Cincinnati and Nashville
Daniel Emberley, August 1999
Michael had to teach a class at the IRS regional office in Cincinnati, so we decided to go out together and stay on a day or so to see the Queen City of the Midwest. Then Continental Airlines screwed up my tickets, and I ended up flying into Nashville instead. Long story, not as fun as what follows.
Tuesday, August 10
Michael got up and out first, flying Delta direct
from National to Cincinnati. This was the first chance either of us had had to
fly out of the re-opened National Airport, as the fares have been prohibitive
out of there since the beautiful Cesar Pelli terminal opened what, two years
back? He arrived, he observed, he checked in to the hotel, all was fine. We
stayed at the Crowne Plaza right downtown, a swankier hotel than we could
Dan had a rare leisurely morning, took Metro to Union Station, MARC train to BWI, and flew Southwest to Nashville. Love that airline! Fun, on-time, and if they’re late, they tell you why in a way you can believe and act on. Uneventful flight, was met at the gate in the Music City by our friend Peg Harrison, who made the whole trip possible.
We headed out of the maze that is the Nashville Airport Parking Garage and north on the highway. Peg made a detour for me to see Opryland, which is Disney-esque in its architecture and parking lot venue. There’s just a little obstruction between Nashville and Cincinnati. You know it as Kentucky. Fortunately, it is a beautiful state to drive across. The drought had browned the fields a little, but we had sweeping vistas of blue grass horse farms, corn, cattle, tobacco, and a plant we could only identify as “crop”. The roadside attractions kept tempting us - I tried but failed to get Peg to turn in to “Guntown Mountain Amusement Park and Resort”.
We did make a side trip to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace, run by the National Park Service. In 1893 the cabin Lincoln was born in was taken to Chicago to be displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition. When it returned to Kentucky, Republican financiers had John Russell Pope build a Greek temple to house it, at the top of a monumental flight of stairs up the hill. At the foot of the hill/stairs is the spring from which young Abe fetched water for his momma. He loved his momma, the local rangers told us so. Personally, I have a sneaky suspicion there’s not much original log to that cabin from Abe’s boyhood, but we dutifully ascended (“one stair for every year of his life!”), genuflected, and took a drink at the spring/fount of the Republican Party.
Heading back to the Blue Grass Parkway we passed signs for the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemane. We’re pretty sure this was Thomas Merton’s home, and are sure they make the jams and fruitcake here. Peg promises to follow up on a future trip.
The horse country was beautiful around Lexington, especially in the sunset. We headed north on the interstate to Cincinnati, arrived after dark, and checked into the hotel. Michael was pleased to see us arrive.
Wednesday, August 11
I packed Michael off to teach, and Peg and I went on a prowl for breakfast. The hotel was just off of Fountain Square, the core of downtown. A 1970’s concrete plaza with a nice 1870’s fountain in the center, representing “The Spirit of the Waters”. Stand up, look down, put your arms straight out by your sides and let your hands droop. You, too, can be the Spirit! She’s on every type of tschotchke you can imagine, all of which we managed to avoid. Downtown is about 10 blocks wide by eight high, in a bend of the Ohio River. Most of the major buildings are connected by a skywalk system. Unlike in Rosslyn, it actually works: people use skywalks and sidewalks, and businesses thrive on both. Maybe the compactness has something to do with it. We wandered the skywalk to Chiquita Center, a 1980s tower housing the banana corporation, and hit street level at a cool fountain/sculpture in front of the building. Sort of like multicolored steel butterfly wings with water washing over them. Across the street is the Procter and Gamble headquarters complex, which is built around a pleasant tree-filled plaza. An exhibit in the lobby covers the history of P&G from its start producing soap from the renderings of Cincinnati’s hog yards through Ivory, Tide, conglomeration, and the present day.
