Kunsthous: A Conversation with Alyssa McClanahan
We met with Alyssa McClanahan, co-founder of Kunsthous and University of Cincinnati professor, at Iris BookCafe and Gallery in Over-the-Rhine. We headed out back to enjoy the quaint outdoor area and talk history, feminism, and more.
Tell us about yourself and how you got started renovating historic buildings.
My name is Alyssa. I’m a Cincinnati native. I grew up north of the city in Loveland; that’s where my parents still live. I have two siblings, a sister and a brother. My parents are both scientists, and my brother is as well. I went to University of Dayton for one semester before I transferred to UC. I went to Dayton because they had a human rights policy law degree that I thought was really attractive, but Dayton didn’t quite mesh with me. So I transferred to UC, which I’m very happy about. I studied history there and I got my bachelor’s degree. I decided to go on and get my master’s there, and then my Ph.D. And now I teach in that history department, which I really love.
When I was studying for my exams while getting my Ph.D., which is a very isolating process, I got to know a lot of people that were connected to preservation efforts and saving old buildings. That’s actually how I met John Blatchford, my partner in a professional sense and then also in a personal sense. That’s who I run Kunsthous with, in addition to two other gentlemen. He was already working on the Tailor Shop, which is a historical building in Over-the-Rhine (it’s not a functional tailor shop but we call it that because it used to be one).
Our joke is that I created a job for myself. I just showed up there and never went away. But I really liked, especially as a woman, learning to do things with my hands, and learning the innards of a building, like brick, plaster, drywall, framing, how all those go.
Those were things that were never explained to me, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention to them, but I don’t think that they were readily available topics to me. I was really fortunate because John and some other men were really explanatory and very friendly, and that was a good experience. We fixed up that building and then we realized that we liked doing that together.
Tell us more about Kunsthous.
Kunsthous started in the summer of 2016. It was a joint effort between Mike Fischer, Barrett McClish, John, and I. Mike and Barrett have a company called 8K Partners, which is a construction/renovation business. John and I have Kunst Development, which is our general contracting and construction business. We all worked together at the Tailor Shop and we’re good friends, so we decided that it would be cool to combine the forces. We retained the separate development companies, but then we have this property management company called Kunsthous. In the midst of that, we realized that maybe this should have a broader purpose or meaning behind it. We all started meeting here at Iris last summer and we just really started to get the ball rolling with Kunsthous.
Kunsthous is a local property management company based here in Cincinnati, kind of in the urban core of Cincinnati, that’s bringing co-living to the city. Its mission is to renovate historic buildings in Over-the-Rhine, Northside, Walnut Hills, central neighborhoods like that, to have smaller private units and then have common space throughout the building. Tenants still have private space (which is obviously important to all of us), but then they have these shared spaces that promote community. It also makes your smaller personal space feel less like a sacrifice if you know you have an additional 700 to 1000 square feet of common space. We saw it as a solution to lack of interaction between people that literally lived within feet of each other, and the loneliness amongst people. Also, affordability is increasingly a huge problem in places like Northside or Over-the-Rhine. If you’re paying for less square footage, you’re paying a cheaper rent.
We started on a building in Walnut Hills that will open next month. We don’t own it, but we’re friends with the owners and we’re turning it into a Kunsthous. We have three to four other projects in the pipeline which we will actually own, and we’re also going to develop them into Kunsthouses. It’s been a good start. For a while there, it was a lot of hypothetical talk but I would say since the beginning of the year, we’re actually doing physical work. It’s changing.
Kunsthous is development with a conscience. I think people just need more and I think the community aspect is really important.
I like working for a company that’s fixing up buildings, and that’s, to be blunt, giving a shit about the end result and the people.
I think that’s cool. And then the physical nature of the buildings, too. They’re handsome buildings at the end, as they should be. They were originally handsome buildings before the 1950s happened.
Can you talk some more about the community aspect of Kunsthous?
We think that community can be achieved through shared physical spaces and through pretty basic events. I don’t think they need to be very complicated; meals together are a big one. Everyone on this planet loves to eat, and you just share so much when you share a meal together. We hired an event director recently, Daniel Tonozzi, who’s a wonderful curator of events and spaces and special occasions. I think that will really help us breed those interactions that are (hopefully) authentic amongst people. It’s a meal, or a field trip to explore the neighborhood in which you live. You bond with people when you’re doing things like that, when you’re biking around together or walking or eating brunch.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
There’s so many! I couldn’t even pick one. My mom and my sister. My sister and I are more into history and literature and stuff like that; she’s a poet. That’s one of the many reasons why I’m close to her. My mom got her Ph.D. in pharmacology; she’s a brilliant lady. I learn a lot of different things from them, especially as I get older. I am really good friends with them now, not just little sister or daughter. Those are specific relationships, but as you get older, it’s also like, we’re both women. And I feel very close to them about that. They’re from different generations and I think they have a lot to offer to me about what it’s like to be a woman at different points in your life; as a married woman, as a women who’s of the baby boomer generation and all the struggles and progress that that generation made for women. I’m always learning more from them and I’m very appreciative that I have them. They’re definitely some of my best friends.
What are some of your passions?
I love old things. I think the reason why I’m passionate about history and transmitting that knowledge to students, or people through Kunsthous’ website, is because it just deeply, deeply matters. When you’re talking about history related to a city, to a building, to the material culture of that building, I think it’s a really easy way to get people to care more about a place. And that just has all sorts of wonderful consequences.
I care deeply about women’s history because I think many young men and women at UC need and want to hear those lessons. They need really good women role models to talk about it. I became a feminist and an advocate for women through studying women’s history. I really love that narrative in my life, and I had really awesome male and female professors that encouraged me to think about those things in a really serious manner. They gave weight to those topics, which was instrumental. I learned how to write about issues of sex, and gender, and the body, and all these things, presently and in the past, too. That gave me a lot of confidence to look at my own life and to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t like about my own womanhood, or my own understandings of feminism. Writing my dissertation helped me figure out what I actually believe about US feminism: what’s good about it, what can we improve, what has been problematic about it. I’m very passionate about the fact that I could study those things and become a stronger person from it, because that means that other people can, too. That’s why I like to teach it and write about it, and I try to let some of those things trickle into Kunsthous stuff.
I’m always writing about women in these old buildings because no one else does!
It’s very difficult to find out stuff about women that weren’t extremely wealthy. You have to really dig for it, and infer, and I think it’s really important to do those things.
How are you combining your degree with your other passions?
So, I run Kunsthous, John and I do historic tax consulting, and I teach at UC. With Kunsthous, we’re always trying to find material culture. We like to collect wallpaper, some of which is really old because it’s cloth. We also found a little teacup or espresso cup that had been preserved for many decades. We did some research and we think it’s from the 1910s or 1920s. At the Tailor Shop, I found (and then lost) this really fancy, super old sewing needle. Now that I have rudimentary knowledge of how a building works, I can kind of figure out how these buildings changed over the course of a century. It’s really fun to just think about all those things, to just get inside the minds of the people that lived there many years ago.
I love studying history. I really love talking about it to young men and women. They’re eager to hear those things, especially in this day and age. At UC, I had a women’s history class last semester, and they were my absolute favorite class ever. I think it mattered a lot to us that we were in a women’s history class where all of us were just planning that this was a really cool trajectory, that toward the end of the class we will have our first female president. And it didn’t happen that way. And I will say that was probably the most profound experience of my life, coming to teach the day after the election happened. All of my young men and women were in tears. That made me want to teach women’s history more.