The Cincinnati Preservation Association’s Margo Warminski: What’s Old Is New Again
On a gray morning downtown, Vine Street’s ancient brick giants look over the city as if to say, “I’ve been here longer than you.” Inside one of these beautiful edifices is the spacious but quaint office of Margo Warminski, preservation director at the Cincinnati Preservation Association. Peering into the distance, Margo identifies iconic landmarks with a passion most people reserve for sports statistics or “The Bachelor.” She marvels in the use of slate, repurposing of schools for offices, and the view of the church spires in the distance. A longtime advocate for preservation, Margo started at the organization as a volunteer in 1977 and has since worked her way up to the top position at the small but mighty nonprofit company. We sat down at her office to discuss her reverence for the past and her hope for how the history of the city will influence its future.
How do you describe what you do?
Well the official title is “preservation director.” We try to intervene when buildings are in danger and find a way to preserve them. We get calls all the time from people saying, “We’re trying to save a building in our neighborhood”; also from people who are looking for buildings to buy and restore; people who have acquired historic properties and don’t know what to do next; or people looking for contractors.
Why do you do what you do?
Because I enjoy it; because it’s interesting. I love historic properties. I saw my first Victorian house when I was five years old. I was exiting Detroit Children’s Hospital… walked out the door and there was this fabulous big frame gingerbread house. I’m sure it’s not there anymore, but there it was.
What experiences lead you to become a preservationist?
I was lucky to grow up in an interesting family. I was interested in architecture from a very early age. My mother actually encouraged that… She used to take me on drives around the city to see interesting buildings and communities.
Any buildings from your childhood in Detroit that stick out in your memory?
Oh yeah! There are a lot of them. The Michigan Central Railroad Depot, which has been in the media a lot lately, because Ford bought it and rescued it from years’ and years’ dilapidation and vandalism… They’re actually going to move office space into it. There’s going to be public access to the first floor there and they’re going to try to encourage some businesses to locate there. It’s a magnificent building.
Are there any women who have influenced you in your career?
My aunt – she is now deceased. She was my mother’s sister. She was a woman who was very ahead of her time, a pioneering feminist. She joined the Navy in World War II and was stationed in Pensacola. She very much enjoyed it. She ended up going to college on the G.I. Bill – she was the first person in my family to go to college. After she got a bachelor’s degree, she went on to get a master’s degree, and that was very unusual in those days: for women to have advanced degrees. She had a successful career as an educational psychologist working with school systems. She also had a passion for art, which runs in the family. She encouraged me to dabble in artwork and be creative. She encouraged my interest in architecture from a very young age, as my mother did.
What drives you crazy?
People that try to tear buildings down for no good reason. We have one that the owners have applied to tear down, and it’s a beautiful building, very original; it’s had very few owners. The [current] owners have this idea of building a modern glass-box building on the corner. It’s going before the conservation board sometime this month or next.
What are some of the simple joys in your life?
Walking my neighborhood. I live in the East Row Historic District of Newport, just across the river from downtown. I see Mount Adams out my front windows. I’m also restoring a house that the former owners tried to demolish. It was saved by a preservation ordinance that made it harder to tear buildings down in the historic district. But we have to fix all the stuff they neglected for so many years.
What project have you worked on that makes you the proudest?
A couple of things I was proud to be a part of [were] working with other people to save some very important historic properties. One of them was a building on Vine Street called the Kauffman building. This poor thing had been through two fires, dilapidation, vandalism, and who knows what else. It was saved from the jaws of death. This was back in the days before social media. We worked to get the word out about the demolition hearings and packed the place. A local contractor and masonry expert found out about it, bought it, and stabilized it. [He] managed to get some funding from the city, the community development department… The building is not going anywhere.
Q: What drives you crazy?
A: People that try to tear buildings down for no good reason.
Another building was the Minor Flats. It’s also in O.T.R. – Fifteenth and Vine: a magnificent five-story building with a limestone façade. It was built as an investment, basically a giant business card by a family-owned German O.T.R. Masonry contracting company – it was like an advertisement for their work. It had a roof collapse and it just narrowly avoided demolition. We joined forces with O.T.R. folks and other people – also O.T.R. Adopt; they’re a nonprofit receivership organization. The city ended up teaming up with 3C.D.C. to stabilize the building, and it’s now under renovation with historic tax credits. It’s a beautiful building.
What draws you to those stories?