Downtown Cincinnati hosts a variety of well preserved and still used Art Deco skyscrapers. Cincinnati Bell had the usual symbolic gold guys around the doorways representing various industries, but surprised us with cool giant limestone telephones in the facade above our heads. The new Aronoff Center for the performing arts is a nice Cesar Pelli brick and glass addition to the city, as is the “Backstage” entertainment district they’re creating in the alleys around the Center: restaurants, bars, a nightlife supporting but independent of the theaters proper. We were surprised at night to discover how alive their downtown is. It rarely seemed unsafe even well after dark. I sneered at the now vacant Federated Building, once home to the company that put Woodies and Jordan Marsh out of business.
On the west side of downtown, three landmarks face each other across a corner. The Mooresque Plum Street Temple is where Reform Judaism began. The Church of St. Peter in Chains is a Wren-like classical 1810’s exterior around a fabulous Deco interior. The stations of the cross are painted in the style of Greek terracotta vase painting, and the stained glass makes Mondrian-like patterns. Sensational. The glass is also the stand-out in the Richardsonian City Hall completing the trilogy. Stained glass in the grand staircase presents the Civic Morals of Cincinnati, the founding of the city, and the Story of Cincinnatus (Roman farmer, served as dictator during an invasion, returned power to the Senate and went home to the farm).
Larry Flynt’s Hustler Books has a prominent location on Sixth Street. A pornography shop by any definition, Mr. Flynt has turned the display windows into a paean to his First Amendment martyrdom. Beats the usual faded paperbacks, I guess. The Dixie Terminal Building was once the depot for buses from the Kentucky suburbs; is now an office building with great Rookwood tiles in the lobby and a floor to ceiling window facing the Roebling Bridge. The Ingalls Building was the first skyscraper to be supported by a concrete skeleton, with cool terra cotta facing. Carew Tower is a Deco wonder in gold and black. It’s still the tallest building in Cincinnati, with more Rookwood in the lobby and a connected shopping center/plaza.
That was enough for a breakfast walk <grin>. Peg and I hit the hotel and picked up the car. While downtown is compact and flat, the neighborhoods just outside it are steep and hilly. Guess that’s why the river went where it did. We drove over to the Taft Museum, on the east side of downtown just past Procter and Gamble. This Federal-era home was owned by President Taft’s brother, and is where William Howard heard that he would be the Republican nominee for President. The Taft family has a long heritage of giving to Cincinnati, and got their money the old-fashioned English way -- they married it. After assembling a large collection of paintings, furniture, decorative arts, and Chinese porcelains from the Ming and Q’ing dynasty periods (lots of it), they gave their home and collection as a museum. It is an excellent example of what affluent Americans collected in 1910. Most of the pieces are not ones you would visit to see especially, but the ensemble is terrific, as is the building itself. We strolled through Lytle Park back to the car, and went on …
THE QUEST FOR GAS. Turns out there are no gas stations in downtown Cincinnati. We drove back and forth across town a couple of times, up Mount Adams and down, past Music Hall, and through a neighborhood called Mount Auburn where Taft was born, before finding a BP station far west behind Union Terminal. Fortunately, it was beside a Gold Star (“official chili of the Cincinnati Reds”) Chili stand. We lunched, we filled the tank, and were off to the Cincinnati Art Museum.
CAM is at the top of Mount Adams. It had started as a Medieval-revival pile, but has been added to so many times it is hard to see the original building. The building, again, was fantastic, and the collection good. Three floors of art: Modern on 3, American and European painting on 2, and decorative and non-Western art on 1. A great installation of a Damascus Room, and a Tiepolo painting of Carlo Borromeo with the largest nose this side of Barbra Streisand. Hogarth’s “Southwark Fair”. Carlo Alonso, a Spanish Baroque painter’s, “John the Baptist”, looking for all the world like a sensuous, pouting, Keanu Reeves in a lion skin. Local Ashcan School painter Frank Duveneck’s studio and classroom, surmounted by a Felix Gonzalez-Torres word-poem in honor of Cincinnati. More canvas than we could see, and gave up from the visual stimulation.
