Julie Fay: Preserving Treasures


Iris Book Cafe was the perfect spot to spend a cold and rainy Sunday morning, surrounded by books and the comfortable crowd while sipping coffee, listening to Julie Fay’s story, and looking at pictures of her past projects in Over-the-Rhine and her current project: the Imperial Theater in Mohawk. She told us the stories of her childhood, her bold career moves, and more, as if we were old friends. We laughed together often. We chatted about her current passions and projects: a love of OTR, her desire to rehabilitate the area, the Iris Book Cafe itself, and her decision to rehabilitate the Imperial Theater.

Interview by Tracy Van Wagner. Photography by Kali Robinson.

Please tell us about yourself.

My name is Julie Fay. I married right out of college and have five kids. I was born in Cincinnati, in St. Bernard. I have a master’s in secondary education from Xavier for teaching high school math. My mother died when I was six weeks old and my second mom – I don’t call her my stepmother – was a graduate of Edgecliff. She went on a scholarship. She lived behind Vine Street School. She was familiar with and walked OTR as a child. She was born in 1919. She was a chemistry major and she was the first woman lab technician hired by P&G.

I have an older brother and three younger brothers. I remember as a kid, my brothers got all of the cool toys. I finally got permission to run the train set. Somehow, from my heavy foot in driving, I was able to run the engine into the caboose of the train! And was restricted from further playing with their toys.

So you were rougher than all of the boys!

Well, I was trying to see how that worked! I was examining. I was studying.

You were curious.

Yes. Doing research.


It’s very much a feminine trait, curiosity!

Yeah, there we go!

I always was interested in drawing. I liked photography because my brother had a camera and I didn’t. My aunt had wonderful photos from when she was a student in the ’40s. So, I fell in love with her photo albums. I eventually got a little camera and did great things. When it was time for college, my grandpa thought I should go to UC for art school. But, my parents didn’t think that was a good idea because it was all beatniks that went to the art school. So, I ended up at Edgecliff and I majored in math and minored in chemistry and philosophy.

That being said, I was a stay-at-home mom for many years. I was a Girl Scout leader for my kids’ troops because I was never a Girl Scout, so then I got to do lots of things and plan to do things that I never got to do and learn things that I didn’t know how to do. But the main advantage was that the kids who had a hard time in school had other qualities that were better expressed outdoors or in a less-confined setting, and those kids were really of interest to me.

When they found out I was getting married a week after I graduated and I was Catholic, it was like, “What are you going to do to make sure you don't have children?” I answered, “Probably not a lot. I want children.”

After I got divorced, I got a job at GE. I was trying to get a job as a photographer, but a guy I met from GE from that department said, “You don’t want a job as a photographer. Those are going the way of the Dodo bird. Those are all going to be contract positions.” At that time, if you knew math, everybody thought you could do computers. So, this is the early ’80s and, in the late ’60s, I wrote my thesis at Xavier at the coming of the mini-computers. When I was looking for the job at GE, that’s what kept coming up. Things that I maybe thought I was qualified for 20 years before were no longer in demand. I mean, this is how things have changed for women. For example, I was offered a job at Jergens to set up their chemical library to keep their staff apprised of changes in the field, new things, and what was in the air product-wise. But, when they found out I was getting married a week after I graduated and I was Catholic, it was like, “What are you going to do to make sure you don't have children?” I answered, “Probably not a lot. I want children.” That was, I guess, a viable question at that point in time. Eventually, I said, “Okay, I can stay home and do other stuff.” I did a lot of sewing, designing, making of clothes, and raising kids.

When I finally did get the one at GE, I was kind of psyching my way into it. I saw a job in the paper for a Genigraphics operator. So, here I am, a woman in my 40s, applying for this job. A few weeks went by. No response. I called the gentleman who was offering the job. He said, “We had over 100 applications for that job.”

I’m going, “Okay, he’s not going to hire me. He’s going to hire a 20-something person who can train to the job.” So I thought, “Okay, I’ll come and see if he’ll let me see this piece of equipment and tell me how you learn about it.”

He said, “There is a college that teaches classes on this, but mostly it’s you learn as you do this or you have experience. We were frankly hoping to hire someone from P&G or GE.” So, I went home. I’d gone to some photographer classes at RIT at Rochester. And usually they just sent me the little summer classes catalog. Here comes the full catalog with all of the fine print. So, I’m skimming down there... Genigraphics! The Genigraphics machine was actually designed in Syracuse in the ’60s to put a man on the moon. But, then, after that happened, they tried to find commercial applications for a product that they spent a major fortune in designing. So, I hurry and apply and call up.

