It’s 1791, and as William Woodward’s many siblings head out into the world — some to sea, some to South Carolina — he decides to head into the vast Northwest Territory to a little town that looks like hardly anything more than an outpost. Little did he know that a little more than a decade later he would be living in the Union state of Ohio, and that by a century later those woods and fields would be covered with busy roads and pounding industry.
At this time, however, people lived in small townhouses with acres of land to farm, and Woodward came as a surveyor to work with that land. In the process, he began investing in real estate, got himself some land and settled on a good sized plot near Fifth Street Market — now known as Fountain Square.
Hammering down coarse boards gathered from the flat boats that were dismantled upon reaching Cincinnati, Woodward built a house in 1803. Years later, in 1816, he upgraded, building the Woodward Mansion, a beautiful house of brick and hand-carved woodwork. All around the northern side of that house he fixed the problem of Cincinnati having no good fruit by starting a huge apple orchard that would crank out around 500 barrels of cider a year (ever wonder where Orchard Street in Over-the-Rhine got its name?).
Through his investments and business endeavors, Woodward gained significant wealth, which he would then turn around and give back to the community out of his love for others and his era-appropriate fear of God.
One of the major ways he gave back to the community still stands today — in 1831 Woodward High School opened thanks to his efforts and donations. Woodward High School was not only the first in the city, but the first high school to exist west of the Allegheny Mountains.
When Woodward eventually grew old and passed away, his land and home was given to his wife, who also passed it on when she died. Eventually, by the time it was almost 100 years old in 1912, it was in the hands of a man named George C. Kolb.
Kolb razed the house with the intention of building a theater in honor of Woodward. Not simply a businessman without a care for the history of the house, Kolb had a committee choose certain items from the mansion to be preserved. The wooden mantel and the front door were given to Woodward High School and, according to a news article at the time, the committee also saved a cupboard, balustrade and a window Woodward had been known to look out from into the woods.
Once it was properly gutted of relics, the building was knocked to the ground and on top was built the beaux art-style building we see today (though the statues on either side of the door are replicas).
It was opened as a movie theater on June 18, 1913, in the days when film was still a fresh and developing art form. To say silent film at that time was redundant, because recorded — and especially synchronized — sound was a concept beyond reality. For example, in 1917 you could have seen the then-new but now lost film The Railroad Raiders.
The theater only lasted until 1933. While there are no records of why it closed, most speculate that the Great Depression kept people from having a nice night at the movies, causing the theater to go under.
By 1935 the building was again showing something, but this time it was used cars under the name Andy Schain Inc. A newspaper ad from 1937 shows that you could buy a ’36 Chevy Town Sedan for $525, a ’29 Chevy Coach for $60 and a ’31 Chevy Sports Roadster for the mindboggling price of $10. In other words, you could’ve purchased that Coach for the amount you might spend at today’s Woodward Theater in a night of heavy drinking with your spouse (or alone, if you’re that hardcore).
Around this point is where the trail runs dry except for a few sad drips. The used car shop closed sometime in the 1940s. While it’s hard to brush the dust off and find evidence, apparently there was a Kroger in the building in the 1950s. And jumping ahead to the ‘70s, it was a nightclub called Wanda Bear’s.
In 1990 Greg Starnes bought the building, using it as storage for his antique shop further down Main Street until 1995, when he opened it as the second location of Greg’s Antiques.
The end of Starnes’ tenure there is where Dan McCabe stepped in with his partners Chris Schadler and Chris Varias to begin work on this old building that has seen and heard it all.
It’s heard the silence of an early 20th century film; the passionate debate between two 1930s jocks over the price of a hot ride; the chatting of lovers shopping for lemons and mustached men cheering a band; the cooing of an old lady over a doll that reminds her of her younger days; and most recently, the buzzing of drills and booming of hammers.
Now once again the halls of this honorary building might listen to the rumbling and rattling of Rock music, the soft crying of a mother watching her daughter wed, or the perfectly timed joke of a comedian to the background of rollicking laughter. Whatever it is, as time rolls on these walls won’t stop listening.
The Woodward Theater opens to the public tonight. Read more about Main Street’s newest music and events space here.