Saturday, October 4, 2003

Thumbs up: Gidding's Rookwood

Worth preserving

It has become a familiar sight downtown this week - passers-by stopping at the Gidding Building on West Fourth Street, gazing at the scaffolded fa┴ade of the structure that now houses T.J. Maxx. Their focus is on the building's extraordinary Rookwood terra cotta trim, being painstakingly restored this month by craftsmen from Zeiser Construction.

As the Enquirer's Cliff Radel noted Wednesday, the rescue and restoration of this priceless piece of Cincinnati architectural history is a generous, civic-minded gesture by the building's owner, Norm Wasserman.

Pieces of the ornate, three-dimensional tilework, which dates from 1907, had begun to crack and come loose. Wasserman was under no obligation to preserve the fa┴ade, a rococo riot of colorful fruit, faces and flowers. He could have saved $50,000 cost by ripping out the tile and covering the area with plaster. But that was "not a desirable option from an aesthetic or a civic point of view," Wasserman said.

Instead, he took the time and expense to find experts with the know-how to restore the trim. True, the work could boost the building's value in the long term, but it's no sure-fire investment. It is more a labor of love.

Saving the Gidding Building's Rookwood is worthwhile in itself, but there's a bonus here. The attention it is bringing could serve a wider purpose by making Cincinnatians more conscious of the architectural wonders all around us, particularly downtown. Despite the treasures we have lost in recent decades as faceless office-tower boxes and prosaic monuments to urban "renewal" have muscled their way onto the streetscape, Cincinnati boasts many examples of craftsmanship worth admiring, restoring and cherishing.

"You can't put a dollar amount on that fa┴ade," said Rookwood expert Riley Humler. Nor can you measure the worth of the humanity, artistry and whimsy such buildings add to our urban environment.

And this may remind us of an even larger truth: Sometimes the best "progress" is not creating something brand-new, but conserving the best of what has come before.

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