And he said, “We have that class, but it’s full. Our classes are all full for the rest of the summer.”

I said, “Can you put me on a waiting list?”

He said, “Yeah.” So, one Friday afternoon, he calls: “We had a cancellation in the class that starts Monday morning.”

I said, “Okay! Sign me up!” So, I went up for two weeks and was introduced to the equipment. There were also a lot of teachers in the class. In addition to the Genigraphic, they also taught early-on Apple computers. It was very introductory. Then we found out that it [the Genigraphic system] was developed in Syracuse, which is a short distance away in New York state from Rochester. I met a woman from Maine in my class. We thought, “Why don’t we go to Syracuse and see if we can see this piece of equipment?” So, we went there and we kind of crashed in. They let us see it and they talked to us for a little while and that was that. Now we can put that on our resume! It really gave perspective for the next 12 years of my life.

So I did get the job at GE. I worked at night, which gave me time during the day to do other things that I needed to do or wanted to do, which had to do with the arts and photography, and my kids, and Girl Scouts, and trying to do all of those things that needed to be done.

I was outsourced from GE in ’95. They were cutting back to their primary fields, which were engineering and manufacturing. So that's when I started to do whatever I do full time.

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What drew you to OTR?

I was always fascinated with the architecture here in OTR. Seven of my eight great grandparents lived in this neighborhood – mostly in the Pendleton area. My one grandpa lived on Hunt Street, which is now Reading Road. They moved away before 1900 because they worked for Mr. Proctor, who made soap. He built that plant out in St. Bernard and that’s why they moved to St. Bernard. I didn’t know that at first, but I was just drawn to the architecture of the buildings. So, if you like art, math, or geometry, these buildings, even when they’re run-down, are so pleasant to walk past because of the formal elements and the scale and the rhythm of the buildings. The shapes of the windows. You know, they’re kind of the Golden Mean. There’s something about them that is pretty magnetic.


When I started to do historic preservation, I called somebody to price doing historical tax credits. I don’t have a lot of money. But I'm pretty thrifty. When I bought the house on Walker Street, I saw some first time homebuyer thing. So I worked on that with Provident Bank. They had never done one before, and it was like I knew more about this than they did. So, I wanted to do historic tax credits. So I called somebody who was a consultant, but the price was just too high. I'm almost as smart as they are; I tried to figure it out. So I did it. After that, my significant other Paul and I did 40 buildings in this neighborhood. We did historic tax credits on all except the house we redid for ourselves on Broadway.

There were 500 vacant buildings in the neighborhood when we started this. And they're all part of the treasure. They're all part of something that really belongs to more than the individual owner; it belongs to the city; it belongs to everyone.

A lot of the buildings, we did with help from the city. We had partners on those. We don't really own them. You kind of get the bug and you want to do things. It's not so much money. For me it's never been much money; I'd have probably lived the same regardless. But it's more getting things done. I mean, there were 500 vacant buildings in the neighborhood when we started this. And they're all part of the treasure. They're all part of something that really belongs to more than the individual owner; it belongs to the city; it belongs to everyone. So to preserve that fabric and have the buildings being used is the key thing.

The thing was to keep your eyes open for tools. We networked with the city. It does cost more to do buildings in a historic manner than to do them quick and cheap. The thing is to keep attuned with what's out there.

Greg Baker worked at the city at the time in economic development, what was called Community Housing. And we got him to put in for the streetscape and a façade program. These were two separate things; the façade program was the first thing. We modeled it after a project at Findlay Market. An urban conservatoire of the time said, “You can't have them all painted gray and brown. You need some bright color to show this is different.” So we agreed that we could do these things in bright colors, which was a big step. They’re like, San Francisco colorful.


Tell us about Iris Book Cafe.

My business partner Mike and I got into this building sometime around 2006. Then we opened this place in 2007. This is our 10th year. The only people coming to the area were check cashing stores and carryouts looking to rent. Mike had filled his apartment with books. So, I said, “Why don’t we make some nice shelves and put your books down here? I could do really nice walls for photography; it could be our photo gallery. We could have all the things we liked: good coffee and ice cream.” No one had good ice cream in OTR at the time.

We tracked down a cappuccino machine. We both like arts and crafts style furniture, so we did this in that style.

Why would you eat chemicals when there’s food?

