In what could prove to be a watershed moment for historic preservation in Cincinnati, the grand Victorian home located at 2918 Werk Road in Westwood — a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio — fondly referred to as the Gamble House by local residents, remains under imminent threat of demolition by its current owners, the Greenacres Foundation.
James Norris Gamble, entrepreneur, industrialist, civic leader, and philanthropist, lived in the house from his arrival in Westwood in the 1875 until his death on July 2, 1932. The property sits within a community of predominately late nineteenth and early twentieth century homes. Westwood is a neighborhood notable for its intact and distinctive, well-designed residential architecture.
The house is the residence most strongly associated with the life and work of James Norris Gamble, civic leader and Westwood promoter, who in the course of his work with the family business, the Procter & Gamble Company, developed Ivory Soap, a ground-breaking consumer product still in production today. For nearly sixty years — from 1875 to 1932 — as James N. Gamble became an admired entrepreneur, industrialist, civic leader, and philanthropist — this is where he called home. Named
Ratonagh by Gamble, in tribute to his ancestral home of Northern Ireland, the house is a rare surviving example of country estates associated with development of the Cincinnati hilltops, particularly the western hills, and the Village of Westwood. The house is one of the oldest surviving structures in Westwood, exemplary of Victorian country villa architecture in its pastoral setting, and is the sole remaining archetype of its kind in Westwood.
The majestic home, a 2,644 sq ft clapboard-style Late Victorian with strong Italianate influences, is believed to have been originally constructed in the 1830s. Significant additions and alterations were done after 1875, when James Norris and Margaret Penrose Gamble acquired the property. Local architectural historians have speculated that the addition is suggestive of the work of James McLaughlin. Several outbuildings on the site are not part of the demolition plan. Of these supplemental structures — which include a barn, carriage house, greenhouse, and caretaker's house — the barn has perhaps the most historic significance, as it was designed by Solo Spencer Beman, and possesses the same roof structure and window style he used in designing Ivorydale (late 19th century).
Finding inspiration for its classical form from an Italian villa, the house is organized around its central feature: a square, 3-story tower. Ornate and embellished with Italianate detailing and quatrefoils in brackets, cornice, and railings, the tower forms a belvedere, and includes a deep viewing balcony and Tuscan roundels below.
Although widely-known as the Gamble House, the property has historic significance that reaches back before the Gamble legacy–to the very beginnings of Westwood. James Goudy, the first known settler in Westwood, was the original owner of the land. Richard Gaines, referred to as the
Father of Westwood also owned the property. Gaines, a native of London, England, migrated successively to Burlington, NJ, then to Philadelphia, PA, and finally to Cincinnati, OH, where he originally settled in a sparsely-populated Green Township. By 1820, Gaines considered this location to be too far from the city proper so he purchased a farm of 160 acres on the west side of the Harrison pike in the western portion of the village of Westwood. It was upon this parcel that the original farmhouse that forms a good part of the current Gamble House was constructed. John Gaines — the very first mayor of the Village of Westwood — also lived in the home. In 1875, ownership transferred to James Norris Gamble — the very last mayor of the Village of Westwood, before its annexation in to the city of Cincinnati. Mr. Gamble lived in Ratonagh for 57 years, until he died in his sleep on July 2, 1932, just shy of 96 years of age.
The property has remained in the Gamble family since 1875. In 1961, upon the death of the last full-time resident of the house, Olivia Gamble, the home was passed to Olivia's nephew — and James N. Gamble's grandson — Mr. Louis Nippert. Mr. Nippert's stewardship of the home was impeccable; from 1961 until his death in 1992, the house, grounds, and outbuildings were maintained in pristine, museum-like condition; those fortunate enough to be granted access would remark that stepping over the threshold was like
stepping back in time. Kitchen cupboards were fully stocked with dinnerware; family portraits hung upon the walls; tables were set, and sweaters were draped over the backs of chairs, as if awaiting the return of the home's original occupants. Louis Nippert hired a full-time caretaker to oversee the building and grounds, and the main house was mothballed in a perfectly-preserved state during his tenure. Photographs in ornate frames remained upon the walls, tables, and sideboards; steamer trunks full of carefully-wrapped family heirlooms were tucked into storage areas. Mr. Nippert's responsible and compassionate care for this historic property was due to his love for his grandfather, and the fond childhood memories of time spent at his grandfather's home.
In 1991, Mr. & Mrs. Louise Nippert were acknowledged with an award from the Miami Purchase Associaiton (pre-cursor of the Cincinnati Preservation Association) for
the preservation and maintenance of the Historic James Norris Gamble Estate, including the main house, outbuildings, and grounds.
Mr. Nippert, once a part-owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and a two-term member of the Ohio House of Representatives, died on November 17, 1992. Upon Mr. Nippert's death in 1992, the property fell under the ownership of his wife, Louise Nippert, and the Trust established to manage their holdings. Efforts were made to transfer the home to a preservation-minded entity; or disassemble the home & reconstruct it as an exhibit in the Cincinnati Museum Center, but no proposal could ever be agreed upon.
Sadly, without Mr. Nippert's vigilance, the home's condition began to decline at some point in the early 2000s. By 2006, the neglect and lack of maintenance began making itself known; the metal roof began leaking, with flashing, gutters, and downspouts began to fail. Rather than make the necessary repairs, the representative for the Trust, Carter Randolph, chose to remove the contents of the house to prevent them from being damaged due to water intrusion into the home.
