'Tis the season once again, the time of year to compete with the neighbors over holiday light displays, time to gather with loved (or tolerated) ones, time to celebrate in whatever way your faith dictates. It's also time for gifts galore and shopping malls. But remember when the holiday season didn't mean spending days looking for a parking spot at Kenwood Towne Center? Remember when Christmastime meant going downtown to shop, to visit dear old Saint Nick in the CAREW TOWER ARCADE, see Shillito's famous window display and peruse the now-Duke Energy train display?
In an effort to call upon such ghosts of Christmas past, I'd like to focus on the aforementioned Carew Tower arcade. When I think back upon my most impressive childhood memories of Christmas in Cincinnati, after all, my reminiscence usually begins here. I apologize in advance if my musing becomes tedious, but isn't this the only time of year where sickening levels of nostalgia are deemed socially acceptable? If you're like me, the rose-colored glasses through which I view Christmases past will likely lend you the same favorable vision of the Carew arcade.
The arcade is part of a larger complex called the Carew Tower, hailed as a "city within a city" by John Emery, whose sons took about a year to build the Tower during the Great Depression. This fabulous, two-story Art Deco space originally connected the H&S Pogue's and Mabley & Carew department stores, and both tiers were populated with small shops.
Even before Carew was erected, however, this particular space was previously a two-story, glass-roofed arcade as well, then part of the Hotel Emery. As the Emery arcade, the prominent use of glass and steel aligned this 19th-century arcade with earlier European manifestations, such as London's Burlington Arcade.
What we see today, however, is uniquely Art Deco and uniquely Cincinnati. Not only was the arcade built upon an already-significant downtown location, but its central axis entryways are adorned with two boldly colored, floral Rookwood tile designs and locally made, intricate metal grills are present throughout.
Upon entering the arcade, the soft golden glow created by the vertically striped gold and black pilasters and subtle lighting effects immediately welcome visitors into this expansive space. As John Clubbe points out in Cincinnati Observed: Architecture and History, bulbs are cradled by diamond-shaped metal strips, which serve to reflect an indirect light off the metallic ceiling. Between the golden blush of its lights and the added charm of a lit-up Christmas display, I always found the arcade to be surprisingly cozy, especially during the holidays.
The intense irony of the Carew arcade's grandeur lies in the language of its style. Art Deco represents a visual homage to technology, progress and optimism. Yet this is one of Cincinnati's major urban monuments — and today it's a shell of what it was as recently as a decade ago, especially when considered in conjunction with Tower Place. Commercial arcades such as the Carew Tower's are meant to be bustling urban thoroughfares of pedestrian activity and retail — not so much these days, unfortunately. The remnants of what used to be quite a grand holiday display make this memory all the more poignant. While trains, trolleys and ice-skating might bring people downtown, chances are, however, that they're doing their holiday shopping elsewhere.
So while my favorite holiday memories involve my grandma and me taking the bus downtown to shop in the department stores, view window displays and have a malt at Hathaway's, kids today will probably reminisce about visiting Santa Claus at the local suburban mall and eating Sbarro's in the food court. C'est la vie.
THE CAREW TOWER ARCADE is located Downtown on Fifth Street between Race and Vine streets.