One of my kids was allergic to artificial coloring and preservatives. That was a tricky diagnosis in the ’60s and ’70s, so you know, you had to kind of be an advocate for your own children. So that’s probably part of the main reason for the all natural foods here. I’m not vegan, but all natural foods is very important to me because I think it’s silly to eat chemicals. Why would you eat chemicals when there’s food? And then, being involved here with the current generation of young people has expanded my mind. I think everything you do in your life leads you to something, and it’s just trying to put all of these experiences together to make things the best they can be. So that’s kind of what this is at this stage of the game.

So we did the books and the records. We did blind taste tests for the ice cream and ended up with Aglamesis. And we support local. So the meat products we do have come from Avril-Bleh. There's no artificial ingredients except for those few people that want that pink stuff to put in their coffee. We have teas from Essencha. We encourage people not to put sugar in until they taste them.


Tell us about your latest project, The Imperial Theater.

Mike and I started looking at other places. Where are people going? Where are they going to be? Northern Kentucky and Northside, as time has gone on, have gotten too pricey. So the point was somewhere in between. So, Mohawk. We enjoyed the Mohawk area, but it's very uninhabited. There's a lot of empty buildings. That kind of got us looking at the theater, which we feel is the key building over there. We looked at that in 2010. We looked at it again in 2014. The Reverend Wilson still had it, but it had gone downhill quite a bit. And then Mike suddenly passed away in May of 2014. I decided to buy the building in August of 2014. It took a long time to close; there were 17 liens on the property. I’m working on it now.

It's called a shoebox theater. All of the talented people in Cincinnati need a place to perform and to hone their skills. This is currently a 600-seat theater, but they are smaller seats than we might like to have today. But even if it were reduced to 450 or so, it would fill a niche that we’re kind of missing. There could be contemporary dance and theater. This could be a bigger venue for Know Theatre to perform some of their plays. So, music, theater, dance, and film, and then maybe corporate events.

A friend of mine said, “It's like a little French street corner; it deserves to have something fabulous.”

What I'm trying to do is find a way to do the shell of the building in a way that utilizes historic tax credits and then find a way to have a nonprofit come together to do the inside of the building: things that wouldn’t be eligible for the tax credits, like the theater curtains, the stage lighting, the sound system, the temporary dance floor, and the screen.

I also own the lot next door. So there could be an addition to the theater. It would have the things that the theaters have today: a bigger lobby area, bigger restrooms, a bar, practice room, and dressing rooms, because there are virtually no dressing rooms.

I actually love the way those streets come together at an interesting angle in front of the Imperial. A friend of mine just a couple weeks ago said, “It's like a little French street corner; it deserves to have something fabulous.”

An update from Julie in mid April:

We have been given permission to install a new metal roof. Engineers are working out a few of the technical details, but we anticipate the installation will take place within the next two months. We just returned from the regional League of Historic American Theatres conference, where we met with several experts who will visit the Imperial Theatre over the next couple months. A nonprofit support organization is also in the process of being formed. It will identify and solicit interested organizations and individuals interested in supporting the transformation of the Imperial Theatre into a successful and sustainable film and community performance center.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

There are several. The first being my grandma, who I always wanted to be. And now I guess I am! She's a very strong woman. She talked a lot about politics and stuff. She was probably the strength of the family, especially the couple of years when I was a little kid and she took me, my brother, and my dad in until my dad remarried.

My second mom was an interesting, strong, intelligent person who overcame a lot of barriers.

In high school, I had a teacher named Sister Jeanne D’Arc, which was French for Joan of Arc. Then the nuns changed their names back to their regular name, so she became Sister Margaret Ann. I had her in high school for a couple of years. She was the yearbook monitor. She had this wonderful speed graphics camera. No students had ever taken photos before; she always took the photos. But, she let me take some. I was the editor for two years; they never had a junior that was an editor for the yearbook.

My physics teacher in college was a very strange lady. She was Austrian. She and her husband left Austria in the ’30s because of the political pressure. He was a medical doctor. They went to Canada and then to Chicago. She got her degrees and then she came down here and lived in Hamilton. This woman rode the bus to Edgecliff every morning and she had classes before 8 o’clock in the morning! Her husband passed away when we were seniors and our group of math majors went to the funeral in our caps and gowns representing the college. Then she moved down to Park Avenue into the Verona. She would invite her former students over. She would put together interesting groups of women from different ages, from different graduating years, for small dinners at her apartment. It was wonderful.

Beyond that: my kids. I have four daughters and a daughter-in-law. Each of them are very different and very successful in what they do; successful in my eyes. And I'm sure in the eyes of the world.

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