Cincinnati’s rich and varied architecture often compels the use of superlatives, not unjustly as the city is home to 28 historic districts, icons like Music Hall and Union Terminal, and modern works by some of the most famous architects in the world (including Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry).
The residential architecture of the region is also fascinating. The following list of ten of the most interesting houses is not definitive, but it should pique interest and conversation about the remarkable domestic architecture throughout the tristate.
1. Hillforest, Aurora
Long before cities were transformed by highways, rivers often shaped communities. Distiller and brewer Thomas Gaff depended on the Ohio River for shipping and invested in a fleet of steamboats. He purchased land for his house on the hillside overlooking town and the river that had brought him success.
Gaff hired noted architect Isaiah Rogers (who also designed Cincinnati’s Burnett House hotel and Hamilton County Courthouse) to plan a unique home for his family. Rogers’s design not only took inspiration from Italian hillside villas, but also from the steamboats that were essential to Gaff’s business.
The home, a National Historic Landmark, features curved doors and windows leading out to large curved porches on each story, recalling the deck of a steamboat. The circular belvedere that sits atop the home references the pilothouse on a boat. Inside, a stunning flying staircase leads from the entrance hall to the second floor. After a stint as a VFW hall, Hillforest is now a museum.
2. Lane-Hooven House, Hamilton
The 19th century generated several theories of home design intended to create healthier lives for residents. Octagon-shaped homes were perceived to be a more efficient use of space and resources, as well as allowing a flow of light and air conducive to good living. Thousands were constructed, but the fad was short lived, and few survived.
James Elrick, a Hamilton builder, constructed a unique octagonal home for Clark Lane, owner of a thriving company that manufactured agricultural equipment. A few years later, Lane had another octagonal building constructed across the street to serve as a free library for the residents of Hamilton.
The home changed hands several times, with the Hooven family being the last residents. Since the 1950s, the Lane-Hooven House has been home to the Hamilton Community Foundation offices.
3. Carriage Barn, Northside
From the exterior, no one would expect this small home was originally built to store carriages. In a stylish example of adaptive reuse, this nineteenth century carriage barn has been transformed into a modern, single-family residence by architect Tim Jeckering.
Modernizing historic structures can be tricky; balancing original features with contemporary finishes and conveniences can be jarring. The worst cases feel like a Jekyll/Hyde where a charming historic exterior reveals an ultra-modern interior lacking any patina of age.
Fortunately, Jeckering handled his renovation sensitively. The standard features expected today’s homeowners are there – stone countertops and stainless-steel appliances – but Jeckering also incorporates salvaged wood from the structure into his design. The open plan of the living area also recalls the spaciousness of the original interior, without the clutter of carriages and their accessories.
4. Wiedemann Mansion, Newport
Brewer George Wiedemann hired Cincinnati’s Samuel Hannaford to build a home for his family. Hannaford, perhaps best known for Music Hall, was also a very popular residential architect. The mansion he designed for the Wiedemann’s takes full advantage of its location atop a hill. Expansive porches and large windows embrace panoramic views of the Ohio River and Cincinnati.
The Wiedemann family eventually sold the home to the Diocese of Covington and the brewer’s house was occupied by bishops, priests and nuns. Today, the Wiedemann Mansion is a wedding and event venue.
5. Shotgun Row, Covington
A shotgun house is typically a narrow, one-room wide, one-story home with rooms linked front to back by a hallway. The six homes of Shotgun Row feature a contemporary reimagining of the traditional style.
The row, originally seven, was built by Henry G. Haver in the 1890s. The small homes were ideal for Covington’s factory workers and their families. These houses were more elaborate than others nearby, featuring high ceilings, Italianate cornices, and a basement. The exteriors were decorated with fish-scale shingles and gingerbread trim. Haver kept one house for his family and sold the others.
At the end of the 20th century, the residences became vacant and derelict; one was lost to fire. The homes had some protection as part of the Lee-Holman Historic District, but that designation couldn’t guarantee survival for the longest row of shotgun homes in the city.
