Looking at Kuhns building in downtown Dayton through new lens

In this series on Architectural Treasures, we’re inviting you to take a closer look at some special structures in our region.

How many times do we pass an interesting building without really seeing it? These articles are designed to help remedy that all-too-common situation by focusing on some of these special places.

We’re encouraging readers to view both professional and residential buildings through a different lens: the eye of an architect. For help we’ve turned to the pros: AIA-Dayton, an organization of professional architects in our area. We’ve asked members to pick their favorite structure and to tell us what’s special about it.

Meet Erin McNicholl

This week’s featured architect is Erin McNicholl of Dayton, who earned a master’s degree in Historic Preservation and received her architectural license in March. McNicholl, who grew up in Miamisburg, is a graduate of Alter High School.

“I was attracted to the field of architecture because of a lifelong fascination with the old buildings and my constant desire to make and build things,” she said. “I have always been attracted to crafts that involve creating functional objects that make life better for the user and add beauty to the world.

“Over the years, I have tried my hand at woodworking, stained glass, sewing, quilting, leatherwork, ceramics and more. Architecture as a career is a way to be involved in the process of making a functional work of art on a grand scale.”

Her favorite building

McNicholl says her favorite building in downtown Dayton is the Benjamin F. Kuhns Building because it is both unique in style and built with materials common to the era. The red brick building, originally built by a prominent farm implement manufacturer, has been sitting on the northwest corner of Fourth and South Main Street since 1883.

According to the Dictionary of Ohio Historic Places, the structure was designed by the architectural firm of Peters & Burns and completed in 1883 by the Dayton Contracting Firm of Beaver & Butt. Among the businesses located in the building through the years were Cohen’s (Manhattan Clothing Store) in the 1890s, and later Oleman’s Department Store through the first World War.

According to an advertisement dated 1891, the Kuhns Building was the home of “Dayton Dry Goods Co., which sold everything from “trimmings” and “muslin underwear” to “embroideries” and “cloaks.” The 1940 Williams Dayton City Directory lists it as H. L. Green, Inc., a department store that sold items from 5 cents to $1.

The building is reported to be the first Dayton office building to install a mail chute.

In 1981, Chemineer, Inc. spent 5.1 million to renovate the four-story building as its corporate headquarters. After Chemineer was bought out, it was eventually sold to new owners in 1995 and renamed the Landmark Building.

Developer Bob Schiffler purchased the building in 2002, and converted the building — once again known as the Kuhns Building — to a multi-tenant building. It now houses offices ranging from the Better Business Bureau and the AIDS Resource Center to an advertising agency and law offices.

The building’s lobby features a new mural of downtown Dayton based on historic photos. It was designed and painted by Optic Nerve Art Corporation of Columbus. The lobby is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. Be sure to see the atrium on the second floor.

Here’s what McNicholl has to say about the building’s distinctive architecture:

The Kuhns building was constructed in the Romanesque Revival style. Based on the European Romanesque style of the 11th and 12th centuries, this style of architecture developed during the 19th century as part of the Romantic Movement alongside the more popular Gothic and Italianate revivals. A later and more popular variation on the style is Richardsonian Romanesque. The major difference between the two is that Richardsonian Romanesque typically has rough cut stones that vary in color, while the earlier Romanesque revival tends to be all one color to appear monolithic.

The elements of the Kuhns building that reflect this style are the large rounded arches, heavy red brick masonry walls, and a tower which was lost in a fire in the 1940s. The red decorative elements that you see on the building are made from terracotta that matches the color of the brick, adding to the monolithic appearance of the structure.

The building has a mansard roof with alternating gabled and shed dormers. The bay that contains the main entrance off South Main Street was at one time topped by a tower, the base of which can still be seen. Another dramatic change over the course of the building’s history is the façade of the entire first story: the original storefront was replaced with red concrete and modern windows.

Despite these changes the majority of the building remains wonderfully intact and was placed on the National Register in 1979. The preservation of the Kuhns building, with its unique style and open storefront at street level, is a major contributor to the urban feel of the city and adds to the architectural vibrancy of the city.

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