museum houses memorabilia


ith its plain, light-brown brick and simple square design, Cincinnati Gardens is an unassuming building, out of the way from the hustle of downtown and the riverfront. Driving by on Seymour Avenue (or Langdon Farm Road), you wouldn’t think twice about the 65 years of history held within the building’s walls. To most, it’s just an outdated concert venue.

Opened in 1949 and modeled after Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, the local venue was the seventh-largest in the country when it was built, boasting 11,000 seats. Its original purpose was for hockey, but the Gardens has played host to political rallies, monster truck shows, circuses, sporting events and everything in between. There’s a good chance that if it has wheels, requires a ball or sings and dances, it has been through the Gardens’ doors.

The list of headlining acts the venue has welcomed through the years is a who’s who of musicians and politicians: The Beatles, The Jackson 5, Metallica, George Bush, Elvis, Richard Nixon, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few.

“With all of the acts that have come through here, the thing that transcends them all is the fact they are in a building The Beatles played in that is still standing,” says Greg Waddell, director of PR and media for the Gardens.

Just walking through the building evokes images of the past. For the most part, the interior gels with what the building looked like when current owner Gerry Robinson purchased it in 1979. In fact, not much has changed since the ’50s . “As so many others, I grew up with great memories of the Gardens with hockey, the NBA Royals and concerts,” Gerry says. “I knew it was a tremendous asset to be saved for future generations.”

A lasting aspect is the quiet stillness inside the building. Even with the noise of a Cincinnati Rollergirls roller derby bout echoing through the arena, the space makes visitors daydream to eras gone by. The Gardens’ Legends Museum — a hidden treasure tucked away on the building’s second floor, open to the public during events — pays tribute to its past. It houses memorabilia from nearly every act that has played the Gardens in the venue’s lifetime, including ephemera from The Beatles sold-out August 1964 show and a recording of a speech the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at the Gardens the same year.

The building almost pushes to remain in those forgotten times — recent visitors know any chance of getting cellphone reception is a lost cause, and sitting in the upper sections is at your own risk, with no hand rails along the steps, but that adds to the charm.

“There may be cracks in the cement, but it is just as good of a venue to watch an event as any,” Waddell says.

Along with everything else that has breezed through the arena, Xavier basketball enjoyed a 17-year run here, the Cincinnati Cyclones started their franchise on the Gardens’ ice and the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks hockey team called the building home for eight years.

“Xavier really grew as a program here and the Gardens had its second life,” says Pete Robinson, Gerry’s son and Gardens president. “We had something special with all of the great basketball and hockey here.”

But now the building is in limbo. Since July 2013 the Robinsons have been exploring the idea of selling the Gardens — a buyer hasn’t stepped up yet, though a few have shown interest.

After owning the venue for 35 years, the Robinsons feel they have done everything they can with the building. Plus, Gerry is in his 80s and the family “wants to simplify his life,” according to Pete.

“It is time for someone new to have a hand at it,” Pete says. “We’re looking for someone to put the same energy into (the Gardens) that we have for 30-plus years.”

For most of those 30 years, the Gardens staff has enjoyed a good amount of success. But with more modern venues like U.S. Bank Arena and the Duke Energy Convention Center, retaining visitors has been a constant battle. People who have lived in the city for more than 15 years know what has gone on at the Gardens; for the younger generations, it seems to be out of sight, out of mind.

According to Waddell, not much has been done to draw the younger crowds in, though he does credit the Cincinnati Rollergirls for playing a role in bridging the age gap.

“Some of the highest attended events here in the ’50s and ’60s were roller derby, so it is a weird dichotomy the Rollergirls have brought with them,” he says.

Since 2007, the Rollergirls have enjoyed their home rink at the Gardens and have helped to draw those large crowds missing from the venue — like their 4,100-person turnout in 2011.

“Skating in front of that many people was an amazing time. It makes you feel like a Rock star,” former Rollergirl Lauren Bishop says. “It is perfect for derby. Yeah, it might be a little rough around the edges, but so are we.”

Through the eight seasons at the Gardens, Cincinnati Rollergirls fans have grown to love the place. There’s free parking, it’s easy to find and the beer is cheap — all of which would be hard to accommodate in another venue. Even with the future uncertain, the Rollergirls are hoping to call the Gardens home for their 2015 season.

“The experience of going to a bout isn’t just about us, but the Gardens as well. It’s part of us now,” Bishop says. “The Rollergirls have given people a chance to experience the building so it would be a shame if it was torn down. Whenever we go back each season or for a special practice, it’s like coming back home.”

The Rollergirls will make an announcement later this summer about their venue for 2015.

For the near future, the operations of the Gardens will be business as usual. During the downtime of summer, staff will be preparing for hockey and other ice events for when the colder months roll around. The thought of the Gardens being torn down isn’t on anyone’s mind yet.

“This building is so iconic, I feel honored to be a part of this, and if it wasn’t here there would be a void. It would be like a death in the family,” Waddell says. “I shed a tear when Riverfront Stadium was blown up. I don’t know what I would do if the Gardens wasn’t here.” ©

For more information on CINCINNATI GARDENS, visit cincygardens.com.

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