Donation gives historic Powel Crosley home new life
8:30 PM, Oct. 20, 2011
Paul Muller, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, walks down the first floor hallway of inventor Powel Crosley, Jr.'s 13,334-square-foot Mount Airy home. Mercy Health is selling the building for $1 to the association.
Powel Crosley Jr. house
Address: 2336 Kipling Ave., Mount Airy
-Cost: $750,000 ($9.5 million to build today)
Size: 13,334 square feet
Acreage: 113 originally, 17 today; make up the estate called Pinecroft
Architect: Dwight J. Baum
Listing: National Register of Historic Places, 2008.
A world-famous, Cincinnati-born inventor's house is getting a new lease on life.
Mercy Health is donating Powel Crosley Jr.'s 13,334-square-foot Mount Airy home and 17 acres of land from its Pinecroft estate to the Cincinnati Preservation Association.
Plans call for the Tudor revival-style home and its grounds to be used as a combination museum, historic preservation education complex and events center.
Crosley's list of inventions spanned his careers in auto making, broadcasting and owning the Cincinnati Reds. He lived in the 44-room mansion for 33 years. Just before breakfast on March 28, 1961, he suffered a fatal heart attack in the living room.
The house sits next to Mercy Mount Airy Hospital and resides on the National Register of Historic Places.
Crosley's mansion officially becomes CPA property on Tuesday. James May, Mercy's president and CEO, will hand over the keys to CPA Executive Director Paul Muller in exchange for a ceremonial $1.
That's quite a bargain. Mercy, with six area hospitals in its health-care network, bought the parcel that includes Pinecroft in 1999 for $16.5 million.
"We're not in the mansion business," May said. "We have to buy CAT scanners and pay doctors and nurses. We can't put $1 million into that place over the next 10 years."
Maintenance and utilities alone annually cost $100,000 on the house that opened in 1928.
May has a personal appreciation for old houses. He shares with many of his fellow Chicago natives a fascination for the art of architecture. To him, the Crosley house represents "an architectural treasure."
As treasures go, it's huge. The house is nearly 5.5 times the size of today's average American home.
"Crosley's house was meant to be compared to the Ford mansion (in Dearborn, Mich.)," May said, "and the big homes of other industrialists of the time."
Demolition was never an option.
"We needed to find someone," said May, "dedicated to saving old houses to give Crosley's home a new life."
CPA fills that bill. The association owns the 19th-century John Hauck House in the West End and the modernist Rauh house in Woodlawn. Both historic structures are undergoing restoration.
May approached CPA because of its involvement in efforts to save Westwood's endangered James N. Gamble house. The battle continues to work its way through the courts over a historic house which has been stripped of much of its contents.
"The cool thing about the Crosley mansion," May said, "is that unlike the Gamble house, this one has not been destroyed. Everything, the woodwork, the paneling, the light fixtures, is still there."
That includes a thick, steel safe door leading to the basement wine cellar. Such security was necessary in a house built during Prohibition.
In the 50 years since Crosley's death, the house has been cared for by its two chief owners, Mercy Health and the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor.
"They have been great stewards of the house," said Muller as he stood outside the mansion. He was waiting to tour the place. During his wait, he gazed at the home's carved limestone entrance.
"Nothing about the house is in distress," he added. "They have taken great care of the house. Mercy Health realized that to preserve the historic integrity of the house you have to preserve the house and the setting."
He turned to admire the grounds' trees, from pine to oak to apple, and the 5-acre lake that will soon belong to CPA.
The house's exterior and interior are designed to look as if they came from 14th-century England. They tell the story of an owner who spared no expense in building his dream house.
Designed by architect Dwight J. Baum, a relative of L. Frank Baum, author of "The Wizard of Oz," the house cost $750,000 to build. In today's money, its price tag would be $9.5 million.
The roofline looks wobbly on purpose. It appears if it were covered by cedar shingles. In reality, the shingles were made in Germany of one-of-a-kind tiles unevenly cast to look like cedar but designed to last a century.
Highly decorative solid copper funnels called scuppers attach to downspouts. They bear Crosley's initials as well as the date work started on the house.
The tour guide, Mercy's security director, Dave Hampton, pointed out the spiral-shaped brick chimneys. Each was crafted to send up smoke in rings as it escaped from the home's fireplaces.
Later in the tour, Hampton noted the few changes made to the house. Banks of fluorescent lights, for example, were installed in some rooms to accommodate meetings.
"But we saved and marked the pieces of wood trim that had to be removed," Hampton said. "We tried to keep everything as it was when Powel Crosley lived here."
He stood in the breakfast room, next to a Crosley radio-TV-record player console from 1952. The radio was tuned to WSAI-AM, a sister station to Crosley's radio flagship, WLW.
Over the back porch, a Latin motto, "Esse Quam Videri," is carved in stone. Translated that means: "To be, rather than seem (to be)."
Crosley's creative life mirrored those words. He had a hand in creating these firsts:
-The American compact economy car.
-Push-button car radio.
-A refrigerator with shelves on the door
-Major League Baseball night games.
The industrialist also felt a deep sense of connection to the community. During the Depression, Crosley ran one of the few firms in Cincinnati that hired, instead of fired, workers. They put food on their tables by making cars, appliances and radios under the Crosley name.
"He was a creative and inventive force," Muller said. "His work is central to the identity of Cincinnati."
CPA plans to have the mansion host events from weddings to conferences in the manner of such historic homes as Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa., and a place called Seagate in Florida's Manatee County.
Seagate was Crosley's winter home. Built in 1929, the mansion occupies 11,000 square feet. The neighbors were John and Mable Ringling. Their home, built with circus money, lives on as an art museum. County-owned since 1993, Seagate has 185 events on its 2011 calendar.
Muller believes Crosley's Mount Airy mansion can match the bookings of its southern cousin. He wants to lure the national Crosley car collectors clubs to hold its annual conventions at Pinecroft.
"This place will amaze people," he predicted.
"They won't just be seeing a house. It's part of Cincinnati's cultural heritage."
We'll keep everyone posted on these developments.
What a place for a CCOC meet!