So, we headed for dessert. I mentioned Rookwood above. The Rookwood Pottery was an Arts and Crafts clay studio, kiln, and factory that is key to understanding American art and handicraft at the turn of the century. It was also conveniently just down the road a piece, one of Cincinnati’s greatest contributions to art. The factory closed in the 1960’s, and the back sections of the complex now house architecture firms and other offices. The front building is a restaurant, with tables right inside the kilns where they fired the pottery. They serve a most excellent chocolate chip cake, warm, with fudge sauce and chocolate ice cream. A well deserved reward for all that cultural tramping.
We walked around Mt. Adams a bit. Some trendy-aspiring stores and bars, and awe inspiring views over the cliffs toward the city, river, and the surrounding hillsides. Michael found Mt. Adams a bit isolated since it is surrounded by freeways. Much barge traffic still on the river, which is cool to watch from above.
Drove back to the hotel, where we caught up with Michael. He had been able to present early, so unexpectedly had the afternoon to play. He had shadowed us much of the afternoon, also taking in downtown, the Taft, and Mount Adams. Set free from his IRS duties, Michael now joins our “we”, below.
There is supposed to be this great German heritage in Cincinnati. Aside from the last names and plenitude of blonde Catholics, there’s not a lot of that left to be seen. We drove uptown by the University of Cincinnati for dinner at Mecklenberg Gardens, which is one of the few old German restaurants still in business. It had survived Prohibition by setting up a signal system with its regular customers for when the coast was clear, and is surviving tourism pretty well, too. Great vine-covered beer garden, and decent sausage, beer, and sauerbraten.
After dinner we headed south, checking out the Cincinnatus mural on the back of the office building by the same name on our way to the Suspension Bridge. This work of John Roebling pre-dates his Brooklyn Bridge, and is sometimes considered a practice effort for the same. Quite beautiful, and functional, and one of the only ways south across the Ohio due to highway construction. Covington, on the Kentucky side, is home to Main Strasse Village, a supposedly German encampment. Looked mainly like blue collar bars to us, although they had a cool clock tower with the Pied Piper of Hamelin marching out on the hour when not under repair. It was under repair. Plaques recognize great Covingtonians, including the writer of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and star of screen Una Merkel.
Back across the river we walked along Bicentennial Commons and Yeatman’s Cove, parks along the Ohio, where a rock concert had just let out. The park holds back the river with a stepped serpentine flood control wall, which creates neat little public places. Lots of people out, and not just for the concert.
Enough. We drove back to the hotel and crashed.
Thursday, August 12
Michael had discovered a great bakery, Buskin’s,
where we headed for delicious egg sandwiches on freshly made buns, pastries, and
coffee. And cheap!
The three of us headed over to Union Terminal Museum Center. This was one of the last great railroad terminals built in the United States. It is a giant Deco half-dome, with monumental fountain up front and monumental mosaic murals inside. We were all blown away by it. We tried out the whispering gallery at the fountains, where the acoustics carry whispers hundreds of feet across the dome. The station still serves Amtrak trains, but is primarily the home to four museums. We did an outside-the-turnstiles overview of the Children’s Museum, and skipped Natural History. The temporary exhibit space was hosting “Mysteries of Egypt”, one of those museum-curated shows that travels to convention centers and auditoriums across the country. This one was not bad, a few relics, lots of recreations, and enough information to titillate young visitors into wanting to know more about Egypt. Then to the Cincinnati History Museum. There were two main exhibits, on the city during World War II and on the early settling and development of the city due to the canal between Ohio River and Lake Erie. The terminal played a major role in Cincinnati’s war participation, so that integrated well. The canal exhibits were terrific, with toy canal boats you could load and unload to learn about the river economy, a canal boat whose pieces could be used to build a small house, and an entire 1870’s river landing, complete with stores and riverboat.
Quite cool. Quite hungry. We headed downtown, where Michael sniffed us out a Skyline Chili location. Cincinnati chili is excellent, with sweeter spices than we would use, served over spaghetti, and loaded with shredded cheese, beans, and onions (the famous “5-way”). I had mine on “Coneys”, half size hot dogs loaded with chili and cheese. Tasty, fast, and, our favorite word, cheap.
