Community is a "little city"

Monday, May 18, 1998

Enquirer Contributor

To some, Oakley seems to live in the shadow of the adjacent and more upscale Hyde Park.

Betty Schoettinger of Kenwood enjoys a cone last week at Aglamesis Bros. ice cream parlor in Oakley.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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But Oakley has its own brand of charm, its own landmarks, its own colorful history -- and the 12,000-plus residents of the Cincinnati neighborhood want to dispel the myth that it lives in any community's shadow.

"Four Mile," Oakley's first name, was a popular stop in the mid-1800s for wagon drivers who drove over Madison Turnpike -- today's Madison Road, the heart of Oakley. By 1869, the name Oakley was officially registered at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Immediately recognizable landmarks such as the 20th Century Theater, Aglamesis Bros. ice cream parlor and the Geier Esplanade in the middle of Oakley Square set the area apart. It is a neighborhood blessed with wide front porches; streets lined with gas lights, sugar maples, dogwoods and pin oaks; and a business district that is within walking distance of most homes there.

"Oakley could stand as its own little city because it has everything you need for daily life right in the neighborhood," said Sue Doucleff, president of the Oakley Community Council. "Within walking distance, there are grocery stores, a post office, banks, health care facilities and shopping.

"We have a very heavy senior population, and over the last three to four years, we've seen a great increase in the number of young professional people in their 20s and 30s buying starter homes," Mrs. Doucleff said. "We're also finding that where people used to buy their first homes, then sell and move out to the suburbs -- now they want to stay and raise their families here.

There is the matter, however, of a low-key border disagreement with Hyde Park. Mrs. Doucleff would like to get the Hyde Park - Oakley boundaries settled.

According to city boundaries, the Hyde Park Country Club and Hyde Park Shopping Plaza are both in Oakley, though Oakley proponents are quick to admit the Oakley Drive-In is in Madisonville.

There has been no resolution, though city neighborhood maps show Oakley's southern border as Wasson Road.

The 20th Century Theater stands as the distinctive Oakley landmark. Built in 1941, its 72-foot tower rises over the business district. Slated for demolition in the early 1990s, the deteriorating Art Moderne theater with its scalloped outer facade, steel superstructure and original architecture, was deemed of historical significance and spared.

Map Businessman Mike Belmont bought the building, restored it to a point fit for habitation, and planned to use the building for his floor-covering business. When the Fifth Third Bank building became available near the theater, Mr. Belmont and partner Mindy Frimer consolidated their businesses and opened an interior design studio. The 20th Century was leased by partners Mark Rogers and Keith Haas, who are planning to turn the place into a showpiece. "It will be exciting," Mr. Belmont said. "But we need better parking, which is a major issue. If the object is to attract more people and develop the area into a viable commercial district, we've got to make it convenient for people to park. It needs to happen, and we expect that it will happen."

Historic memorabilia, including original telegrams from the likes of Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Tyrone Power and Betty Grable are being readied for display in the theater. Although movies will not be shown, Mr. Rogers hopes his plans for a mini-entertainment complex will turn the historic gem into a hub for everything from big-band music to corporate events, comedy nights and live theater. Another landmark is Aglamesis Bros. in Oakley Square, in the original building that dates to 1913. Also original are the marble-top tables, candy counter, tile floor, tin ceiling and soda fountains. Old family recipes for ice creams and candies are what has made Aglamesis a phenomenon.

From money borrowed on a handshake in 1908, Jim Aglamesis' father and uncle started Aglamesis Bros. Ice Cream Parlor & Candy Shoppe in Norwood. By 1913, they had opened the Oakley store to accommodate the growing population attracted by the Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. (now Cincinnati Milacron).

"In the '30s and '40s, Oakley had small supermarkets, butcher shops, women's stores and drug stores," said Jim Aglamesis. "It was a thriving community. The sidewalks were filled with people, and streetcars came every five minutes right at the square.

"It kept on going until the middle '50s, when the shopping centers came into Cincinnati and we had close to 20 vacant stores. . . . I didn't join the rest of the people that vacated."

Mr. Aglamesis hired an architect, changed the exterior of his shop and got an award for an outstanding neighborhood improvement from the city in the process. He worked to improve parking and other areas, and over time, the business district began to come back. "Aglamesis is Oakley," said lifelong resident Terry Houston, who remembers what a treat it was to go to the ice cream parlor after a visit to the dentist. Ms. Houston, 41, also feels that Oakley is the center of the universe. "It's great. I like the easy access to I-71 and I-75, that I can shop right in my community and that I don't have to drive a hundred miles to get what I need."

Vince Schirmer has his own page in Cincinnati history books. More than 800 people showed up the day he retired from Schirmer's Garage, which has been in Oakley since he and brothers Frank and Joe opened it in 1960.

Judy Evans works in her yard on Hyde Park Avenue in Oakley.
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Two customers each left a car to Vince in their wills.

"To have an honest garage is a big thing," said Mr. Schirmer, whose son and daughter still help run the business. "People have been coming to the garage for 30 years," he said. "People would leave blank checks and their cars parked out in the lot for us to work on. They trusted us."

Dazzles Day Spa and Boutique sits on a hill on Madison Road next to the Oakley Baptist Church, in a 1907 Victorian house with high ceilings, big picture windows and hardwood floors.

"I came upon this house in Oakley just driving through the neighborhoods that I was interested in," said spa owner Patricia Montagno. "I was the first tenant 11 years ago. I've pulled good people into the neighborhood that I'm sure frequent the other businesses, and I feel good about that."

The Rev. David Beals has been serving a small, aging congregation at the Oakley Baptist Church for nearly seven years. The church has served the community for 85 years. To keep his doors open, the Rev. Mr. Beals is offering church rooms to rent for storage, theater groups or office space.

"Getting people back into church is hard," he said. . . . If they're good people, the weekend belongs to them, their family and their kids. Then you're asking them to come to church Sunday morning and be split up again in different classes and such. I think it's really hard."

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