The stone fronts. There aren’t that many of those in the neighborhood because that was a luxury item. Many of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood were wood frame, but they are very few and far between. Not many have survived, and they are very small. They don’t hold up, mainly due to neglect, and they’re prone to fire damage.
Have you been noticing more of that as development has really started again in O.T.R.?
Yes and no. There are a lot of buildings being saved and reinvested in – some of which need a great deal of work because they were neglected for so long. So that is very positive. On the same page, to a lesser extent, people want to come and build new buildings that just don’t fit in with the neighborhood. There was one that was proposed for Race Street: They came before the board three times before they were finally approved with a compromise. It often takes more than one [time], especially if what they are proposing is a bit out of the ordinary.
If you could pick one thing the city of Cincinnati needs more of, what would it be?
Public transit in the city is very bad. It needs to be greatly improved. The main reason is for people to have access to jobs. Another thing is that there needs to be more funding to stabilize buildings and keep them from falling down. The city has a pot of money that they devote to that, and it has saved many buildings that would not be standing today without it. They sometimes do team up with the landbank or 3C.D.C. to save buildings, as is what happened with Minor Flats.
What is your favorite building in the city and why?
Union Terminal. It was named one of the 75 greatest buildings in America by the American Institute of Architects. [In regards to the recent construction,] the concrete technology in [the 1930s] was still in the early days when they didn’t know if things would work, and in fact, it didn’t work. The concrete needed the most work. The internal metal structure… Water got in and busted it out, and that’s why they had to close and spend so much money. I went in a couple times to the areas that were open to the public while renovation was underway, so I was able to see the progress. The building is magnificent.
Why is Cincinnati important in this country’s history?
Because we were the jumping off point for people who were moving west to settle the interior of the Midwest and even farther west. People would stop here on the way and gather their provisions for the journey. There were businesses here that made a lot of money from that. Because of its unique topography, it did not develop like most Midwestern cities like Detroit or Columbus or Chicago, which are pretty much flat. The glaciers stopped here, so what we have is a city that, because it has very little level land – especially in the early days before they developed easy methods to get to the tops of the hills – primarily developed in the basin. That’s why we have Over-the-Rhine and the West End and these dense communities that surround downtown.
Why is it important to save these older buildings?
There are a number of reasons. One of which is because it makes sense from an environmental standpoint to try to save and reutilize and repurpose buildings rather than knocking them down and putting them in a landfill. Also because the materials in many of these buildings are way better than many of the materials you’ll get in most buildings built today: old growth wood, solid masonry, that kind of thing. They have tremendous character. If you tear them down, all that embodied energy is just dissipated, and you end up with another building going in a landfill.
What legacy do you want to leave to young women of this city?
Get out and explore Cincinnati’s neighborhoods, especially the ones that are off the beaten track. They’re often full of hidden treasures. We have a lot of them! East Price Hill, which overlooks the city, is the most urban neighborhood on the West Side because it had the best public transit – the inclines went up there – and as a result it has this fascinating mix of buildings that you don’t see in other West Side neighborhoods, like row houses, townhouses, cottages, apartments buildings, all kinds of things.
One of the most visually fascinating neighborhoods in the city – largely overlooked – is Sedamsville. It’s very small; it’s built on steep hills. Most of the buildings are built into the hillsides, which took real know-how and skill to build. And it is surrounded by protected green space, city and county parks, and it’s only five minutes from downtown. It has the two largest historic districts on the West Side. People are starting to take an interest in the buildings [that were] overlooked and neglected for many years. [Editor’s note: Sedamsville is a teeny town next to East Price Hill and Riverside. Rumor has it that its historic buildings and forested hills are home to a ton of paranormal activity.]
They’re often full of hidden treasures.
Another fascinating community that people should investigate is the Village of Greenhills. We are extremely lucky in Cincinnati that we have three planned communities that “grew up” in different times, and of the three, I think it is the most important. It was built by the government as an experiment in better living for people who were struggling with the Depression and living in poor housing. The buildings are strongly influenced by modern movements, and they were not only designed well, but there was also a tremendous amount of effort that went into situating the buildings on the landscape. They were built for the prevailing winds. This is green building, folks! This is the 1930s – way ahead of their time. There are little sub-neighborhoods that had playgrounds and walkways that connected to shopping centers, like one of the very first strip malls.
Additionally, go into politics! We need more women to take leadership roles in their communities and in the city as a whole. In the last election, we saw more women running for office. Not all of them won. Some did; some didn’t; some I think will be back again. We need more of that.