Group Upset at Gamble Neglect

Dec 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm

A group that supports preserving the historic Gamble House in Westwood is angry that Cincinnati building inspectors aren't enforcing the law at the property, which is allowing heavy rainfall to damage it while a court battle drags on about whether to save the mansion from demolition.

Bob Prokop, of Save the Historic Gamble Estate Now, said the city's inaction about securing the house contradicts what a building inspector told him would be done at the property in an email from last spring.—-

Prokop cites the April email, from Ed Cunningham, manager of Cincinnati's Property Maintenance Code Enforcement Division, which stated, “The attorney for the owner was informed by our office that even though there is litigation on the proposed demolition, measures must still be taken to preserve the property pending a decision on the demolition permit … if work does not start as indicated, the case will be sent to the prosecutor for review.”

But eight months later, that work remains undone.

Meanwhile, the area has had a record-breaking amount of rainfall this year, more than 70 inches since January, with more expected this week.

Prokop noted that the Greenacres Foundation, owner of the Gamble House, isn't in compliance with the 13 conditions of its Vacated Building Maintenance License (VBML).

“When a property owner violates the city's municipal code regarding something as mundane as not mowing their lawn, that property owner will be cited multiple times. If no response is received by the city, they mow the lawn themselves and send the owner the bill,” Prokop said. “Many of us feel the same approach should be taken regarding historic properties that are in danger of suffering prolonged exposure to the elements if their owner refuses to comply with orders from the Building & Inspections Department or the Urban Conservator/Historic Conservation Board.”

Meg Olberding, a city spokeswoman, said inspectors are holding off until they see if an appeal is successful of a magistrate's ruling from July that allows demolition to proceed.

“Therefore, there is a pending appeal directly related to the condition of the building and it doesn’t make sense to prosecute the owners for failure to comply with the VBML when there is a magistrate’s decision on a demolition permit,” Olberding said.

The city's stance is illogical, replied Prokop and others who want to save the house, which is more than 140 years old.

“The thing I find most interesting about (the) response is that the city seems to now be waving the white flag and saying that the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas can now tell it how to operate,” Prokop said. “That's odd since the city's contention from the beginning has been that the county court has no business in dictating how it enforces its own laws.”

He added, “Representatives of the Greenacres Foundation and the city of Cincinnati met on-location at the property in the spring of this year. At that time the owners agreed to perform some bare-bones stabilization of the property, like tarping the roof. As of today, nothing has been done.”

Groups trying to save the house include the Cincinnati Preservation Association, the Westwood Historical Society and Westwood Civic Association

According to preservationists, the house has faulty box gutters and a metal roof in need of repair, both of which Westwood residents have offered for years to fix at their expense, to no avail. Also, some neighbors allege downspouts were intentionally disconnected.

“We know from Judge (Norbert) Nadel's visit in 2010 (and Ed Cunningham's follow-up visit in January of this year) that the interior has been stripped of its architectural features,” Prokop said. “Water, electricity, and gas lines have been disconnected. Plumbing has been removed. All without a permit or approval of any kind. What would the consequences be if an 'average Joe' such as myself did the same thing to our own home?”

Meanwhile, Greenacres is planning on investing $14 million in another historic Gamble property located in Ponce Inlet, Fla., near Daytona Beach. The foundation will spend $1.2 million on a dock and boat and $800,000 on renovating the house. Additionally, it will established a $12 million endowment to run the property as a maritime museum, which is expected to cost about $600,000 annually to operate.

“I wonder how Cincinnati city leaders feel about the foundation investing $14 million in what is a similar structure — but architecturally a bit less interesting — rather than here in Westwood,” Prokop said.

The Gamble House is believed to have been built in the 1830s or 1840s, and it served as the home of James Norris Gamble from 1875 until his death in 1932. Gamble was the son of Proctor & Gamble Co. co-founder James Gamble, and reportedly invented the formula for Ivory Soap at the property.

Also, James N. Gamble was a philanthropist, entrepreneur and the first mayor of the village of Westwood, before the neighborhood became a part of the city of Cincinnati.

The 13-room, 2,600-square-foot High Victorian Italianate house is located on a 22-acre parcel owned by Indian-Hill-based Greenacres. It has said renovating and maintaining the house isn't economically feasible, and instead wants to demolish it and develop a youth education center and nature preserve.

Greenacres has a net worth of $249 million, tax filings indicate.