The Center for Great Neighborhoods saw the potential in turning these small homes into live-work spaces for artists. The exteriors of the six remaining shotgun houses were recreated by combining the surviving historical features of the row. The interiors, however, were too deteriorated to preserve, and needed modifications to appeal to a contemporary buyer. The new floorplans allowed for a more open feel and separated the studio space from living areas. All six homes sold before renovations were completed in 2014.
6. Rauh House, Woodlawn
This spectacular International Style home was designed by local architect John W. Becker. Sparkling white, with clean lines and lots of windows, this residence is not designed to blend in with its setting, or even echo it. However, its open plan and patios, embraced the outdoors as part of the family’s living space.
By the start of the 21st century, the now-derelict home was threatened with demolition. The Cincinnati Preservation Association secured ownership of the property, with help from Rauh daughter Emily Pulitzer, and launched a painstaking restoration of the home. The house was returned to its 1938 appearance, and pieces of A.D. Taylor’s original landscaping plan were recreated. The home is now owned privately as a residence with historic conservation protections.
7. Boulter House, Clifton
One of three Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the region, the Boulter House is an outstanding example of Wright’s Usonian style. During the Great Depression, Wright developed an idea for custom designs that were affordable for middle-class families, he called it Usonian.
As with most Wright residences, the common living areas are the largest spaces, although in the Usonian style, kitchens are tiny and functional rather than gathering places. Built-in shelves, furniture, and storage also helped smaller spaces function efficiently.
The current owners of the Boulter House are working on securing LEED certification for the house by adding energy efficient elements to the historic property.
8. Lustron Home, Erlanger
After World War II, a housing shortage, particularly of affordable housing, faced returning GIs and their families. Carl G. Strandlund, a self-taught engineer, proposed a solution: prefabricated, mass produced, steel houses.
Enlisting the help of architect Morris Beckman, Strandlund opened a manufacturing facility in Columbus, Ohio. Lustron homes came in several styles, but all were made of porcelain enameled steel, inside and out. Most features were built in, including bedroom vanities, mirrors, and book shelves.
The homes were popular, with Lustron receiving 20,000 orders. However, problems with production and distribution led to the collapse of the company and less than 2,500 homes manufactured. There are several Lustron homes in the region, and the Ohio History Center has reconstructed a Lustron home in a fully hands-on exhibit at their Columbus museum.
9. Futuro House, Covington
In the 1950s and 60s, the world was fascinated with the new materials developed by World War II industries. Post-war prosperity led to idealistic and optimistic projections about the future, impacting all aspects of culture, including architecture.
Finnish architect Matti Suuronen explored the limits of plastic as a building material in a quest to develop affordable structures that were easy to build and move. His Futuro designs were constructed of reinforced plastic and served as residences, banks, and even military observation posts. Unfortunately for Suuronen, the 1970s oil crisis not only caused gas shortages but also drove the price of petroleum-based products like plastic into the no-longer-affordable range. Less than 100 Futuro structures were manufactured and installed, including the Covington residence.
10. Mushroom House, Hyde Park
One of the more unusual homes in the region, the Mushroom House combines architecture and art in a whimsical structure perfect for an avant-garde Hobbit.
Architecture professor Terry Brown and his students built the house between 1992 and 2006. The curved wood shingles that give the home its fungal appearance are not uncommon on other area residences, notably on Observatory in Hyde Park and Clifton Ave near UC, but the abundance of them, in organic shapes, earned the Mushroom House its name.
The all-glass room projecting toward Erie Avenue is a very un-mushroom-y feature, but it just adds to the romance of the home. The Mushroom House would stand out on any street, but it’s prominent location, mix of materials, colors, and unusual design continue to draw attention and admirers.
Architecture is arguably the art that most impacts our daily lives: we live in buildings, we work in buildings, we spend our free time in other buildings. Few have the luxury to hire an architect to design a space perfectly suited to their lives; so we choose as best we can a home that fits our needs and desires. Homes provide not only shelter, but can also bring us delight, joy, and, on occasion, wonder.
To explore more tristate residential architecture, keep an eye out for house tours offered by neighborhood historical societies, visit one of the dozens of tristate historic house museums, attend an event hosted by cf3, Cincinnati Preservation Association, or the Architectural Foundation, or just pick a community and go for a walk.