Q&A: What a local author learned about Dayton’s red light district, old buildings and other lost history for a new book

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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It’s always fascinating to look back at historic photographs of downtown Dayton and compare the scenes today.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

A new book, “Lost Dayton, Ohio,” tells the story of some unique and significant places and buildings in the Gem City that have been lost forever, felled by the wrecking ball or destroyed by fire and flooding.

The author, Andrew Walsh, looks back at once-popular attractions (Haymarket, the Palace and Classic theaters), important industrial buildings (National Cash Register factory) and well-known landmarks (Rike’s department store, Union Station).

Walsh recounts the events and circumstances that led up to their disappearance and how they have impacted the development of the city.

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But the book strikes upbeat tones when discussing distinctive and iconic historic structures and districts that have survived, albeit sometimes just barely. Some buildings have been redeveloped, while others are headed in that direction, like the Dayton Arcade and Centre City building.

This news organization asked Walsh, a librarian at Sinclair Community College, some of the things he’s learned about the lost history of his adopted home.

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In your research, what did you find most surprising about the stories of some of Dayton’s architectural gems? Personally, I was surprised to read about Dayton’s red light district. Can you tell me what you learned about that district? And what else stood out to you?

I think the most surprising thing I discovered was that not only have we lost many architectural gems, but that entire neighborhoods and larger areas have been completely erased from the map. The red light district was actually in one of those areas: a dense, very old neighborhood called the Haymarket which was located between today’s Oregon District and St. Anne’s Hill.

The red light district centered on Pearl Street and its most prominent figure was Lib Hedges, “the Queen of the madams.” That whole neighborhood was demolished during urban renewal in the 1960s and in its place we now have the Dayton Towers, Keowee Street and the large green spaces of the western portion of Bomberger Park.

Downtown Dayton, as well as some other neighborhoods, is experiencing a resurgence. What pieces of history has Dayton lost (buildings or developments) do you wish were still here? Do you think that some of the buildings that you wrote about would be prime candidates for redevelopment today?

One major loss was the building that graces the book’s cover: Steele High School. It was an exceptional structure that had the look of a castle. Some other significant losses were two theaters on the west side: the Classic and the Palace. They both stood on West Fifth Street, a once-thriving African-American commercial strip that has completely vanished.

And aside from individual buildings, I wish we’d resisted the urge to level major sections of downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods for surface parking. It’s not only the most architecturally significant buildings that make an urban area special, its the charming walkability that you get with a dense concentration of shops, restaurants, and living spaces.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Steele High School is the centerpiece of a view of the south side of the Great Miami River photographed in 1897.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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The Oregon District nearly saw the wrecking ball, right? Can you give me a brief history of the district and how close it came to elimination? Were there any lessons from that we should remember today?

It did! The urban renewal plans for east Dayton originally recommended clearing everything from Dutoit Street in St. Anne’s Hill to downtown. Later on, the Oregon area (then referred to as Burns-Jackson) faced a redevelopment plan that would have preserved some homes but demolished many others as well as all of the commercial buildings along 5th, Wayne and Patterson.

I think one lesson we can take from that neighborhood’s rescue is the importance of starting at a grassroots level. It wasn’t a big new policy that saved the Oregon, it was the pioneering spirit of the first people who moved into the neighborhood when it was considered a slum and started fixing things up. I think we’re seeing a lot of that same spirit today in various parts of the city.

Do we value historic buildings more or less than people did when some of Dayton’s most distinctive structures were reduced to rubble? Do you think the increased migration into urban centers and the increased interest in urban living will spare some of Dayton’s interesting old buildings from the wrecking ball?

I think we’ve definitely learned from the larger-scale destructive tendencies from decades past, but quite a few interesting buildings are still falling in more recent years (one of the toughest for me was the demolition of most of the business district at Troy and Valley in Old North Dayton just a few years ago). It’s a difficult situation because redeveloping vacant, deteriorating structures is rarely financially feasible, so it takes someone with a vision and quite a bit of risk tolerance to pull it off.

One positive force is the variety of historic preservation tax credits that are now available at the state and federal levels. And I do think the influx of new residents into downtown is helping the chances of buildings there, and I hope from there the momentum keeps spreading outward to the rest of the neighborhoods in the core city.

Are you concerned that some of Dayton’s other unique gems will face the bulldozer? Do you have examples? What would it take to preserve them?

Significant downtown buildings that still have a lot of work to do include the Centre City Building, the Fidelity Building, and the former DDN building, although I’m hopeful that their redevelopment plans will accelerate as downtown continues to improve. I’m more worried about the fate some of our neighborhood business districts which have fallen on hard times. Places like North Main Street in Santa Clara; TALS corner at the intersection of Third, Linden, and Springfield; even some of the buildings on W Third in Wright-Dunbar. One structure in particular is the amazing flatiron building with tower that graces the corner of Main and Forest.

I believe it’s these historic, walkable commercial districts that give a city its character and differentiate it from the suburbs, and with the increased migration towards urban areas, it’s crucial we protect the few that we have left. These business clusters were once ubiquitous in Dayton, but we’ve lost many to highway construction, planned clearance, or piecemeal demolition over a longer period of time.

In these cases, it’s mainly the loss of population in the surrounding neighborhoods holding them back, so we first need to work on repopulating those neighborhoods and providing the necessary resources to help the communities thrive. It’s tough because that’s a lot less sexy than putting money towards a flashy new development downtown.

In addition to his new book, Walsh write articles on Dayton history and urban development at DaytonVistas.com. He is online on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @DaytonVistas. “Lost Dayton, Ohio” is available for purchase at Carillon Historical Park, Dayton Art Institute, Heart Mercantile, local branches of national chains (Barnes and Noble, Books & Co) and Amazon (in both print and ebook format).

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