The next cultural must-do was the Contemporary Art Center. Probably most famous for being sued over showing the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit a decade ago (and winning, thank you), this is an excellent venue for art being made now. It is housed on the second floor of a downtown skyscraper, but is building a new facility designed by Deconstructivist architect (translation, no right angles) Zaha Hadid. Very cool shows of:
1960’s sit-corns edited to include philosopher guest stars. Sartre on “Beverly Hillbillies”
Descartes on “Gilligan’s Island”, you get the idea.
fiberglass structures from a Dutch artist that one could live in, if one were really small and could find a plumbing hookup.
Liza Lou’s beaded kitchen. We all loved Liza Lou. Everyone should. She’s created a life-size kitchen that one walks around where every surface is covered with brightly colored beads. The floor tiles. The dishes in the sink. The water coming out of the faucet. The stove, where lurid nymphettes dance around the interior to demonstrate that this is a “dirty” oven. And, a most excellent gift shop.
But, we had parked the car at a meter, so we were off! Cincinnati once had a
Commerce building designed by H.H. Richardson. They tore it down. Ten years later an
architecture student at U Cincinnati erected sculptured fragments of the building Stonehenge-like in Burnet Woods north of the University. Cool.
Across northeast to the suburban town of Norwood,
home of the U.S. Playing Card Company. You’ve played with a Bicycle deck? It was
printed in Norwood. The factory complex is enormous, and fronts a mall with
factory housing in textile brick patterns. Neat. The Playing Card Museum was one
large room inside, where two Kafka-eque individuals sat at metal index card
boxes and did not greet us. There were floor cases with historic and rare cards,
and stacks of frames holding more exhibits. On prompting, the indexers responded
that the gallery had just been painted, but we were free to check out the frames
on the floor. Bizarre, but fun, and certainly a unique experience. The shop sold
the full range of current cards produced by the factory, for mega-cheap prices.
The canal to Lake Erie once cut across downtown north of 12th Street. In the 1920’s it was filled in and became Central Parkway. The neighborhood just to the north was settled by German immigrants and dubbed “Over-the-Rhine”. It had gone from Germans to Jews to African-Americans and is now one of the trendy happening places in southern Ohio/northern Kentucky. This neighborhood is sort like Georgetown was at the beginning of gentrification. Michael thinks that in 15 years the African-Americans will be priced out. (In fact, many former department store buildings in downtown are being converted to “New York loft” residential housing. So now is the time to buy if you want to live in the Queen City). Lots of coffee shops, art studios, and funky retail. I checked out a signature fabric store, St. Theresa’s Textiles, and Michael got a Chinese-stereotyped children’s novel from the 1 920’s. We introduced Peg to the concept of architectural antiques at a great store on the west side of the district.
We were exhausted, again. Back to the hotel for a break. Well, Peg rested. Michael and I went across to Carew Tower, where we bought bathroom mirrors half-price at an Italian house wares store. Not wanting to run all over town, we had dinner in the hotel, to discover that CinCin, the Italian-themed venue, did great food, with good service, at an incredibly low price. Maybe we’re jaded by the high prices in D.C., but we couldn’t believe what we got.
The last showboat that still works as a theater, the Showboat Majestic is permanently docked on the Ohio at Public Landing south of downtown. An historic and unique venue. We strolled south, working off dinner, for a performance of Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water”.
Horrible. The actors can’t act and the play is
There’s a reason there are no more showboats.
Made community theater look good. For people who grew up in Waltham, it made the Reagle Players look like New York. We knew better than to look at each other during the performance, if we had, we’d have walked. The blue-hairs in the audience loved it, especially the more ridiculous attempts at sexual innuendo.
Michael used the bathroom. While at the urinal, a
gentleman asked how he was enjoying the performance. Michael was honest, the
gentleman a little defensive. Michael turned to wash up. The gentleman was the
Chastened by our experience, we realized that all
good things must come with a little suffering. We figured we’d paid for dinner.
Overall, we enjoyed Cincinnati, but agree it is at
most a three-day city. We did it in two, and didn’t feel we had missed anything.