Ownership of the property was transferred in late 2009 from the Louise Dieterle Nippert Trust to the Greenacres Foundation. Despite years of discussion with community groups, and residents' pleas with Mr. Randolph to make the necessary repairs, the home's condition continued to suffer from neglect. Faced with two minor city code violations (peeling paint and a sidewalk in need of repair), the Greenacres Foundation — a non-profit, charitable organization whose very existence is owed to the wealth generated by James N. Gamble, and who have the words
conservation as part of their mission statement — decided not to comply with the orders against the house and began taking bids for its demolition.
The community determined that the best chance they had of saving the home was to get it designated as a Local Historic Landmark — which, while not preventing the home's demolition, would make it more difficult. The process was initiated by the Westwood Historical Society, who had been working quietly for years to deliver a proposal that would be acceptable to the owners. Necessary documentation was prepared, letters of support at the local, state, national, and international... were received, and presentations were made.
Meanwhile, support for the home's designation and preservation continued to grow; nearly 1,600 people signed an online petition, over 2,800 supporters from around the country joined the
Save the Gamble House group on Facebook, and thousands of letters, emails, and phone calls were made to both city officials and Greenacres Foundation representatives. On Wednesday, February 24, 2010, over 100 preservationists gathered for a rally outside the home in the bitter cold of an Ohio evening where signs were held and songs were sung in support of saving the home of Cincinnati's Grand Old Man. Preservation Ohio named the James Norris Gamble House one of Ohio's Most Endangered Historics Sites for 2010.
On February 23, 2010 Greenacres Foundation applied for a demolition permit from the City of Cincinnati. On February 26, 2010 Greenacres Foundation filed suit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court against the City of Cincinnati to compel the city to issue a demolition permit. The case was continued to March 26, 2010.
The Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA) offered to help broker a long-term deal between the Foundation and the community. Working in good faith, members of CPA, the Westwood Historical Society, and Westwood Concern met with Greenacres Foundation representatives in mid-March to begin the process of delivering an acceptable proposal. Hopes were raised during this brief meeting in downtown Cincinnati that a deal might actually be reached.
On March 26, 2010, preservationsists packed the Hamilton County Courtroom of Judge Norbert A. Nadel. The city's motion to dismiss was denied and over 5 hours of testimony was heard regarding the demolition application, city processes, and historic significance of the house. The judge stated that he would take the case under submission and arranged to view the house on April 21, 2010. The judge requested final written arguments be submitted to the court by May 14, 2010 for his ruling. Later on March 26, 2010, Greenacres Foundation amended its suit against the city to include damages in excess of $25,000.
Sadly, on this same day, orchestrations for the demolition of the home were begun in earnest upon the order of Carter Randolph, Executive VP of the Greenacres Foundation. Residents of neighboring properties began calling in and posting online reports of workers sawing, hammering, and removing material from the interior of the home.
The full extent of the damage was revealed during Judge Nadel's tour of April 21, 2010 — and preservationists were outraged and saddened to see the photographs of the home's interior stripped of wainscot, baseboard molding, door trim, fireplace mantels — event the 3-story tower stairway banister — all in an apparent attempt to make the home appear to be in worse condition than it actually was.
Outraged at this violation of the home — and their trust — supporters organized a protest inside the borders of the affluent Indian Hill community — home to the Greenacres Foundation. Approximately 60-70 preservationists gathered peacefully at the village's busiest intersection, carrying signs reading
Save the Gamble House! and wearing t-shirts that read
Fix it or Sell It!. The gloves were off — supporters were dismayed by the behavior of a so-called charitable, non-profit organization.
The people of Indian Hill showed great support for the cause, with many people stopping to make a donation, honking in solidarity, or providing a comment for the media, nearly all of them voicing strong disagreement with the actions of the Greenacres Foundation.
On the same day, the Cincinnati Preservation Association made an offer to purchase the h... from the Greenacres Foundation. Support for the offer came from many sources, including Ohio Congressman Steve Driehaus.
After a challenging 18-week process, the recommendation for historic designation was approved unanimously by Cincinnati's Historic Conservation Board, Planning Commission, Livable Communities Committee, and City Council. On Wednesday, May 12, 2010, the James N. Gamble house, located at 2918 Werk Road in Cincinati, Ohio, was designated by ordinance to be a Local Historic Landmark in a unanimous vote from the Cincinnati City Council.
The City of Cincinnati filed its final Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, which included cost estimates and inspections reports from architects, structural engineers, and contractors. These documents revealed that the Plaintiffs have grossly exaggerated the condition of the home, and that their cost estimates for repair were greatly inflated.
Judge Norbert A. Nadel of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas was set to deliver his ruling on the case when the Greenacres Foundation filed a Second Amended Complaint. City attorneys filed for removal, saying that the newly submitted complaint contained arguments of Constitutionality, which were beyond the scope of a county court and belonged in a Federal Courtroom. A hearing to discuss schedules is set for Tuesday, June 7, 2010.
If you agree that the historic James N. Gamble house should be preserved, please become a member of our Facebook Group. Consider making a pledge or donation to the Cincinnati Preservation Association to aid their efforts to acquire, stabilize, and restore the home. Also: please sign our online petition and share your thoughts regarding the home and its potential demolition. Learn more about James N. Gamble. Finally, help us spread the word!