An unusually decorated basement room out of sight from the public in an East Third Street commercial building could be a hidden piece of downtown’s Prohibition-era history, an inquiry by the Dayton Daily News shows.
Stories about secret underground speakeasies have been passed along and have achieved legend status among local history buffs. But up until now specific locations haven’t been pinned down, said local history author Curt Dalton of Dayton History, Montgomery County’s official historical organization.
Queries posted on Dalton’s website DaytonHistoryBooks.com request information about 1920s-era speakeasies, or illegal drinking places, as well as bookie joints for illegal betting, and other “secret rooms” alleged to have been accessible by underground steam heating tunnels that criss-cross downtown.
Speakeasies multiplied during the Prohibition Era, which began in 1920 after Congress passed the Volstead Act banning the sale, manufacture, and transport of alcohol.
Interest in Dayton history is peaking this year with the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Great Flood. But this year also marks the 80th anniversary of Prohibition’s repeal in 1933.
Dalton, who has spent decades researching local history, said interviews for his books uncovered a few recollections, mostly of home-based speakeasies a parent operated, or a restaurant that sold alcohol under the table.
“It was like the restaurant that had stuff behind the bar, or the house where they made the alcohol,” Dalton said. “When police showed up, mom would flush the booze down the toilet to get rid of as much as possible.”
But now, Paul Hutchins, the owner of a brick five-story that spans addresses 108 through 124 East Third St., says he has the answer. Hutchins is a real estate investor, broker, and property manager who also owns PMI Parking with about 1,200 parking spaces downtown.
The 124 E. Third St. building was erected in 1919, the same year Congress passed the Volstead Act. The cavernous, bare concrete basement, now used for storage, holds a secret in its northeastern corner. It’s known only to a very few with direct connections to the building and its tenants.
In the basement is the finished but faded windowless 80-foot-by-20-foot room with a raised wood-planked floor, ornate plaster moldings on silver-painted walls and the remains of wiring for ceiling electric outlets.
The room, now fairly stuffed with boxes of legal documents, once had an entrance door, too. It’s been removed. But some paces away is a bricked-in rear entrance to the building. At one time, it led to a carriage shack that’s long been torn down. Patrons could pull into the garage and enter the speakeasy sight unseen, Hutchins said. A tunnel of sorts led them to the hidden room, Hutchins said.
There’s no other logical public entrance that wouldn’t take a visitor on a long. winding tour of the basement. Without a guide, it would be easy to get lost or hit your head on low hanging pipes.
Hutchins has a history with 124 East Third St., having worked on a demolition job there as a youth in 1985 and 1986 when he worked for a construction company. Hutchins said that Marvin Felman, from whom he purchased the property in September 2004, passed on the history. It was downtown Dayton’s secret speakeasy. Felman’s family owned downtown properties since 1931, Hutchins said. Felman also owned office buildings across the street.
A search of Dayton City directories from 1920 until 1933 shows businesses at the address included suppliers, manufacturers, printers and even a law office. But all were above ground and there is no listing for a business located in the basement. No business resembles one that would use the restaurant or entertainment-style decor.
“This was a fancy place down here,” Hutchins said. “It’s under the building in the basement and I have never seen anything like it, and I’ve been in a lot of buildings downtown. This was a fancy bar, restaurant kind of place. There had to be other ones, but in buildings likely torn down.”
Today, the building is the above-ground home of a law practice, uniform and optical shops, among other businesses.
The Dayton Daily News began researching the legend following a Dec. 31 article profiling downtown Dayton tour guide Leon Bey, who hosts a popular walking tour of the city complete with ghost stories and murder mysteries. Bey, gearing up for a special walking tour and lecture series on the Great Flood, mentioned the mystery and asked for help solving it.
That rang a bell with Dayton Daily News reader Martin Stewart, 58, of Troy. Besides being a military history book author, he works for mechanical contractor EES Facility Services and worked on jobs in the 1980s to upgrade two Third Street buildings, including 124 E. Third.
Stewart recalled that the room was identified to him as a forgotten speakeasy by either crews he worked with from Dayton Power & Light or the city. He said he saw some old bottles around the room.
“I remember thinking how cool this is,” he said.
The steam tunnels under downtown are no longer used by DP&L and are the property of Vectren Corp. DP&L worked to convert customers to natural gas and other heating means in 1995 and 1996 before shutting down the system, spokeswoman Lesley Sprigg said.
From an economic standpoint, Prohibition caused hardship to Dayton, said Dalton. When Prohibition hit, Dayton’s 12 listed breweries shut down. So did every aspect in the making, distribution, delivery and sale of alcohol. It affected thousands of workers.
“It was a big hit to the economy,” Dalton said. “A lot of people lost their jobs. Not only people making beer, all the bars went out, and there was a bar on every corner in every neighborhood. People who made the barrels, people who made the bottles, and those who made the wagons that transported the beer also lost their jobs. it was a huge hit to the city. It affected nearly every aspect of every business in Dayton, one way or the other.”
In 1919 in Dayton, there were 277 advertised saloons. Many more didn’t advertise. By late 1920, all closed, unless they stayed open just to serve food.
Prohibition’s repeal helped bring the nation - and Dayton - back from the Great Depression, Dalton said.
“Because the Depression hit, that is part of the reason they brought back beer,” Dalton said. “It suddenly brought back more jobs, and more taxes for a city which was hurting for taxes.”
Photographer Jon Morton was thrilled when he learned about the room after moving into the building two years ago. “I explored the basement, had a look at it, and thought that’s what it was immediately,” he said.