Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Cost of repairs: Priceless

Work under way to preserve Gidding Building's Rookwood facade

By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Wyndell Rogers grinds cracks for preparation of a sealant as he works Tuesday on the decorative Rookwood terra cotta tiles on the facade of the Gidding Building.
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The great wall of Rookwood has been saved.

By the end of October, craftsmen from Zeiser Construction should finish repairing the vividly colored, three-dimensional 96-year-old tile facade of the former Gidding building - now part of the downtown T.J. Maxx store.

The storefront's Rookwood terra cotta trim is one-of-a-kind. It represents one of the largest and most ornate works created by Cincinnati's late, legendary pottery maker.

The loss of the tiles with their garland-trimmed flowers, fruit and faces would have left an irreparable hole on Fourth Street's smile. Cincinnati came close to suffering that loss.

A golf-ball sized chunk of tile fell to the ground in June. Scaffolding was erected to protect passersby.

An initial inspection of the 1907 work found that time, weather, dated installation methods and poor maintenance had taken their toll. Many tiles were loose, cracked and in danger of falling to pieces.

For the next two months, said building owner Norm Wasserman, "we tried to find the right people to make the proper repairs."

In August, he contacted Christopher Cain, the Cincinnati Preservation Association executive director. Cain remembers Wasserman venting his frustrations about the faulty facade by saying, "I'm about ready to take a hammer to it."

There was nothing stopping him. The building is not on the National Register of Historic Places. Nor does it hold any special designation from City Hall.

But it does have a hallowed history. Built in 1883, the building became home to the J.M. Gidding & Co., exclusive clothiers, in 1907. Gidding merged with its longtime carriage-trade competitor and next-door neighbor, Jenny Co. in 1962. Gidding-Jenny closed in 1995.

"Anybody who was anybody shopped at Gidding-Jenny," Cain noted. So, he advised Wasserman to put down his hammer and get in touch with Cincinnati-based architect Michael Lewis.

The owner of Facade Forensics, Lewis found that the tiles could be stabilized with stainless steel pins, epoxy and a new roof for the top row. The cost: About $50,000.

Cheap for a priceless work of art.

"You can't put a dollar amount on that facade," said Riley Humler, Cincinnati Art Galleries' resident Rookwood expert and author of numerous works on the pottery. "The Gidding-Jenny building is one of the preeminent Rookwood installations in the country."

Flat, art-deco style Rookwood tiles are in the Carew Tower's arcade and the Dixie Terminal's entrance. Examples of the Gidding building's flamboyant style, created by John Wareham, who became Rookwood's president, are quite rare.

"A Louisville restaurant, the Old Vienna Inn, had a very similar Rookwood facade," Humler noted. "But that was razed 15 years ago."

Wasserman could have done the same to the Gidding facade. Replacing it with concrete would have cost "a fraction of what it is costing to repair," he said.

"But, that was not a desirable option from an aesthetic or a civic point of view."


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