Meet Cincinnati's newest historic district

Cincinnati City Council gave final approval yesterday to the Sohn-Mohawk Historic District in northern Over-the-Rhine

click to enlarge The Sohn/Clyffside brewery building, built in 1887. - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
The Sohn/Clyffside brewery building, built in 1887.

A corner of Over-the-Rhine that contains a couple iconic neighborhood structures became Cincinnati’s newest local historic district on April 4.

Cincinnati City Council approved legislation that names a short sweep of West McMicken Avenue and surrounding streets centered around Hamburg Street the Sohn-Mohawk Historic District.

Representatives from the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, which pushed for the historic designation, say it’s another step in their hopes to shore up a larger, northern part of Over-the-Rhine. They also hope that unique elements of their efforts will become a model for future historic districts.

The area received national historic district designation in 2015, which helps those looking to preserve and renovate buildings score Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits. But the local designation gives preservationists new tools to protect the neighborhood’s urban fabric.

“The local district actually has teeth — it can protect buildings from demolitions and ensures appropriate renovation and infill development,” Brewery District CURC Executive Director Steve Hampton says. “It makes sure we keep the character of the district.”

The district is about three blocks wide, north to south, and is part of the larger Mohawk area, which extends from the Brighton Approach southeast to Findlay Street.

The Sohn-Mohawk District is one of two historic districts proposed by the 2011 Brewery District Master Plan, which looks to spark development in the northern half of OTR and surrounding areas. The other proposed district, the Germania Brewery Historic District, would be across from the existing Mohawk-Bellevue Historic District further northwest up West McMicken Avenue.

The new Sohn district fills a gap between that area and the Over-the-Rhine Historic District to the south.

The Mohawk area played a key role in the expansion of Cincinnati and its brewery industry as it grew up alongside the Miami and Erie Canal.

Its central corridor, West McMicken Avenue, dates back to 1792 when it was built as Hamilton Road. The road was the main route from Cincinnati to the recently constructed Fort Hamilton, 35 miles north. Then a small village, Mohawk blossomed after the construction of the canal finished in 1827. Activity continued to intensify in the 1840s and 1850s, fueled by breweries and an influx of immigrants from Germany and elsewhere. Cincinnati annexed the village in 1849.

The Sohn district contains some noteworthy buildings from that bustling time period, including the historic Sohn/Clyffside brewing facility, constructed in 1887 with additions dating from the 1930s.

click to enlarge The Sohn/Clyffside brewery building - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
The Sohn/Clyffside brewery building

The site hosted a number of breweries over the span of more than a century — from Hamilton to Sohn to Mohawk to Clyffside breweries. The final brewing operation to occupy the location, Red Top, went out of business in 1957.

The building has a long, sometimes wild past.

In August 1925, during Prohibition, federal agents streamed into the brewery, reportedly firing at a delivery driver, after learning that the Mohawk company was brewing alcoholic beer there. A number of employees were arrested and beer production ceased until 1933, when Prohibition was repealed.

Another building in the district you’ll probably recognize is the Imperial Theater, constructed in 1913. The theater started out as a vaudeville house before transitioning to movies — first general interest, then of the adult variety. Efforts have been launched in recent years to restore that building and its iconic, 1930s-era marquee.

click to enlarge The Imperial Theater - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
The Imperial Theater

Other structures in the district are also rich in history. The oldest, at 281 West McMicken Ave., was built in 1850.

The appeal of the neighborhood goes beyond any single building, though, Hampton says.

“It’s a really great collection, along McMicken and Mohawk Place, of an intact street wall” with few buildings missing, he says.

Many of the structures are Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire or Romanesque, styles also found — and widely celebrated — in southern parts of OTR.

The city’s Historic Conservation Board approved the Sohn-Mohawk District in October last year, and the City Planning Commission unanimously approved the district designation and the new historic preservation guidelines back in February.

Those guidelines are unique, according to Hampton.

“All current guidelines are text based, and not very user-friendly,” Hampton says. “We’ve developed a very graphic and easy-to-follow set of guidelines, so even a layperson can work through the process and know what they’re getting into.”

Mike Morgan of the Brewery District CURC helped draw up those guidelines. He says the aim is to improve the historic preservation system in Cincinnati — and maybe even nationally.

“This has been a process that took more than five years,” Morgan says. “It’s really all based on years of experience of what hasn’t been working right in preservation here. This is a relatively small district, but the broader hope here is that this is a first step in making the entire preservation system in the city more user-friendly so that it can do a better job of preservation and also make the system more predictable to small-scale developers.”

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