There are other things to do (amusement parks, ball games), but they’re the kind
of things one can do in any American city. To visit the Hustler Bookstore down
the Street from St. Peter In Chains, munching on a Coney, that’s a Cincinnati
Friday, August 13
Michael had negotiated an earlier flight home. He
hung out in Over-the-Rhine and went back to the Contemporary before heading out.
He arrived safely in Washington, lugging the mirrors. God, I love that man!
Peg and I discovered Cincinnati’s version of Hotel California. First the hotel valets could not find her car. A teal Subaru, for gosh sakes, is a little hard to misplace. On the flip side, the hotel waived her parking fee due to the delay. Then we discovered it is almost impossible to exit Cincinnati over the river. After false attempts from one side of town to the other on Pete Rose Way, we ended up back on the Roebling, our lifeline out.
We took back roads through Kentucky, south to the
Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. Located just west of Lexington, this had been
sold by the Shakers in the 1910’s. It became a regular town, with a garage in
the meeting house and hotels in the dormitories. In the 1960’s the entire town
was purchased by some wealthy philanthropists who recreated the town, removing
the later buildings and restoring the original ones that were left. The result
is a serene, beautiful living museum to the Shakers. We discovered that the
“crop” we had seen on the drive up was labeled “bean”, presumably soybeans. This
was Peg’s first serious introduction to the Shakers. I had grown up in the
summer down the road from one of the last functioning Shaker settlements in
Canterbury, New Hampshire, and was filled with wonderful childhood memories.
Highly recommended. Amazing what a community can do when it keeps its sexual
energy channeled into industry.
Leaving Pleasant Hill, we stayed on back roads. Texas, KY. Paris, KY. Enough of KY. We got back on the highway about an hour after we wished we had, and zipped into Nashville.
John, Peg’s husband, met us at their home, a lovely Cape Cod from 1940, built just before WWII caused American builders to standardize construction components. Great windows, lots of custom work. John took us to a good fusion restaurant in the neighborhood, and then on an architectural tour of the state capitol. The building sits on a hill, with a prospect down Bicentennial Mall, recently completed in honor of the 200th year of Tennessee statehood. The Mall is shaped like Tennessee (fortunately, an adaptable shape), and planted with vegetation from western, central, and eastern parts of the State. Unfortunately, since Nashville is in the central part and maintenance sure is expensive, all that’s survived is the central plantings, but a nice idea. Surrounding the hill are the government and office buildings of downtown, which John briefed us on. Quite cool, it can be fun to be given a dose of my own medicine.
Saturday, August 14
Breakfast at “Noshville”, a little New York City deli in the heart of the city. Great corned beef hash, made from real corned beef, not from a can.
We went to the Parthenon, a full scale recreation of the Athens original, but in better shape. The first floor, below the temple proper, houses the art collection of the city. It is even dowdier than that at the Taft, but is a good exhibit venue.
Down to the Cumberland River waterfront, where we saw Red Grooms’ Carousel. Grooms is a Nashville native, and one of my all time favorite artists. His style is to do brightly-colored cartoon-like installations of an entire city. His New York and Chicago fill major gallery space. His Los Angeles is entered like Grauman’s Chinese, with L.A. founders taking the place of sphinxes. The Nashville Carousel has vignettes of city history on the upper portion, and the “horses” are famous men, women, and aspects of the city’s heritage. The founder of Ryman Auditorium, for example, and a suffragette, and a Goo Goo Cluster. Most fun. The kids and adults riding it loved it.
Up from the river we passed through the tourist restaurant row on 2nd Street, through downtown, and out to John’s office, in a Reston-like office complex outside of town. We picked up Moon Pies, beef jerky, and Goo Goo Clusters for Michael, and had barbecue at Whit’s in the airport (don’t laugh, it’s terrific).
We had a huggy goodbye, and I got back on Southwest for the trip home. Uneventful, Michael and I were glad to get back in the same room again.
Overall, Cincinnati is a pleasant city, wonderful to visit, If Michael’s office relocates there we’ll be doing some major hunting for a new job for him in the IRS, cause we’d be bored there fast. Peg and John are saints for putting us up, and Peg especially for playing chauffeur. Thanks, guys!